Coconut Oil Can Work Wonders for Hair and Skin—Here's How to Use It

Experts explain why—and how—you might want to use coconut oil as part of your hair care and skincare routines.

Summer composition. Coconut pattern on yellow background. Summer concept. Flat lay, top view
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There's certainly no shortage of plant-based hair oils out there, but arguably none that get quite as much air time as coconut oil. It's lauded as a cure-all for everything from dry skin to scalp issues. Coconut oil is a popular ingredient in many drugstore body washes. It's a key component in our favorite hand cream. You'll also find it in some of the top drugstore shampoos on the market. If that wasn't enough, it's an edible, a pantry staple that can easily pull double duty in your beauty routine. But, besides all the social media buzz, what sets coconut oil apart from its (many) counterparts? Is it really something that everyone should be using? And if you are going to use it, what's the best way to do so? Here's what you need to know.

Coconut Oil Benefits

First a quick chemistry lesson. All of the plant oils in the beauty space have a different combination of omega fatty acids and other components, and the different ratios of these are what give each plant oil its specific benefits and sensory qualities, explains Krupa Koestline, a clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants. Virgin coconut oil, in particular, is rich in lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids (more on what those do in a moment), and consists mainly of medium chain triglycerides (MCT), she says.

This unique composition is why coconut oil offers a laundry list of benefits. First and foremost, like most oils, it's a great emulsifier, meaning it helps add moisture to smooth and soften the skin (it's the myristic and palmitic acids that are responsible for that). But the lauric acid also makes it naturally antimicrobial, and it minimizes inflammation and promotes wound healing, adds Anar Mikaliov, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Burlington, Mass., and founder of KP Away. It's for those reasons that it's been shown to help be especially beneficial for eczema sufferers, he notes. It's no wonder coconut oil is used in body washes like Seven Minerals Pure Castile Soap, a mild formula that's great for eczema and sensitive skin. Virgin coconut oil is also rich in polyphenols, which gives it protective antioxidant properties, notes Koestline.

How to Use Coconut Oil for Hair

Before we get into specifics, remember that you always want to look for cold-pressed virgin or extra virgin coconut oil, advises Ife J. Rodney, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Eternal Dermatology in Fulton, Md. These pure forms contain more nutrients than versions that have been processed, she explains. It may be a bit pricier, but the good news is that the high MCT content of the oil means it's more resistant to oxidation, aka will have a longer shelf life than other vegetable oils, says Koestline.

If you want to use coconut oil as part of your hair care routine, remember that it's great for both your hair AND scalp. When it comes to your strands, coconut oil is excellent at effectively penetrating into the hair shaft, notes Koestline. Credit its high content of lauric acid, which has high affinity for hair proteins, as well as the oil's low molecular weight, she explains. And once it's in there, it's ideal for moisturizing, conditioning, and detangling, says Dr. Rodney. The easiest way to reap these benefits? Simply massage 1 to 2 teaspoons of coconut oil—depending on the thickness and length of your hair—throughout the mid-lengths and ends, and let it sit for a few hours before washing it out, she suggests.

Coconut oil's benefits for skin (we'll get to those, we promise) means it works great as a scalp treatment, too. "It can improve scalp health by restoring the moisture of dry, inflamed skin," says Dr. Mikaliov. He cites one study that found coconut oil improved the microbiome balance in the scalp in those with dandruff: "It led to an increase in 'good' bacteria as well as an increase in biotin and other B-vitamins secreted by these bacteria that reduce inflammation, improve skin barrier quality, scalp health, and can even help with hair growth," he says. To use it as a scalp treatment, massage a small amount onto your scalp and let it sit for 10 to 20 minutes before washing your hair, he suggests.

How to Use Coconut Oil for Skin

Full transparency: Our experts were a little split here. Both dermatologists note that, while coconut oil is a great option for those with dry or eczema-prone skin and that it works great on the body, it's not the right option for those with acne. Dr. Mikaliov says that acne-sufferers may find it too occlusive (a fancy way of saying that it's too heavy), while Dr. Rodney says it is highly comedogenic. "It can clog pores, causing more breakouts," she explains.

But Koestline disagrees, saying that coconut oil's reputation as a pore-clogger isn't warranted. A variety of other factors—hormonal changes, diet, stress, other skincare—all play a role in what causes clogged pores, and not just the ingredient in question, she says. TL; DR: If you do have oily or acne-prone skin, you may want to proceed with caution just to be safe, and consider using coconut oil just for your body and/or hair, rather than your face.

All that being said, coconut oil is great to use as a makeup remover, and anyone can do that, so long as you follow with an effective cleanser after the fact, says Dr. Rodney. If you are going to use it as a moisturizer, your best bet is to apply it when you're fresh out of the shower, as it will help lock in hydration and keep your skin soft and smooth, she adds.

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  2. Illam SP, Narayanankutty A, Raghavamenon AC. Polyphenols of virgin coconut oil prevent pro-oxidant mediated cell death. Toxicol Mech Methods. 2017;27(6):442-450. doi:10.1080/15376516.2017.1320458

  3. Ng YJ, Tham PE, Khoo KS, et al. A comprehensive review on the techniques for coconut oil extraction and its application. Bioprocess Biosyst Eng. 2021;44(9):1807-1818. doi:10.1007/s00449-021-02577-9

  4. Saxena R, Mittal P, Clavaud C, et al. Longitudinal study of the scalp microbiome suggests coconut oil to enrich healthy scalp commensals. Sci Rep. 2021;11(1):7220. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-86454-1

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