Coconut oil is the superfood on many a health guru’s lips, but does its superstar status extend to the world of skincare too? We found out if its benefits are all they’re cracked up to be

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From Joe Wicks’  love of a bit of Lucy Bee to Gwyneth Paltrow’s penchant for a spot of oil pulling , coconut oil has fast become the superfood ingredient many of today’s healthy living gurus can’t live without. And in terms of skincare, it’s now more in-demand than ever.

An ancient practice that’s stood the test of time, it’s long been touted for its moisturising and cleansing benefits and its recent peak in popularity is reflective of a marked change in current shopping trends. With a shift from man-made to homemade - the world of natural beauty is blooming.

In Mintel’s latest Women’s Facial Skincare Report , it was found that 53% of UK women who use facial skincare products had used products with natural ingredients to care for their skin in the last 12 months. Furthermore, one of the market research organisation’s biggest trend predictions is that of ‘Gastronomia’; i.e. a rise in consumer interest in natural ingredients, due to people wanting to get involved in the process of creating their own beauty products.

Another key part of its popularity also interestingly lies in the link between diet and skincare. As Senior Beauty Analyst at Mintel, Charlotte Libby points out, “When it comes to natural ingredients, in the past few years beauty markets have seen the use of botanical oils, such as coconut oil, in beauty routines blossom, at the same time as their popularity in cooking and baking has increased.” It seems what’s inside is heavily influencing what we put on the outside too.

The pros and cons of coconut oil cracked open

Other than its more natural roots, what further properties have given coconut oil such a cult following? Made up of medium-chain-length fatty acids, essentially it provides a teaspoon of much-needed moisture to the driest of dermal zones. “Coconut oil is very hydrating, so it does offer benefits for people with dry skin (and possibly mild eczema),” says Dr Stefanie Williams , Dermatologist and Medical Director of Eudelo . “Apart from hydrating and mild anti-inflammatory effects, it also has anti-bacterial properties,” she explains; it is this latter quality specifically that studies have credited for soothing cases of mild eczema in particular.

beauty markets have seen the use of botanical oils, such as coconut oil, in beauty routines blossom

However, while effective for drier skin types, not all skin types benefit equally. In fact, there are some that should steer clear of it altogether - specifically, acneic skin types. “Coconut oil is comedogenic, despite what many people will want to make you believe,” cautions Dr Williams. “Coconut oil should also be strictly avoided in anybody suffering with breakouts, as it will aggravate both acne and rosacea.”

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So breakout-prone skin should beware, but what about other skin types? Would it still be a dermatologist’s first choice in the rehydration stakes? In our experience, experts have been hesitant to recommend it, including Dr Williams. “It can be used if there is no alternative available,” she says. “However, we have many more sophisticated moisturisers for dry skin available these days which combine synergistic emollients and humectants, so I would always prefer to use these.”

Dr Williams recommends a cocktail of skincare staples in a moisturiser that helps to both attract and retain moisture. “An ideal moisturiser would contain all of the following three actives to work synergistically:"

a) “Humectants (which work by attracting water and holding water in the skin);”

b) “Occlusive agents (which increase the skin’s moisture levels by providing a physical barrier to reduce water evaporation from the skin);”

c) “Emollients (which improve the appearance of the skin by smoothing ‘flaky’ skin cells).”

“While coconut oil is a very good occlusant, it does not have humectant properties (it’s in fact an anti-humectant, as coconut oil repels water),” Dr Williams explains.

we have many more sophisticated moisturisers for dry skin available these days

Can coconut oil have a place in a skincare regime?

Those who have dry skin and/or mild eczema, and those who have a preference for more natural skincare options look to benefit most. That being said though, not all coconut oils are created equal and Dr Williams recommends looking out for the following qualities: “If you decide to use coconut oil, make sure to go for extra virgin, unrefined and organic ones,” she advises, thereby avoiding any unnecessary additives and processes that may deviate away from the natural product, i.e. bleaching or deodorizing. Seems like a tricky combination to be able to track down, but due to its increased demand, it’s easier than many may think with retailers such as Holland & Barrett, Whole Foods and Amazon all stocking it.

In terms of how best to apply it as a moisturiser, less is definitely more (that is, if you even choose to apply it at all). “I really don’t endorse using it, as there are much better options. However, if you are absolutely determined to use it, I suggest evening use as you should use something with SPF30-50 in the morning,” advises Dr Williams. “And apply a very thin layer only.”

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What about other parts of the body? It’s more amber than green lit by Dr Williams. “Application to the body and scalp is fine for skin hydration if you don’t have anything better,” she says. “It can be quite sticky though. However, if you suffer with acne on your back, shoulder or chest, strictly avoid using coconut oil on the body.”

So are the benefits of coconut oil all they’re cracked up to be? Health-wise yes, beauty-wise, they may have been superseded by more modern technologies. A fascinating ingredient that has a great deal of history and nostalgia attached to it, its popularity has been heavily influenced by not only the way we eat, but culture too. “With food there is a big trend for ‘clean eating’ and organic produce at the moment (which I fully support),” says Dr Williams. “Using coconut oil for cooking is great as it’s a very stable and healthy oil with many benefits for general health when taken orally; so people might feel that they ought to use something ‘natural’ on their skin too. And, as coconut oil is so good as a food, they assume it must be great for topical application also. However, skincare is different to food - ‘natural’ does not automatically mean better in the skincare arena.”

She adds, “Coconut oil has been used on the skin for centuries and it has hydrating effects. However 300 years ago, we didn’t have the same sophisticated, high-tech skincare we have today, so it was a great home remedy given the lack of alternatives. However, I see no real reason to use coconut oil if you can use something more effective.”

So, if prevention, defense and free radical protection are your primary objectives when it comes to your skincare regime, your money and expectations may be better placed in more active-focused formulations found in other beauty products on the market. As we’ve seen though, there is a growing demand for a greater choice of natural and organic beauty products. And, if trends continue on their current trajectories, the innovation and development behind them will surely have to step up to meet the expectations of today’s increasingly savvier beauty consumer. Developments are already being seen in the field  but time and technology will only tell if they’ll finally be able to match up to, and perhaps one day overtake, their more synthetic beauty competitors.

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