For your skin, your hair or in your kitchen: consult this guide for everything you need to know about coconut oil’s many uses.
Coconut oil has been the darling of the natural food and cosmetics movement for a while now, beloved for its rich vitamin and fatty-acid content that contribute to a range of purported health benefits.
And what’s not to love?
Coconut oil is a multi-functional oil with a smooth absorbent quality and heavenly smell. You can eat it, you can use it alone as a beauty product, or get creative and use as a base in your kitchen or bathroom.
As a food, and as a cosmetic product, coconut oil has experienced a huge jump in popularity and is recommended by foodies, nutritionists, and beauty bloggers alike.
It has particularly generated a lot of interest in the last few years a “superfood”, a rather controversial label that supposedly applies to foods that have an unusually high content of vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients that make them especially beneficial for health.
One of the problems with this spike in popularity is that the Internet becomes saturated with misleading or poorly-researched information that either hypes up or advises against types of coconut oil or coconut oil altogether based on spurious or cherry-picked information.
Here at finder.com, we love to set the record straight and help consumers make informed choices. We have put together this quick guide on coconut oil to help you do exactly that.
What’s the difference between refined and virgin coconut oil?
Wondering what the best coconut oil is? This usually comes down to the different production methods that create either refined or virgin coconut oil.
Refined coconut oil
Refined coconut oil is generally referred to as the lesser-quality coconut oil. It has gone through a refining process, usually at very high temperatures and sometimes with the assistance of different chemicals to help extract the highest-quantity oil from the coconut.
Refined coconut oil is made from the dried white “meat” of the coconut, which is called copra. To extract the oil, the copra is pressed, heated, blended and then the oil is extracted and processed. Some brands actually take the coconut smell and flavour out of the oil to make it more of a general-purpose vegetable oil.
For this reason, refined coconut oil is sometimes called, and labelled, RBD oil, which is an acronym for refined, bleached, and deodorized.
It is the most common type of coconut oil and is invariably the most economical choice.
If you prefer to buy products that have been through as little processing as possible, then you will probably prefer virgin coconut oil
Virgin coconut oil
First things first: unrefined coconut oil and virgin coconut oil are the same product.
And despite different labelling, there is also no measurable difference between “virgin” coconut oil and “extra virgin” coconut oil. The extraction process that olive oil goes through that differentiates between virgin and extra virgin does not apply to coconut oil.
Virgin coconut oil can also be extracted by a method called “cold-pressing” which keeps more of the original nutritional compounds intact. Cold pressing isn’t really that cold and the coconut is still heated to extract the oil, but at much lower temperatures than traditional extraction methods.
Virgin coconut oil is extracted from the fresh milk and fresh raw meat of the coconut soon after it’s picked. The process of selecting ripe coconuts and the timely oil production means that virgin coconut oil tends to be of a higher quality and more expensive than refined coconut oil.
Another feature you might want to think about is sustainability. Some poorer quality RBD oil may actually be mixed with palm oil to lower the cost. Palm oil production has high environmental costs and is largely considered to be an ecologically unsustainable product.
Here in Australia, we have strict labelling laws, so it is enough to check the back of your product to ensure it’s 100% coconut oil and to determine the production process it went through to get in the bottle.
While the ecological issues that come with palm oil are not present in coconut farming, many coconut plantations are found in poor parts of the world.
To support the local communities that grow coconuts and sustain themselves from coconut plantations, look for international standardised labelling such as “fair trade” or “rainforest alliance” to make a more sustainable choice.
What are the supposed benefits of coconut oil?
Coconut oil is a fat that’s an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. It is relatively high in saturated fat, but is full of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which has been associated with a wide range of health benefits if used in moderation, including heart health and weight loss.
What’s the best coconut oil for cooking?
Refined coconut oil often loses the distinctive taste and smell during the refining process, so it might be a better choice if you’re cooking something that clashes with a coconut flavour.
However, most dieticians and cooks would agree that for the highest quality oil, virgin coconut is the healthiest choice.
What’s the best coconut oil for hair and skin?
