Is coconut oil safe for sensitive skin?

By Joyce Heid
Mar 15, 2024

Is coconut oil safe for sensitive skin? 

The short answer is “it depends”.

You may have noticed more and more skin care products have been extolling the benefits of coconut oil, particularly as a moisturizer that can provide significant hydration. It’s naturally sourced, and is often an ingredient in products used to manage symptoms of eczema.  Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which can have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. So is coconut oil safe for sensitive skin?

SkinSafe Trusted Friend™ Marjorie self-identifies as having dry, sensitive skin. While she has not been diagnosed as having sensitive skin by her dermatologist, there are products she avoids based on her past experiences. “I wanted to try some products containing coconut oil for the moisturizing benefits, but often they just exacerbated the itchiness of my dry skin. I love how some of the products smell beachy, but they didn’t make my skin feel any better.”

This may have been because of the type of coconut oil in the products she was using. As Marjorie mentioned, she was using coconut oil products that had a scent. If a coconut oil product has an aroma, smells like a tropical beverage or reminds you of a day at the beach, chances are it contains what is called “unfractionated coconut oil” or “virgin coconut oil”. This form has a short shelf life, and is a combination of short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain fatty acids.

Fractionated coconut oil, on the other hand, will not have a smell, odor, or taste. It is often a bit more expensive than the coconut oil you would use to cook. This form has had the long-chain fatty acids removed via hydrolysis and steam distillation. In doing so it extends the shelf life of the coconut oil, and it will remain a liquid at room temperature. 

Unfortunately whether or not a product contains fractionated or unfractionated coconut oil may not be easy to identify at first glance. The INCI (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient) is a list of the standardized and internationally accepted names used in the declaration of ingredients on cosmetic and personal care products, and it does not require coconut oil to be identified as fractionated or unfractionated on product ingredients and leave that at the discretion of the manufacturer. 

Fragrance continues to be at the top of the list of the most common causes of contact dermatitis and allergies. Products that contain fragrance do not meet the criteria for the SkinSAFE 100 standard. This does not mean all coconut oil products should be avoided. However, since the ingredient may not be identified as fractionated, SkinSAFE errs on the side of caution with awarding a SkinSAFE 100 designation unless the use of fractionated coconut oil has been verified. 

Mayo Clinic dermatologist James A. Yiannias M.D. explains, “Since companies may not disclose the fractionation process, SkinSAFE takes a conservative approach. Since coconut oil has the protential to contribute fragrance, SkinSAFE categorizes coconut oil as a fragrance, unless the manufacturer has specifically disclosed that the coconut oil used is fractionated.”

If you are a consumer with experiences similar to Marjorie, you do not necessarily have to avoid coconut oil products altogether. Instead, as the saying goes, follow your nose. Begin with reading the labels and looking for unscented coconut oil products, or those labeled fractionated, including those coconut oil products which have received the SkinSAFE 100 rating. 

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