Science 101

The Science Behind the Benefits of Coconut Oil

There’s definitely hype, but is there good evidence that it’s, well, good for you?

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Peruse much of the online wellness world and you’d be forgiven for thinking that coconut oil is the panacea that will help you live to 100 and make your hair and skin glow. While there’s much excitement around coconut oil, the science hasn’t quite caught up with all of the hype. That doesn’t mean that coconut oil doesn’t have any health or beauty benefits — it’s been used in certain cultures for centuries, after all — it just means that it’s important to contextualize all of the purported benefits before you trade in your extra virgin olive oil for coconut oil or start adding dollops of it to your daily coffee.

What Is Coconut Oil?

To start, let’s answer a seemingly obvious — but actually pretty complex and divisive — question: What is coconut oil, exactly

Coconut oil is extracted from the kernel of mature coconuts, and it’s high in saturated fat — it actually has more saturated fat than butter and lard — which is why it’s so controversial in the medical world, particularly in relation to heart health. Consuming too much saturated fat has been found to increase total cholesterol, particularly LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, and this can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death. Not all saturated fat is considered “bad,” though: Medium-chain fatty acids, a sub-classification of saturated fat, have been linked with health benefits like increased energy, improved digestion, and the prevention of metabolic disorders and heart disease; it’s the long-chain fatty acids that are usually the type of saturated fat to worry about. 

It’s also important to understand that not all coconut oil is created equal

Depending on who you ask, though, the research on pure medium-chain fatty acids isn’t always applicable to coconut oil. Some research has found that the main saturated fat in coconut oil, lauric acid, can act as either a medium-chain fatty acid or a long-chain fatty acid. The research isn’t 100% clear on what this means just yet, but it’s why many doctors and researchers hesitate to hail coconut oil as a must-have dietary staple — and it’s why some of them can’t get behind coconut oil at all. (One Harvard professor even called coconut oil “pure poison” in a video posted to YouTube last year.) This is clearly a conversation with more questions than answers. 

It’s also important to understand that not all coconut oil is created equal. There are two types — copra oil and virgin coconut oil — and if health is your goal you’ll want to make sure you’re consuming the latter, because virgin coconut oil is the least processed of the two. This means that virgin coconut oil contains higher amounts of nutrients (like vitamin E) and dietary bioactive compounds (like polyphenols), and it’s generally a good source of phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties. This is likely part of the reason why coconut oil sales shot up a reported 38.8 percent in 2015, and why you can now find coconut oil in everything from cookies to potato chips to coffee at Whole Foods. 

But while there’s now innumerable ways to eat coconut oil, there really isn’t good research on humans to suggest that we should all be going out of our way to consume virgin coconut oil

But while there’s now innumerable ways to eat coconut oil, there really isn’t good research on humans to suggest that we should all be going out of our way to consume virgin coconut oil to get our antioxidants — especially considering that evidence is currently mixed on whether or not coconut oil is detrimental to heart health. So if antioxidants are what you’re after in a cooking oil, extra virgin olive oil is likely the better choice based on the evidence we have now. Of course, it’s not about eating coconut oil either every day or never; it’s about finding a balance that’s less about coconut oil as panacea or poison, and more about “coconut oil tastes delicious in curries, so I’ll add it to my dinner tonight.” As Tom Brenna, a professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, told The New York Times in 2015 at the height of coconut oil hype, “If you’re going to use coconut oil, make sure you get virgin oil. And, of course, everything in moderation.”

The Research (Or Lack Thereof)

So what does the research say about coconut oil and its ability to help us live longer, healthier lives? It’s complicated.

A small 2018 study provided some interesting insight about how coconut oil may stack up against other fats in terms of heart health. The researchers divided 94 men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 into three groups: one that would consume 50 grams of butter every day for four weeks, another that would consume 50 grams of extra virgin olive oil, and another that would consume 50 grams of coconut oil. 

Those who ate butter saw a 10% rise in LDL cholesterol and a 5% rise in HDL (or “good”) cholesterol; and those who ate olive oil saw a very small drop in LDL cholesterol and a 5% rise in HDL. No surprise there — we already know that butter increases “bad” cholesterol and extra virgin olive oil increases “good” cholesterol (ever heard of a little thing called the Mediterranean diet?). When it came to the coconut oil eaters, researchers were pleasantly surprised: They observed no rise in LDL cholesterol and a 15% boost in HDL cholesterol, concluding that eating coconut oil might actually protect against heart disease. 

Of course, this is just one relatively small study, and even the researchers say that, as of now, it’s still important to adhere to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which stipulate that people limit their intake of saturated fats — including coconut oil — to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake. But it’s an encouraging lead for future research to follow.

