Coconut oil, or cocos nucifera, is a natural oil extracted from the meat of the coconut fruit and commonly used in cooking and as an ingredient in food products. Coconut oil has the distinction of being rich in a crystalline fatty acid called lauric acid. Research suggests that lauric acid has anti-viral, anti-bacterial properties and anti-fungal properties, and some preliminary studies suggest the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil speed up a person's metabolism and help with weight loss. Unfortunately, most of the fat in coconut oil is of the saturated type, the kind that's been linked with an increased risk of heart disease. Some experts argue that the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil don't raise cholesterol levels like long-chain fatty acids in most foods high in saturated fat. Unfortunately, there isn't enough research to confirm or refute these claims as of yet.
There are many benefits of coconut oil for the skin. Because the lauric acid in coconut oil has anti-bacterial properties, some research suggests it may be an effective tool in the fight against acne. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego found it had strong anti-bacterial activity against Propionibacterium acnes, the type of bacteria that causes acne. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits that may be beneficial for blemishes. In addition, coconut oil has moisturizing properties and is a good hair condition because it coats the hair shaft and helps it hold on to moisture. It also appears to be useful for the prevention and treatment of dandruff due to its anti-fungal properties.
With so many benefits for skin and hair, it's not surprising that cosmetic and skin care manufacturers are adding cocos nucifera to their products. Some cosmetic products that may contain coconut oil include shampoos, hair conditioners, body washes, body creams and facial moisturizers. It's also a common ingredient in soaps since it lathers well, forms a firm soap and has moisturizing properties. In cosmetic and personal care products, coconut oil functions as a hair conditioner and as an emollient, an ingredient that softens and smoothes the surface of skin. It's also used to add fragrance to products.
Mineral oil is one of the best emollients, but it's also a petroleum by-product. A significant number of people are looking for natural moisturizing alternatives that don't contain synthetic chemicals. Coconut oil seems to fit the bill. A randomized, double-blind study published in the journal Dermatitis compared coconut oil to mineral oil for treating dry, itchy skin. Coconut oil was as effective as mineral oil for relieving the itching and dryness, and it doesn't carry the stigma of coming from petroleum products. In addition, coconut oil has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties that give it other advantages over mineral oil.
Coconut oil may be effective for treating other skin problems as well. A small study published in the journal Dermatitis showed that topical extra-virgin coconut oil helped to reduce skin inflammation and irritation experienced by people suffering from the common skin condition eczema. This isn't surprising since coconut oil has anti-inflammatory benefits that help to relieve dry skin and irritation.
What about safety? Coconut oil appears to be safe and is unlikely to cause skin irritation or dermatitis like some cosmetic ingredients due to its anti-inflammatory and emollient properties. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database classifies coconut oil as a low-hazard ingredient. One of the benefits of using coconut oil products is it has been used in cooking for thousands of years without ill effects. Recently some people have even begun calling it a superfood. Whether or not it lives up to its weight loss or health claims as a food, it does appear to be an effective skin emollient and hair conditioner.
All in all, coconut oil is a safe and natural ingredient in skin and hair care products. Its ability to coat the hair shaft and soften it makes it an ideal hair conditioner. Its emollient properties make it an effective moisturizer and skin conditioning agent. It may also be beneficial for treating skin conditions such as acne and eczema.