Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably realized that coconut oil is a huge fad right now.
They say it’s a “healthy” fat (Gasp! Is such a thing possible?), and that it can even help you burn fat.
Some people even blend it into their coffee (I’m talkin’ about you, Dave Asprey).
…And, most importantly for you, dear reader – some say it’s great for your skin.
Is coconut oil good for your skin, especially acne-prone skin? And if so, does that mean you should add it to your diet, or rub it on your face?
Let’s dive into the research to answer that question once and for all! But first, like any rigorous discussion, let’s make sure we’ve got a solid foundation for understanding.
Okay, duh, we all know what coconut oil is.
But what makes coconut oil different from other fats?
Simple: saturation. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, and that’s because it’s made up of about 90% saturated fatty acids (SFAs). (For contrast, canola oil is only 7% SFAs.)
This is why we don’t recommend refrigerating coconut oil – it turns into a rock-in-a-jar, breaking spoons and wrists left and right.
Anyway, you may have heard that saturated fats are bad for you, but again, unless you’ve been living under a rock expecting zombie apocalypse, you’ve probably seen big-name doctors (and the media) come to their senses and realize that, oops! Saturated fat actually doesn’t cause heart disease! Our bad! Glad we got that out of the way.
Okay, there is one more big special thing about coconut oil: it’s not your standard saturated fat. It is mostly (65%) made of a unique type of saturated fat known as a “medium-chain triglyceride” (MCT), which is shorter than your typical long-chain fat (or long-chain triglyceride, LCT).
And this is huge! MCTs have lots of wonderful effects in the body, making up the bulk of coconut oil’s mythic status.
Coconut oil serves up a potent mix of different MCTs. Lauric acid is the most abundant (about 50%). Other fatty acids include capric, caprylic, and palmitic acids. Some of these fatty acids have pretty remarkable health benefits – and benefits for your skin, too!
Let’s get into what those skin-clearing benefits are.
You’ve probably heard that bacteria cause acne. While bacteria are only one part of pimple production, an abundance of P. acnes bacteria noshing on your skin oils does indeed pour gasoline on the fire, worsening the redness, swelling, and pain of breakouts.
And several studies have shown that lauric acid, the main MCT in coconut oil, is really good at killing P. acnes bacteria, as well as other bacteria, viruses, and fungi.    The same goes for another of coconut oil’s MCTs, capric acid. .
Coconut oil for the win!
Even better, the anti-microbial benefits for your skin go way beyond P. acnes. If you’ve read our gut-wrenchingly good article on probiotics, gut health, and acne, you know that folks with acne tend to have a bunch of nasty bad bacteria and other harmful microbes in their guts.
And that’s where coconut oil’s next big benefit comes in.
Not only does coconut oil help kill off the baddies in your gut, it also helps heal the damage they cause. And they cause a lot, by releasing lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and other inflammatory bummers, making your gut leak like a sieve if you’re unlucky.
In fact, the MCTs in coconut oil have been shown to protect against gut permeability and other gut damage caused by bacterial toxins.  MCTs may also protect the gut in people with IBD, colitis, or gut infections, helping to regrow damaged intestinal cells faster. 
Even if your gut flora is the picture of health (however unlikely, if you’ve got stubborn acne), certain stuff you consume (ahem, gluten) can weaken the tight junctions between the cells of your gut lining. When these tight junctions relax on the job, undigested proteins and other large food particles can seep from the gut into your body (“leaky gut syndrome”) and contribute to all sorts of inflammatory conditions – including acne. Alcohol, gluten, antibiotics and other drugs, and even stress can loosen those tight junction proteins.
Coconut oil to the rescue!
In one study, researchers fed alcohol to rats, inducing leaky gut. Then they gave the rats MCT oil, and BANG! It normalized their tight junctions again, reversing leaky gut. (I hope they later gave them something for their wee rodent hangovers…)
Powerful stuff, no?
