Can coconut oil cause breakouts? Does coconut oil cause spots? Can coconut oil cure acne? If you’ve looked into the pros & cons of using coconut oil on your face or body you’ve probably found a whole load of information and reviews that’ve been a bit like filtering through the reviews of a 3.5 star rated hotel on Tripadvisor. One reviewee cannot sing its praises loudly enough, almost like they’re affiliated ‘eh. While another makes it sound like they visited a concrete box with prison guard style customer service.
Whether coconut oil can cause you breakouts all depends on which type you’re using. Yes, there’s actually 2 main types and understanding this one key difference will help you to avoid any future coconut induced breakouts.
The 2 Type of Coconut Oil Found in Skincare…
Just like you can get different types of chocolate (dark, milk, plain, white…) you can also get different types of coconut oil. Just like chocolate, the key ingredients are really similar, but they’re mixed up in different proportions. When it comes to coconut oil, there’s 2 main breeds;
- Coconut oil (called cocus nucifera oil on an ingredients list)
- Fractionated coconut oil (called caprylic/capric triglyceride)
Think of these 2 kinds like non identical twins. They come from the same coconut mum, but they have very different personalities & appearances.
- Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, whereas…
- Fractionated coconut oil is liquid.
The big difference comes when we look at their composition i.e. their genetic makeup.
- Coconut oil is made from medium & long chain fatty acids, whereas…
- Fractionated coconut oil has had the long chain fatty acids removed.
Break down pure coconut oil and you’ll find that 50% of its composition is made up from one ingredient. A long chain fatty acid called Lauric acid.
If you were to compare the 2 kinds of coconut oil you’d find that;
- Coconut oil contains around 50% Lauric acid, compared to…
- Fractionated coconut oil which contains on average around 2%.
This makes a big difference to the effects these oils have on your skin. Lauric acid has a double personality, it can do 2 things, which when it comes to skincare can be contradictory;
- Lauric acid shows anti-bacterial activity (this is why you might find coconut oil recommended for acne)
- Studies have shown that Lauric acid has a high potential to block pores i.e. it’s comedogenic (this is why you’re likely to see many reviews about coconut oil causing breakouts)
Yeeck, so on one hand coconut oil as pure coconut oil can help avoid breakouts caused by bacteria. Then on the other hand it can cause them by potentially gunking up in your pores. When you compare this to fractionated coconut oil, which has a very low amount of lauric acid in its composition, you can see why it’s not likely to have either of these effects.
Before you go ditching all coconut oil containing skincare, there’s a little bit more you should know…
Can Coconut Oil Cause Breakouts?
Sometimes you can use different products with the same ingredient and have different results. With one you’ll be A-ok, with the other you’ll be channeling Olympic worthy speeds to dump it into your waste bin. That means some coconut oil containing products will be fine, they’ll be no breakouts in sight, whereas with others… you get the picture ‘eh. If you’ve ever experienced this it’s likely for 1 of 2 reasons… or even both!
- There’s only a little bit of coconut oil in one of the formulations.
- They might say coconut oil on the label, but they’re actually using fractionated coconut oil.
My friend, you probably understand why the second one means that product wouldn’t cause you a breakout, so let’s take a look at the first.
Comedogenicity studies, studies that test if skincare ingredients have the ability to block pores are a tad controversial. One of the reasons why they’re controversial, is that the tests use 100% concentration of an ingredient. Usually skincare products are a mixture of ingredients, so when the comedogenicity studies show a red flashing beacon for something, you might be able to use a product that only contains a little and that red flashing beacon turns into an amber that’s not so sure whether it’s going to flash at all!
Comedogenicity studies basically slather on an ingredient to a patch of skin, cover it up and then wait to see the results. When the results are analyzed, they’re given a rating on a scale of 0-5. Zero means ‘you got the green light’ and 5 means very definitely comedogenic (… in the conditions of the test).
Coconut oil earns itself a 4 on this scale.
Now here’s the bit that makes the difference. If you mix a small amount of a very highly comedogenic ingredient with a large amount of a zero-rated pore blocking ingredient, then you’re going to dilute its potential to cause a breakout. It’s a bit like adding more water to squash. The character of that skincare ingredient is still there, but it’s not going to be as strong.
Whether a skincare ingredient like coconut oil can cause breakouts depends firstly what kind of coconut oil it is and secondly how much of the ingredient is in the formulation.
So just how do you tell that bit?
An Example of How to Tell Whether Coconut Oil Can Cause Breakouts…
Looking at the ingredients list of a skincare product is just like looking at an ingredient list of a food product. The only difference is ingredients get called by a Latin name! Have you ever looked at the ingredients list of a healthy food or health yogurt just to check whether they’ve snuck in some extra sugar? Maybe you’ve found that sugar was actually first on the list, shocking ‘eh (!), when an ingredient sits in first position you know that there’s most of that ingredient in that that product… well skincare ingredients lists are exactly the same.
Let’s take a look at a coconut example…
Did you spot coconut oil on this ingredients list? You didn’t have to look very far ‘eh! This Argan+ body butter, is very much a coconut butter. When you understand that every ingredient on this list is ordered by the amount that’s in the formulation, you’ll see that argan oil (argania spinosa kernel oil) is actually way, way down. In fact it’s under the preservative (phenoxyethanol) which means there’s less than 1% argan oil here. This is what I call strawberry cake dressed up as chocolate brownie!
What do you think of the possibility that this coconut oil based product could cause breakouts?
Did you notice it’s in second place? Oh and it’s the kind of coconut oil that contains Lauric acid? If you are someone who has acne prone skin, this product pick is probably not for you.
Let’s take another…
Did you see it? Go you! This sunblock contains the fractionated kind of coconut oil. That means even though you see coconut on the ingredients list, it’s not going to have those Lauric acid pore-blocking properties. What might seem a bit confusing, is that you also see ‘coconut oil/coconut’ bracketed after several ingredients.
Coconut oil can be made into lots of other ingredients and these are some of them. When you see this bracket, it means these ingredients are derived from coconut oil. Don’t worry too much about these, when it comes to telling whether a product containing coconut oil is likely to cause you a breakout, it’s just the words of ‘Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil’ you need to watch for. Sometimes even the bracketed coconut part won’t be there, that’s ok, it’s still the same thing.
What are your experiences of using coconut oil? Send me your tripadvisor-esque reviews below…
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.