Lauric acid is a building block of proteins or an amino acid. Made up of a chain of 12 carbon atoms, the nutrient is abundant in coconut oil, palm kernel oil and laurel oil. The substance is also found in plants in the lauraceae or laurel genus and in small amounts in the milk of cows and goats as well as in human breast milk. The discovery of lauric acid is credited to T. Marsson, who published a study on the amino acid in 1849.
As an ingredient in the cosmetics and skin and hair care industries, lauric acid has both proven and experimental uses. Generally, the amino acid is well tolerated when applied to the skin and not likely to cause redness, itching, swelling or other types of irritation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists lauric acid as "Generally Regarded as Safe," and the leading cosmetics safety evaluation panel, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, has found that lauric acid is not a safety concern when used at the doses common in skin and hair care products.
At room temperature, lauric acid is a white powder. The ingredient has a faint smell that some describe as being similar to bay leaf. In scientific studies, the ingredient may be referred to as dodecanoic acid. Lauric acid is inexpensive to produce industrially and remains potent for long periods of time. This makes it cost-effective for companies to include in their products and reduces the need for the use of preservatives to keep lauric acid from degrading.
The most common and accepted use of lauric acid is in products designed to cleanse the skin and hair, such as facial cleansers, body washes, shower gels and shampoos. When used on its own as an active ingredient, lauric acid helps water mix with oil, making it easier to wash away. Typically, raw lauric acid is used as a cleansing booster in conjunction with other surfactants in products. If lauric acid is mixed with sodium hydroxide or lye, it forms sodium laurate, one of the most common types of bar soaps.
Lauric acid is sometimes recommended for the treatment of cold sores and fever blisters on the lips and is included in some topical products designed to treat outbreaks of these conditions. Cold sores and fever blisters are caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. Studies suggest that lauric acid breaks down the oily cellular membranes of viral cells similarly to the way the fatty acid disrupts the shape of oil molecules on the skin or scalp. The breakdown of the viral cells results in their death, allowing cold sores and fever blisters to heal more quickly.
Studies have also found that lauric acid may have the ability to destroy other microbes that have oily components in their cellular makeup. Evidence suggests that lauric acid may make an effective treatment for ringworm, a circular, itchy skin rash caused by an overgrowth of fungus. The fatty acid may also be beneficial for skin rashes on the underarms, groin and feet that are caused by yeast.
A newer potential use for lauric acid involves addressing blemish prone skin. Questions as to whether or not the ingredient could be useful for controlling acne breakouts were first raised by a study completed in 2009, which found that the substance had the potential to destroy a type of bacteria known as P. acnes.
Acne blemishes often arise due to the colonization of P. acnes bacteria in the pores, which leads to infections and inflammation. Doctors sometimes prescribe topical antibiotics for treating acne; however, some people with sensitive skin are unable to use these creams and lotions due to their potential to irritate the skin. In addition, doctors are often hesitant to prescribe antibiotics for prolonged periods of time, as research has found that the extended use of these medications can make them less effective if they are needed to combat serious infections later in life.
If lauric acid truly can eliminate P. acnes, the fatty acid could be a beneficial alternative to topical antibiotics. In March 2010, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego developed a unique method of topically delivering lauric acid by encasing the ingredient in a bubble made of lipids. Called nano-bombs or liposomes, these tiny bubbles have the ability to more fully penetrate the pores for delivering their potentially acne-fighting ingredients.