Wait, ok, no… put down the bottle. That doesn’t mean “Oh great, I can eat or drink whatever I want, and coconut oil will protect me from acne and everything else bad!” It’s not magic, sorry. Instead, let’s symbolically toast coconut oil’s gut-healing abilities, but don’t see this as a free pass to consume gut-damaging substances with wild abandon – we still recommend restricting stuff like alcohol and gluten. But adding coconut oil to your diet is one powerful piece of an overall gut-healing strategy!
Next stop on the Magic School Bus: your liver!
After your gut digests all that food you ate and absorbs it into your bloodstream through your (hopefully healthy) gut lining, these food nutrients get shuttled to another organ vital to your skin health – your liver.
And as it turns out, coconut oil is downright medicinal for your liver.
Fun fact: Most food nutrients get sent to the liver first, so it can filter out and eliminate toxins from whatever you put down your pie hole. But it also gets first dibs on all the good nutrients, too – your liver’s health is one of your body’s top priorities! (That’s also why vitamin A-rich liver is the most nutrient-packed organ you can eat.)
How is your liver’s wellbeing related to acne?
Well, a toxic bodily environment can provoke acne in a big way, so if your liver is too overloaded or damaged to do a good job of filtering alcohol, caffeine, medications, PAHs, HCAs, AGEs, chlorine by-products, and other toxins out of your blood, that can show up on your skin as ugly breakouts.
The liver also produces glutathione, which is the body’s master antioxidant. We’ll talk more about antioxidants in the next sections, but I can tell you now, more glutathione = more better for your skin!
Finally, your liver is essential for balancing hormones – and you probably know that hormone imbalances are a common thorn in the side of acne-sufferers. Your liver does the job of clearing old hormones from circulation. It also helps maintain sufficient estrogen levels by producing ceruloplasmin, an enzyme that binds copper and makes it available to the body.
So we’ve established that keeping your liver healthy is important for getting clear skin. How does coconut oil factor into all this?
Coconut oil does this in a number of ways:
- It boosts the liver’s glutathione (antioxidant) levels 
- It reduces lipid peroxidation, a marker of inflammation, in the liver 
- It helps protect your liver from alcohol damage, and reduces alcohol’s toxic and inflammatory effects on the rest of your body, too
- It prevents non-alcoholic liver disease 
So for the sake of your liver – and by extension your skin – eat some coconut oil!
And since I’ve just mentioned inflammation and antioxidants, let’s talk more about coconut oil’s anti-inflammatory benefits.
Fats in general – and especially saturated fats – have long gotten a bad rap for being inflammatory.
While some fats are inflammatory (e.g. polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs – see our post on fish oil for more on that), coconut oil is not.
In fact, several animal studies show that coconut oil actually reduces inflammation  – so you can expect it to help reduce the redness and swelling of breakouts when you eat it (we’re not talking about topical use, here).
One major cause of inflammation in the body is lipid peroxidation.
Lipid peroxidation happens when free radicals in the body steal electrons from fats in your cells’ membranes. These newly “radicalized” (read: damaged) fats then steal electrons from other fats, zombifying them into free radicals, starting a chain reaction ad infinitum until something – an antioxidant – neutralizes the radicals and stops the process. (This is the real zombie apocalypse you should be worried about!)
But the thing is, only super-delicate fats tend to have this problem in the body. PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids), I’m looking at you! Yes, now you have official permission to toss out the Crisco.
Saturated fats, such as the MCTs in coconut oil, are billions of times less reactive than polyunsaturated fats (with 2 or more double bonds). So it makes sense that MCTs and other saturated fats would be less inflammatory than other, more reactive fats – they don’t get peroxidized and then zombify other fats like PUFAs do!
Numerous studies bear this out, and even show that coconut oil helps reduce inflammation in the body.
In one study, virgin coconut oil (VCO) -fed rats had lower oxidative stress, lipid peroxidation, and protein oxidation than those fed sunflower oil, olive oil, or non-virgin coconut oil (more on virgin vs. non-virgin coconut oil coming up). In addition, the VCO-fed rats had boosted antioxidant status. Glutathione, the body’s #1 antioxidant, was higher in these rats’ livers, hearts, and kidneys.
Another study subjected rats to a challenging swim test. The critters that were fed virgin coconut oil showed less oxidative stress, higher levels of brain antioxidants, and less adrenal stress afterward than control group rats. 
