Coconut Oil Isn’t All Magic — Here’s When It Causes Problems

Coconut Oil Isn’t All Magic — Here’s When It Causes Problems
Photo: STYLECASTER/Getty Images

Everybody loves Coconut oil. It’s one of the few products you rarely hear a bad word about, and it’s a foundational ingredient in endless amounts of DIY beauty products. It’s touted as the ultimate all-natural multitasker, capable of transforming skin and hair the same way a more expensive alternative would. It moisturizes. It heals. It smells amazing. And most importantly, it usually lives up to the hype.

So, you can imagine my surprise while watching one of my favorite beauty bloggers say that she was done using it. Whitney White, more popularly known as “Naptural85,” has a well-informed YouTube channel dedicated to healthy hair and skin habits, with the majority of her recipes and tutorials being DIY. If you’re someone who likes to know the ins and outs of every product you’re using, White is a great person to reference since she spends a lot of time delving into the benefits of individual ingredients. In short: she knows her stuff.

So, what on earth would make her want to stop using something as universal as coconut oil after several years? According to the video post, originally shared late last year, it irritated her scalp and made her hair strands more brittle than they had ever been; even though she was using organic, virgin kind. As it turns out, there are a number of reasons your hair and skin could have an adverse effect to coconut oil.

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For starters, its positive reputation has lead most of us to believe that it can do no wrong. According to  Monastery founder Athena Hewett, “the reason that coconut oil gained such popularity in recent years is that it was a very accessible oil, inexpensive and plentiful with a high level of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA’s).” Seems like a dream come true, right? To the contrary, there are three ways in which it can be quite the opposite.

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For Skin

I can guarantee that you or at least one of your friends loves to slather her body in coconut oil; especially during the cold weather months. Its thick consistency feels like a warm blanket this time of year and for those with drier skin, it delivers the kind of moisture you don’t have to worry about disappearing throughout the day.

Although that nourishment feels long-lasting, it can also suffocate your skin cells simultaneously.

Hewett says, “on the comedogenic (poor clogging) scale, it scores between a four and five; zero being good for the skin and five being bad.  This means that the oil will cause congestion in your skin…get trapped inside the epidermis and sit there, causing extra blackheads and breakouts.”

Although this isn’t something that happens to everyone, it is worth monitoring if you wear coconut oil everyday.

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For Makeup

Beauty experts also endorse coconut oil as an all-natural alternative to makeup remover or makeup primer. And although your skin may feel like butter, it can be difficult for makeup to stay put, regardless of whether you use a setting spray or not.

“It also tends to be a very slippery oil, (highly viscous), meaning that makeup loves to slide off of it and clothing loves to attach itself to it,” says Hewett. “Nobody wants to ruin their favorite shirt with a smear of coconut oil.”

And again, since it is high on the comedogenic scale, your skin is even more vulnerable to breakups since you’re layering coconut oil with makeup that could have the same thick consistency.

For Hair

As far as your hair is concerned, the protein structure of coconut oil is capable of sitting inside the hair shaft. So it makes sense that so many of us, especially those with damaged strands, like to use it as a treatment or leave-in.

However, Hewett says to “be weary of using coconut oil on any hair, including the hair on your head, as it causes tangling along with breakage.”

And if Whitney White’s first person account is any indication, these symptoms can also extend to the scalp, where irritation can breed. In short: it’s time to find an alternative.

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The Alternatives

We certainly aren’t the first ones to discover the potential harmful side effects of coconut oil, which explains the uprise of an new variation: fractionated coconut oil (MCT).

According to Hewett, “this oil has been stripped of its medium chain fatty acids and has been created into a dry oil (an oil that penetrates quickly). This chemical process does make the oil less comedogenic.” And at first glance, this does appear to be an easy solve. However, this also makes coconut oil much more expensive to work with, less pure and nutrient poor.

Ultimately, it feels kind of pointless to use in skin care since the old negative side effects are just replaced with new ones. So, what are we left with?

“There are many other oils that penetrate more beautifully and with less of an oily finish that are still packed with nutrients,” says Hewett. “Two that I like to work with instead of MCT are hazelnut and walnut. Make sure that if you are putting an oil on your skin, you are not only getting the moisturizing benefits but also the nutritional benefits.”

For eye makeup specifically, cleansers infused with castor oil, like Monastery’s Rose Cleansing Oil , will clean the lashes without penetration.

If you’re hoping to kick your coconut oil habit, these not-so-fun facts may just be the motivation you need.

A version of this article was originally published in November 2017.