Coconut oil is used in cooking and also has a variety of cosmetic applications. You may want to apply coconut oil for skin blemishes or scars. However, coconut oil’s use as a lightening agent is not very well studied. There are other plants or oils that may be better suited to this purpose.
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Coconut Oil and Skin Health
Coconut is used in a variety of skin products, including anti-aging creams, moisturizers and body butters. It’s even been recommended as a makeup remover and to help remove stretch marks. You may have heard that coconut oil may be able to help minimize blemishes and even out your skin tone.
However, coconut oil’s scientifically proven benefits are fairly limited. According to a December 2014 article in the International Journal of Life Sciences Research and a January 2019 article in the Pharmacognosy Review, coconut oil can help with the treatment of various skin conditions, including psoriasis, dermatitis and eczema.
It’s virgin coconut oil, in particular, that is thought to be beneficial for your health. Unlike other coconut oils, virgin coconut oil retains all its beneficial phenolic acids, polyphenols and medium-chain fatty acids during processing.
Virgin coconut oil is also thought to help soothe irritated skin, reduce inflammation, combat microbial infections and support wound healing. It can support skin health by hydrating it and improving the strength of the skin barrier, which can help prevent infection and injury.
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Coconut Oil for Skin Blemishes
According to an October 2012 study in the International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences, many plant products, including coconut, are commonly used as homemade skin whitening agents. Although coconut can benefit your skin and potentially be used in conjunction with plant-based lightening agents, it’s unclear if you can use coconut oil for scars or to even out your skin tone.
When your skin scars, forms dark spots or becomes uneven, it’s caused by melanin — the same pigments that determine the natural color of your skin. Your skin often darkens following exposure to the sun or injury. It may also darken because of autoimmune conditions, hormonal changes and reactions to medications.
Certain plants can help counteract this because of the way your body synthesizes melanin. Tyrosinase, an enzyme, is in control of melanin production in your body. Melanin production is often healthy and normal, but it can also be abnormal. Tyrosinase can produce aesthetic issues like age spots and patchy, uneven skin.
Certain plants contain tyrosinase inhibitors — which means they prevent tyrosinase from producing melanin. They are not only thought to prevent hyperpigmentation, but promote skin whitening. Naturally occurring tyrosinase inhibitors include:
- Phenolic acids
- Stilbenes (a type of phytochemical)
- Long-chain fatty acids
You’ll likely be most familiar with long-chain fatty acids and antioxidant compounds, like phenolic acids and flavonoids.
As stated, virgin coconut oil is a particularly rich source of phenolic acids and beneficial bioactive compounds. According to a 2016 article in the British Nutrition Foundation’s journal, the Nutrition Bulletin, coconut oil also contains long-chain fatty acids — though they are present in fairly small amounts.
This means that coconut oil contains compounds that act as tyrosinase inhibitors. Based on the International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences study, this means the oil could have the potential to reduce abnormal melanin synthesis and support skin whitening. Essentially, you may very well be able to use coconut oil for skin blemishes, scars and other marks.
Read more: 9 Ways to Keep Your Skin Looking Great
Coconut and Other Tyrosinase Inhibitors
Although coconut contains tyrosinase inhibitors, there are no studies on coconut oil’s effects on pigmentation. While using coconut oil for skin blemishes won’t hurt, you may not see any major effect. However, there are other plant-based products that may be able to help, instead.
The International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences study reported that various Asian teas, including green tea and "inlue flos" tea both have the ability to inhibit tyrosinase. Commonly consumed Asian plants, like turmeric and galangal, also have this property.
A June 2011 study in the journal of Drug Discoveries and Therapeutics also mentioned that other foods and spices, like ginger, lemongrass, key lime, kaffir lime, lemon balm and several types of basil all have anti-tyrosinase properties too.
Unlike coconut, these plants’ abilities to inhibit tyrosinase is well-established, which makes them more likely to reduce blemishes and uneven pigmentation. However, be aware that most of them have not been assessed in human trials, with just a few exceptions.
According to a very small August 2014 study in the Journal of Horticultural Products of Interest for Tropical Regions, turmeric was combined with extra virgin coconut oil to produce skin lightening effects. However, this study reported that it was the effects of turmeric, rather than coconut oil, that was useful in skin lightening and the removal of blemishes. The extra virgin coconut oil was used primarily as a moisturizer and to provide antioxidants.
Similarly, a January 2014 study in the Nasza Dermatologia Online Journal used licorice extract alongside coconut oil and other products to reduce melasma, a melanin-related skin issue that causes patchy discoloration. However, again, it wasn't coconut oil included for an uneven skin tone but licorice and other active ingredients.
Other Uses for Coconut Oil
Although using coconut oil for scars and other melanin-related marks isn't likely to be effective, coconut does have other benefits. Coconut milk, cream, water and whole coconut itself are all considered to be nutritious and healthy foods — and coconut oil is considered to be a healthy fat in moderation.
Unfortunately, out of all coconut-based products, coconut oil is likely the unhealthiest to eat. It only contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to other coconut products. It's also full of saturated fats, which are thought to be bad for your health in excess.
If you're consuming coconut oil, you should avoid partially hydrogenated products. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that hydrogenation creates trans fats, which can also be detrimental to your health.
Antioxidant-rich extra virgin coconut oil is the healthiest type of coconut oil you can consume. Just be sure to avoid using high heat, like deep frying, with this type of fat.
- International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences: "A Review on Skin Whitening Property of Plant Extracts"
- Journal of Horticultural Products of Interest for Tropical Regions: "Extra Virgin Coconut Oil (EVCO): Natural Skin Lightening Enhancer With Curcumin"
- Nasza Dermatologia Online Journal: "Formulation of Hypopigmentation Cream and Evaluation of Its Effect on Skin Pigment. Part I: Formulation of the Product"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Coconut Oil"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Is There a Place for Coconut Oil in a Healthy Diet?"