One of the most popular uses for coconut oil is in cosmetics. It’s adored for its light texture and absorbent quality. Coconut oil can be used alone on your skin as a makeup remover or hair as a deep hair conditioner, as well as shaving lubricant, after sun lotion, moisturiser and more. It also frequently pops up as an ingredient in cosmetic formulations.
What’s the best coconut oil for hair?
Coconut is an excellent oil to moisturise and condition hair, and can be used as a deep treatment used on the ends for added shine or to tame flyaways.
It is an oil, so how much oil you need and what effect it will have on your hair will be best determined by what kind of hair you have. Coconut oil is quite absorbent but it might still weigh finer hair down or be too oily for naturally oiler hair. Dry, curly or kinky hair will be better able to use more coconut oil as a leave-in treatment.
To make a deep hair treatment try this:
- Warm the coconut oil on low heat first.
- Apply to damp or dry hair, whichever you prefer.
- Massage it into your scalp, lengths and pay extra attention to your ends.
- Put on a shower cap and leave it on for at least 30 minutes.
- Wash it out thoroughly. Depending on your hair type you might need to use shampoo, or if you have dry or very curly hair you might need plain warm water.
What’s the best coconut oil for your skin?
Coconut oil can be used alone or as part of a cosmetic formulation. Virgin coconut oil is the favoured type of oil for direct use on the skin, especially on the face because it is unbleached.
If you are looking for natural ingredients to use on your face, then extra-virgin coconut is probably the best way to go. If you would like to get the most active and nutritive coconut oil, you should look for coconut oil that has been cold pressed.
Where to buy the best coconut oil?
There are many brands that make excellent coconut oil depending upon your needs and preferences.
Health food stores, either online or in person, will definitely stock a range of high quality virgin coconut oils and they are a good place to start.
If you love your cosmetic products beautifully packaged (and who doesn’t!) we advise going straight for the major beauty retailers, who will stock a range of pure coconut oils and coconut oil products.
We suggest these retailers:
But if you want more, visit our guide on where to buy coconut oil.
Coconut oil controversy
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a study suggesting that coconut oil is high in saturated fats which led to it becoming one of the oils least-recommended for promoting heart health.
This caused a bit of controversy among many who disagreed with the study and pointed to the AHA’s past advice that focused solely on fat content and recommended consuming sugary foods over fatty foods for heart health, a claim that has been widely discredited.
Others pointed to small sample sizes and isolated data – the kiss of death for any scientific research.
One of the problems may lie in the manner in which the research findings were reported. While scientific studies use careful language and qualified analyses, resulting blogs and reports blew the findings out of proportion.
So, while we should all listen to experts that have a better understanding of a particular topic than us laypeople, caution should be applied to media reports that occasionally forgo nuance to draw in readers with flashy headlines.
And coconut oil still has plenty of well-respected advocates.
Is coconut oil bad for you?
No. Coconut oil is good for you and moderation is key for everything. Nutritionists, doctors and dieticians frequently point out the “health halo” effect that results from one ingredient rapidly gaining considerable attention as a “healthy product”.
When it does, the ingredient is perceived as so beneficial that all of the normal behaviours around food, like moderation and portion size go out the window. Coconut oil has a similar fat type and content as butter. High-quality butter consumed in moderation can also be good for you.
However, it does remind us all to be aware of falling for over hype when it comes to claims about a product’s supposed healthful qualities. No one ingredient in skincare, in food, or in anything else will compensate for a well-rounded healthy diet full of and fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of sleep, and regular exercise.
The New York times published a survey that illustrates this point well. The survey found that there was often a large disparity between what Americans believed to be “healthy” and what nutritionists (taken from a sample of members from the American Society for Nutrition) advised as healthy. Coconut oil was one of the culprits. 37% of nutritionists versus 72% of the readers believed coconut oil to be healthy.
One of the indisputably best things about coconut oil is its multi-functionality: you can use it for your skin, your hair, as makeup remover, to tame flyaways, or to cook, which is a relief for those of use looking to slim down our product shelves. If you love coconut oil and you use it in moderation it is a great addition to your diet. Just don’t drink buckets of the stuff.