From the earliest recorded histories, botanical oils have been used as topical treatments for the skin.1 The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera), a member of the palm family, is largely cultivated for its nutritional, cosmetic, and medicinal values, while its oil, derived from the coconut fruit, has long been recognized to be beneficial to the skin.2 Indeed, many cultures have ancient traditions utilizing it for medicinal preparations.3
While the number of high-quality clinical studies on topically applied coconut oil is low, some compelling evidence is available. Notably, there seems to be renewed interest in coconut and other natural oils, with topics as far-flung as using coconut oil as a sunscreen (spoiler: it didn’t work very well!).4
Many studies specifically use virgin coconut oil (VCO). VCO is generally defined as coconut oil being obtained through mechanical or natural means, which do not lead to alteration of the oil, and where the oil has not undergone chemical refining, bleaching or deodorizing. This is in contrast to methods that use undesirable solvents such as hexane to extract the oil.5
Coconut oil is relatively high in medium-chain fatty acids, making it somewhat unique and granting it properties that may be useful in the treatment of a number of conditions including obesity, dyslipidemia, diabetes and hypertension.2
More relevant to the skin, however, it has been shown to be a capable moisturizer. A randomized double-blind study pitted virgin coconut oil against mineral oil in 34 patients with mild-to-moderate xerosis. In the perhaps surprising conclusion, coconut oil was found to be equal to (with a trend toward being superior to) mineral oil as an emollient, resulting in significant skin hydration and increased surface lipid levels, with equal safety.6
Supporting these data, and similar to the findings with sunflower seed oil, VCO has been shown to improve barrier function in low-birth-weight babies.7, 8 There is a strong suggestion that by strengthening the skin barrier in these at-risk infants, morbidity and mortality due to sepsis can be reduced.
Coconut oil has also been shown to possess another important property relevant to dermatology: It can decrease staphylococcal colonization on the skin. In a randomized controlled trial, coconut oil was found to clear an impressive 95% of staphyoloccal colonization in patients with atopic dermatitis (AD).9 This is extremely provocative in a time when we are all increasingly concerned about the role of bacteria in AD10, and simultaneously worried about increasing bacterial resistance.11 A safe and inexpensive agent for decolonizing the skin could be of tremendous clinical benefit and this line must continue to be researched.
ASLO READ: Skin barrier benefits of sunflower seed oils
The barrier repair and antibacterial properties of coconut oil seem to pan out when put to a more clinical test. In a randomized trial of 117 patients with AD, mean SCORAD decreased by 68.23% in the VCO group compared to only 38.13% in the mineral oil group (P < 0.001) at 8 weeks.12 There is no doubt that further studies are warranted in AD to best determine a role for coconut oil.