What is coconut oil?
Non-volatile plant kernel oil whose high saturated fat content has emollient properties for skin. Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain fatty acids, also known as medium-chain triglycerides. Used by itself as a moisturizer, coconut oil's effectiveness is similar to mineral oil, though coconut oil is far more volatile and likely to turn rancid (Source: www.naturaldatabase.com).
Coconut oil is actually a common cosmetic ingredient, found in hundreds of products from hair conditioners to facial moisturizers. It is generally well tolerated.
Is coconut oil a natural sunscreen?
Coconut oil has a growing reputation of being a viable "non-toxic" natural ingredient to use instead of your usual sunscreen, but don't fall for it. Some health-themed web sites are advising consumers to slather on extra-virgin (minimally processed) coconut oil instead of an SPF product, because it's been used by Pacific Islanders for "thousands of years" so why wouldn't it be OK to use now?
We could go on and on about how ludicrous and, in fact, dangerous this suggestion is (it's why folklore and anecdotal evidence can't hold a candle to what scientific research has shown to be factual) but let's just cut to the chase: Don't do this. If you want to use coconut oil, extra-virgin, cold-pressed, or not, for improving dry skin or adding sexy glow to legs, go for it. But if your skin will be exposed to UV light, you will need to follow with a well formulated sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater to ensure you're truly protecting your skin. There is no scientific evidence that coconut oil protects skin from sun damage; none, zero, zilch. You can choose to follow the direction of some ostensibly well-meaning natural health sites, but we assure you doing so will be at your skin's peril.
Will coconut oil help treat acne?
All reports of using coconut oil (virgin, which means unrefined), to heal acne are anecdotal, which means you just have the experience of others, not solid research, to go on.
However, there is one study showing that lauric acid, the major fatty acid in coconut oil, has antibacterial activity against the strain of acne-supporting bacteria, officially known as Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes for short. Although one study isn't much to go on and this research did not demonstrate that the lauric acid reduced or eliminated acne, it's still intriguing.
It seems that when lauric acid from coconut oil is applied to skin via liposomes (a type of delivery system) it fuses with the cell membrane of the acne-causing bacteria, where it then releases its fatty acid as the liposome dissolves, killing the acne-causing bacteria (Source: Biomaterials, 2009).
This isn’t the same as applying pure coconut oil to skin; for example, the use of delivery systems varied in the study, and it did not address topical application of coconut oil (just lauric acid), or whether the pure oil would produce similar results on acne. There is also the consideration that not everyone who has acne benefits from topical anti-bacterial treatments, regardless of their source. That’s one reason there are so many treatment options for acne.
To some extent, the idea of using coconut oil for acne has a “kernel” of possibility, because at its core, acne is an inflammatory disorder. Coconut contains medium-chain triglycerides (fatty acids) which have anti-inflammatory benefit.
On the flipside, despite coconut oil’s potential benefit, some fatty acids have the reverse effect of making breakouts worse. Rather than use pure coconut oil, consider products that contain anti-inflammatory ingredients and are much more appropriate for a wider range of skin types (as well as delivery systems ideal to get the most from their benefits.)