That’s right – coconut oil may just lower your stress levels. This heart-healthy fat has even been shown to lower high blood pressure.
So to reduce the inflammation of your acne, and to reduce the incidence of future breakouts by lowering systemic inflammation, consider subbing in coconut oil for the inflammatory PUFAs in your diet – e.g. canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, and other vegetable oils.
I’ll keep this section short – what you need to know is that fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, K, and E – which are critical for healthy, acne-free skin – aren’t well absorbed by your body unless they’re consumed with some fat.
Does that fat need to be coconut oil? Nope! Studies have shown that even inflammatory PUFAs increase fat-soluble nutrient absorption. But there is some evidence that coconut oil might help you absorb more nutrients than veg oils.
So yeah, don’t fear the fat! Always eat your veggies with some fat to help you get all the skin-supporting nutrition out of them… and coconut oil is a great choice. So next time you have a hankering to eat a bunch of raw, plain kale (I know I get this craving ALL the time, don’t you?), maybe cook it up with some coconut oil instead!
As we discuss in our book, acne can be considered a “diabetes of the skin.” With diabetes, your body’s cells become less sensitive to insulin’s instructions to lower blood sugar levels. Insulin comes a-knockin’, but the cells just stop answering the door.
Loads of studies have shown that long-chain fats (or long-chain triglycerides, LCTs, usually tested in the form of lard) generally have negative effects on blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity – and that, eaten in large amounts, make you fat.
On the other hand, gobs of studies have shown that unlike long-chain fats, medium-chain fats (MCTs, like those in coconut oil) do not make you fat, even when more calories are consumed.  Rather than getting absorbed slowly and stored, MCTs get absorbed quickly and easily (bile salts aren’t even needed), and they’re burned rapidly by your muscles and other tissues, giving you more energy! 
However, other research suggests that diets high in MCTs decrease insulin sensitivity (though not nearly as much as LCTs)    . I read a number of studies making this argument, and they were riddled with confounding variables or results that should not be generalized. It does seem that getting nearly half of your daily calories from coconut oil might not be healthy for blood sugar regulation , but really, do you know anyone who’s eating ⅔ cup of coconut oil daily?
As it turns out, all these studies that focus on isolated MCTs or refined coconut oil might be missing the point of eating virgin coconut oil. In one study, rats on high-sugar diets were fed either virgin coconut oil (VCO) or a more processed coconut oil (copra oil). The rats fed the processed oil experienced a blood sugar spike almost 3x higher than those fed the VCO! The researchers theorized that the antioxidants in the VCO were responsible for the difference.
So, what do we know?
- Coconut oil is a great source of fast energy
- Cocont oil is very unlikely to get stored as fat (which is good for your metabolic wellbeing)
- Coconut oil is probably healthier for your insulin / blood sugar regulation than either long-chain saturated fats or omega-6s (PUFAs).
Based on the research, it’s safe to say that replacing harmful fats, especially vegetable oils, with coconut oil, is likely to have a net positive effect on your blood sugar regulation.
And, as we discuss in greater detail in our book, anything that improves blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity can help you clear up your skin.
So next time you need an energy boost, reach for a spoon and the jar of coconut oil (or coconut butter)! Just… let’s not go overboard, shall we?
One word: don’t.
Now, it’s true that coconut oil, especially its lauric and capric acid, is good at killing P. acnes bacteria, which get into your pores and make breakouts more inflamed.
Coconut oil has also been shown to be moderately comedogenic , so we do not recommend using it topically if you’re acne-prone.
Some people have no problem with using coconut oil on their skin, and if that’s you, then go for it!
But if you’re still struggling to cure your acne, I wouldn’t throw this wrench in the gears. Eat it, by all means, but don’t put it on your skin! Use 100% argan oil for that – it’s totally non-pore-clogging and the best moisturizer we’ve found for acne-prone skin. Note: This is an affiliate link, which means we receive compensation if you make purchases using this link. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.
Many of the studies cited above refer to virgin coconut oil (VCO). Some studies even compared virgin to refined coconut oil, and found virgin coconut oil to be more effective every time. So that’s what you want.
