Spotlight On: Coconut

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by Natalie K. Bell

While daydreaming about summertime, it’s easy to picture yourself lounging on a beach: You’re enjoying the light spray of the surf, watching a sunrise, with a beverage-filled coconut in hand. In fact, maybe there are even coconut trees shading your from the sun. But there’s most to coconuts than just piña coladas and shade — they also pop up in a lot of beauty products and have been studied for their cholesterol- and fat-lowering potential. So just how good are they?

What does it do for the skin?

When discussing coconut oil, it’s important to note that studies are generally talking about virgin coconut oil — so if you decide to use it, keep that in mind. Coconut oil is an emollient that’s gentle enough to use in baby formulas on infants’ thinner, more delicate skin (Indian Pediatrics). In fact, one study found it in 44.4% of products for newborns that they tested when looking for allergens (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology). But coconut is not a common allergy. Though it’s considered a tree, it’s rare that people with tree nut allergies react to it, though it still is possible to have a coconut allergy (The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology).

Coconut (halved)
Coconuts are very mild on skin. (Photo credit: SingChan)

One study found that virgin coconut oil could be used for its antibacterial and emollient qualities to treat contact dermatitis (Dermatitis). But it can also clog pores, so it’s important to use coconut products on clean skin. And aside from its very limited potential to irritate due to allergy, the FDA has rated as “safe.” It can also help to heal burn wounds, though the researchers did not uncover why exactly, hypothesizing that it is because coconut has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties (Indian Journal of Pharmacology). And coconut does have some UV protection — blocking about 20% of UV (the study didn’t specify UVA or UVB), so take that with a grain of salt (Pharmacognosy Reviews).

It isn’t just coconut oil that’s good for skin; coconut water can have beneficial effects as well. It’s been shown to hydrate skin as well as increase elasticity and decrease roughness (Molecules). It contains kinetin, which has been shown to be effective in anti-aging treatment — and though it doesn’t have as much kinetin as some skin products, it can be purchased cheaply, as well as consumed in addition to topical use.

Where does Lauric Acid fit in?

a just opened, mature coconut
Lauric acid has been shown to combat skin infections. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Coconuts contain between 45-48% Lauric Acid, which can be found in many beauty products and human breast milk (Pharmacognosy Magazine). It’s got anti-microbial properties that studies have suggested would allow it to work to protect against infection. One study found it to have higher antimicrobial properties than oleic and palmitic acid against propionibacterium acne (Biomaterials). But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best. Researchers found that oleic acid was the only acid effective in eliminating MRSA  (Journal of Lipid Research) — unless lauric acid was mixed with gentacinim or impenem, in which case they worked synergistically against MRSA (Anti-Infectives Week).

Can coconut oil lower cholesterol?

Coconut Oil
In moderation, cooking with coconut oil can help fat and cholesterol. (Photo credit: Veganbaking.net)

Coconut oil is made up of 90% saturated fat, which is more than even butter has (Harvard Health Letter). I know it sounds bad, but it’s a plant fat, which is a little different than an animal fat. First of all, it’s made of medium chain — instead of long chain — fatty acids. These kinds of fatty acids go to the center of the body that burns them for energy faster than long chain fatty acids — which means they aren’t being stored as fat in the body.

This was demonstrated in a study with mice that showed that a diet high in medium chain fatty acid help protect against insulin resistance, which can lead to Type II diabetes (Garvan Institute). Unfortunately, though coconut oil fats didn’t work in the body the same way as other fats, they can lead to fat build-up in the liver. But these mice had a high fat diet, and there is not “good” kind of high fat diet. Coconut oil used sparingly could have beneficial effects for diners, but too much can be a bad thing.

Bottom Line

Green coconuts
There’s still more to study on coconuts, but it’s generally safe in beauty products. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Coconut can do wonderful things for your body — in moderation. The high amount of fats make it something that should be eaten in limited amounts, but the medium-chain fatty acids can help in weight loss and lowering cholesterol. It gets a higher rating for skin care, whether it’s a known and gentle emollient that can aid in wound healing. While there’s still plenty more to study, the safe-rating by the FDA and a low incidence of allergies make it a safe addition to skincare products. It can clog pores though, so make sure to use it on clean skin.

And if you’re up for using coconut for more than libations, consider…

Soap and Glorious Righteous Body Butter ($18, Amazon.com) — This smooth and super-hydrating formula has coconut oil, shea butter, and tons of other moisture-boosting ingredients.

Spectrum Essentials Organic Coconut Oil Body Care ($10.49, Amazon.com) — Coconut oil has been found to be as effective as mineral oil for your skin, so slather on and enjoy smooth, silky skin.

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About the author:  Natalie K. Bell is the former magazine editor of The Pitt News.  She has nearly five years of experience in print and communications.  She loves big sun hats and good grammar.  For more, please visit our About page.

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