Can you really use coconut oil to treat acne?

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

Coconut oil is like that popular girl in your high school who was basically good at everything.

The trendy superfood is a tasty addition to desserts, makes a great hair mask, and even treats your cuticles.

If natural beauty products had a prom, coconut oil would be the queen.

But one thing that coconut oil might not quite excel at: treating acne.

While some people swear by coconut oil for acne, others are equally adamant that the natural moisturiser actually makes their breakouts worse.

Here’s what three leading dermatologists have to say:

The case for coconut oil

“While coconut oil itself has not been studied for the treatment of acne, some people might find it helpful,” says New York City cosmetic dermatologist, Dr. Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology.

“Fatty acids in coconut oil have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity against propionibacterium acnes (P.acnes), the bacteria involved in the development of acne,” she says.

Specifically, coconut oil’s lauric acid has been shown to be effective at fighting off lots of bacteria, including P.acnes.

Coconut oil is also deeply hydrating, which is crucial to treating acne.

This might seem counter-intuitive (after all, you’d think oily, zit prone skin wouldn’t need hydration) but lots of other treatments used to treat acne are drying, which can strip skin of its natural oils.

“Maintaining the integrity of the skin barrier is essential for not only acne treatment, but also helping the healing of acne lesions with minimal scarring,” says Houston, Texas dermatologist, Dr. Jennifer M. Segal, of Metropolitan Dermatology Institute.

Dry skin takes longer to heal, and if you have acne on top of that, you might see more scarring.

Nourished skin is then better able to tolerate acne-fighting ingredients like retinols, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and benzoyl peroxide, which means clearer skin, too.

READ MORE: Can Coconut Oil Really Help You Lose Weight?

The downsides

However, just because coconut oil may naturally fight P.acnes doesn’t mean it’s an instant acne cure-all. In fact, p.acnes are only a small part of the picture when it comes to zits.

“Think of it like a bench warmer on an all-star football team that causes acne,” says New York City dermatologist Libby Rhee, D.O., of Craig + Austin Medi-Spa.

The bigger culprit behind most acne are clogged pores and the resulting inflammation, she says. And coconut oil is very comedogenic—ranked 4 out of 5 on the comedogenicity scale, says Shah.

That makes it super clogging. If left on the skin, it might make your acne even worse.

The verdict

Because of the potentially microbial, hydrating, and soothing qualities of coconut oil, our experts say it could work for acne-prone types… but there’s a catch.

“I think the best way to use it is as a makeup remover or part of a cleansing routine,” says Shah.

Because it’s an oil, it binds with sebum and other impurities, pulling out debris from pores while nourishing skin. Shah says that makes it a really amazing cleanser.

But after washing it off, it’s important to remove all traces of the oil with a second cleanser. Since coconut oil is so comedogenic, you don’t want to leave any residue of it on skin, says Shah.

This double-cleanse method allows you to reap the soothing benefits of coconut oil—without risking a huge honking breakout.

If you want to take the plunge, Rhee suggests looking for unrefined coconut oil.

“It has a great balance of natural fatty acids, which can be effective as a moisturizer for healthy skin,” says Rhee.

You’ll also want to make sure there’s no added fragrance, as perfume is a common trigger for acne and sensitive skin, adds Segal. Tip: Look for a raw coconut oil, which means it’s both unrefined and very likely fragrance-free.

This article was originally published on

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