The Big Business of Beauty

Fortunately, the research on coconut oil gets a bit more encouraging when it comes to our hair, skin, and teeth — which is likely why coconut oil plays a not-insignificant part in the “billion-dollar natural beauty movement.” In fact, virgin coconut oil has been shown to be antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal, thanks to monolaurin, a fatty acid derived from lauric acid (that aforementioned saturated fat) in coconut oil.

Studies in humans have found that virgin coconut oil is just as effective as (if not more effective than) mineral oil when it comes to moisturizing skin, particularly in cases of atopic dermatitis, or eczema. (Mineral oil is found in many classic skincare products, like Johnson’s Baby Oil, Vaseline, and Aquaphor.) The monolaurin in virgin coconut oil has been found to kill Staph bacteria (including S. aureus), which have been linked to eczema. This is pretty promising for people who suffer from eczema but may not want to use corticosteroids due to the potential side effects, like thin skin and acne. While more research is definitely needed — particularly to see how coconut oil stacks up against corticosteroids — virgin coconut oil can be a safe natural remedy for those looking for something to soften and soothe the skin, and can be used in conjunction with corticosteroids. And for whatever it’s worth, there’s reason to believe coconut oil is superior to olive oil here: One small 2008 study found virgin coconut oil to be more effective than virgin olive oil when it was applied topically to adults with eczema.

While we’re on the topic of moisture, it’s important to acknowledge that oil itself isn’t hydrating — rather, oil can lock in moisture, which is why it’s recommended to apply oils (like virgin coconut oil) to skin right after a shower when the skin is still slightly damp or at the end of a skincare regimen to seal in the moisture from other products that contain water. Coconut oil, in particular, is high on the comedogenic scale, which means that it’s a great barrier for keeping moisture in skin. But this also means that coconut oil has the potential to clog pores and lead to breakouts, especially on the face.

While more research is definitely needed — particularly to see how coconut oil stacks up against corticosteroids — virgin coconut oil can be a safe natural remedy for those looking for something to soften and soothe the skin

When it comes to hair, one 2003 study out of Mumbai found that coconut oil had a “strong impact” on hair health compared to mineral oil and sunflower oil, two oils that are commonly applied to hair and used in hair products. “[C]oconut oil was the only oil found to reduce the protein loss remarkably for both undamaged and damaged hair when used as a pre-wash and post-wash grooming product,” the researchers wrote. The reason? Lauric acid, the primary fatty acid in coconut oil, which has a “high affinity for hair proteins” and can easily penetrate the hair shaft. That said, coconut oil hasn’t been found to increase hair growth or prevent hair loss.

Coconut oil’s associations with oral health might be the most interesting, because they actually date back thousands of years. Coconut oil is the primary oil used in oil pulling, a traditional practice in Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India and is “one of the world’s oldest medical systems,” according to the National Institutes of Health. This practice involves swishing oil in the mouth in an effort to remove toxins and cure diseases. There really isn’t evidence to support such broad claims, but there is decent evidence that swishing coconut oil could be beneficial for oral health. One preliminary study from 2015 looked at 60 adolescents with plaque-induced gingivitis and found that, after 30 days of oil pulling, there was a statistically significant decrease in plaque and severity of gingivitis. The researchers wrote that oil pulling with coconut oil is a great addition to regular brushing and flossing to help decrease plaque formation and prevent plaque-induced gingivitis, since coconut oil is safe, easy to use, and relatively cheap.

It’s thought that when the lauric acid in coconut oil mixes with saliva, a soap-like substance forms that reduces plaque’s adhesion and cleanses the mouth, thanks to the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of lauric acid. Specifically, research shows that the antimicrobial properties of lauric acid help fight off Streptococcus mutans and Candida albicans, while the monolaurin in coconut oil is effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Candida spp., Helicobacter pylori, Escherichia vulneris, and Enterobacter spp. That said, much more research is needed to get any definitive answers, and it’s important to know that oil pulling has never been shown to reverse existing tooth decay. So it’s still advised to see a dentist regularly to treat any issues that come up. And again, oil pulling shouldn’t replace brushing and flossing; it just might be something you might try in addition to those things.

If you’re interested in oil pulling, it usually involves taking one tablespoon of coconut oil and swishing it around the mouth anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, and then spitting it out in the trash. Don’t swallow the oil when you’re done, and don’t spit it out in the sink since that could clog your pipes.

We may not be living in peak coconut oil times anymore, but coconut oil is still prevalent in the wellness world and it’s associated with a host of purported benefits. And while there’s yet to be any rock-solid evidence to support incorporating the oil into your life in a major way, we can look on dubiously as we continue to see coconut oil chips and coffees crop up on shelves and in DIY Instagram recipes.

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