What’s the difference?
Virgin coconut oil is extracted from raw, washed coconut flesh by pressing the oil out at low temperatures. VCO smells and tastes “coconutty.”
On the other hand, refined coconut oils are extracted by exposing ground up coconut meat to a solvent like hexane. Because hexane is toxic, the oil/hexane mixture then gets refined to remove traces of the hexane and other impurities. The refined oil then gets bleached and deodorized.
This makes refined coconut oil pretty flavorless and odorless, which is nice when you don’t want your food to taste like coconut, but it doesn’t deliver all the skin-clearing benefits of the virgin stuff. These may be labeled as refined, RBD (refined, bleached, and deodorized), or copra oil.
(And of course, as with all hydrogenated fats, if you find hydrogenated coconut oil, don’t eat it!)
Still not sure what to get?
This is the coconut oil we keep in our pantry at home. Devin in particular finds that a lot of brands of coconut oil taste “soapy” or “flowery” to him, but this one doesn’t (to us). Note: This is an affiliate link, which means we receive compensation if you make purchases using this link. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.
Yes, some people do take coconut oil in capsules. If you want to do that, be our guest – it’s probably the most expensive way to take it, though. (And if you take coconut oil capsules, but continue using high-PUFA, inflammatory veg oil in your food, you’re not going to see nearly as much improvement in your skin.)
We suggest using VCO as a cooking fat. As with all fats, it’s best if used at temperatures below its smoke point, which for VCO is 350ºF. That means low to medium heat stovetop cooking, as well as most baking or roasting.
We also love to melt lots of coconut oil (and cinnamon) into mashed sweet potatoes. Yum!
Of course, you can also consume coconut oil in the form of coconut butter (whole, blended coconut meat) or coconut milk. If you’re buying canned coconut milk, look for BPA-free cans, and avoid sweeteners, thickeners, and other chemicals.
In short, replacing inflammatory fats (vegetable & seed oils) in your diet with coconut oil is a powerful dietary step you can take right now to get clearer skin!
Now, will you get totally clear with this change alone?
Maybe, if your acne is fairly mild, and you are otherwise pretty healthy.
But for many of us, solving acne isn’t quite that simple.
Think of your skin as a freshly painted wall in your home. Then imagine there are 5 kids in the room. They’ve just gone on a sugar binge, and each one has a big old marker – and nothing suitable to draw on. These kids are going to town on your wall! Those marks are your acne. Now, say you call one kid’s dad and he comes and picks her up. Whew! Fewer marks. Progress! But you’ve still got four other kids in there, marking away.
Acne’s like that. You’ve got to call all the kids’ moms and dads if you want to stop the marks.
Eating healthier fats like coconut oil is a way to boot one pesky mark-causing kid.
Milk and dairy products are another kid that you should un-invite from your home – read more about that on this blog post.
And then you’ve got to get some paint and brushes and fix that wall. That means feeding your body all the nutrients it needs to get clear, radiant skin.
Finally, for the complete guide to how to kid-proof your home forever – ok, I’m ditching the horrible analogy. What I mean is, for the complete guide to getting rid of your acne for good using diet and lifestyle changes, check out our e-book, Clear Skin Forever.
- Coconut oil’s MCTs make your gut healthier by killing bad microbes and repairing leaky gut. (Learn more about the strong connection between your gut and skin here!)
- A healthy liver is also critical for healthy skin. Coconut oil protects your liver from inflammation and toxins so it can keep you toxin-free.
- Replacing veg oils (PUFAs) in your diet with virgin coconut oil is a powerful way to improve your blood sugar regulation (remember, acne is “diabetes of the skin”!) and reduce inflammation throughout your body – and on your skin.
- Don’t use coconut oil on your face! For a 100% natural and noncomedogenic moisturizer, try pure argan oil instead.
- Cleaning up the fats in your diet is a big step toward getting acne-free, naturally – no more hopping from one medication to another or continually tweaking your skin care regimen. If you’re feeling inspired, don’t stop here! For the whole story on how to get clear and stay clear with diet and lifestyle changes, check out our book, Clear Skin Forever!
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