Coconut Oil

Is coconut oil the cure-all remedy many claim it to be?
iStockphoto/ eli_asenova

Gorgeous South Pacific beach bodies. A conspiracy theory. A substance that could help treat deadly viruses. A natural fountain of youth.

The latest James Bond movie? Nope -- the saga of coconut oil.


For one simple substance, coconut oil is pretty impressive. It has natural germ-killing properties, and it can treat a whole host of skin problems. Some people claim it helps patients with more serious problems, from pneumonia to heartburn. It might even go beyond fixing bodies to fixing planets: One green-minded entrepreneur has even figured out a way to make a car fleet run on it -- and get far more miles to the gallon and less engine wear than with corn-based ethanol [source: Zuckerman]. Plus, it's a natural product -- you can put it on your skin, and you can cook with it. What's not to love?

Not so fast -- not everything you've heard about coconut oil is true, and not every claim gives you the whole story. The repeated medicinal use of coconut oil may carry some serious side effects, such as elevated cholesterol and blood lipids. There are some reports and studies that support certain benefits of coconut oil, but in most cases more research is needed to know for sure.

Whatever the case, this article will talk about the many theories associated with coconut oil, from aiding you in weight loss to improving your skin. Let's start by taking a more in-depth tour of the benefits. Read on to discover why some people are nuts for coconut oil.


Coconut Oil Benefits

Some people use coconut oil to treat heartburn and acid reflux. Others claim that coconut oil can also help with weight loss, particularly when the weight is caused by habitual eating. Coconut oil isn't some magical fat solvent; it simply is a fat. Yet multiple coconut-oil users report feeling too full to eat as much as they used to. Even people who are taking the oil for other problems often experience some incidental weight loss.

Some promoters claim that coconut oil can help with hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, which can be a source of weight gain. The Mayo Clinic debunks that claim with a flat "no" [source: Mayo Clinic].


One study found evidence that coconut oil could be used in combination with antibiotics to fight pediatric pneumonia [source: Gordon]. Kids who took the combined therapy recovered more quickly and spent less time in the hospital than did kids who were on antibiotics alone. The researchers speculated that the lauric acid in coconut oil was helping kill off microbes.

Lauric acid is indeed a known antimicrobial agent. That gives coconut oil some interesting properties and some promise for people recovering from viruses. Some Indonesian cultures also use coconut oil to dress wounds [source: Sachs].

Coconut oil also comes with some more dubious claims. These include that it can improve life for those with autism, reduce asthma symptoms and act as a topical ointment for back pain [source: Coconut Oil Cures].

Regardless of whether its other benefits can be proven, coconut oil can be useful for your skin and hair. Like many oils, it's a natural moisturizer. It relieves dryness and associated itching and reduces the appearance of wrinkles. Used as a conditioner, it can help prevent hair breakage, though it's worth noting that this is essentially what all conditioners do.

Weight loss, younger skin, fewer germs? Before you speed to the grocery store, head to the next page to learn about the side effects.


Coconut Oil Side Effects

Effortless weight loss sounds good, but is it really effortless if you're sick to your stomach every day? Nausea and vomiting seem to be common among those who take several daily tablespoons of coconut oil, the recommended medicinal dose among promoters [source: Coconut Connections].

Just one tablespoon of coconut oil has more than 13 grams of fat. Four tablespoons will give you almost the entire U.S. recommended maximum daily intake of fat. And coconut oil has the highest saturated fat of any oil -- 10 times the saturated fat of olive oil, for example. So it may not be surprising that no clinical studies have actually documented a connection between coconut oil and weight loss [source: Mayo Clinic].


Coconut defenders say this doesn't matter for two reasons. First, coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides, which are easier to process than long-chain fatty acids are. Second, they say, the only proof that coconut oil is bad for you comes from a decades-old study that was flawed and used partially hydrogenated oil, which contains trans fats. Most coconut oil on the market now is virgin (cold-pressed) oil [source: Babcock]. Even the defenders of coconut oil warn against consuming non-virgin oil, which is partially hydrogenated.

If the coconut-oil defenders are correct, then great -- coconuts and saturated fat for everyone! But if they're not, then a coconut-oil regimen could do some serious damage to your heart health. And it won't take long to do it. One study found that people on coconut-oil diets showed higher arterial fat just hours after one meal [source: Tsang]. Prominent doctor Andrew Weil notes coconut oil's potentially damaging effects on blood cholesterol and opines that, unless more research can demonstrate its good health effects, you shouldn't use it [source: Weil]. Plus, if all that fat doesn't reduce your total caloric intake, it could actually lead to weight gain [source: Mayo Clinic].

One way to get some benefits from coconut oil without worrying about its cardiac effects is to rub it on your skin. Read on to learn more.


Coconut Oil and Skin Health

Fortunately, you don't have to take coconut oil internally to get some of its most visible -- and best documented -- benefits. Coconut oil can be a great natural remedy for all sorts of skin problems.

Coconut oil is a common ingredient in lotions and moisturizers. You can rub coconut oil into dry skin to combat itchiness and flaking [source: Peterson]. But don't stop there: Coconut oil can help soothe athlete's foot, ringworm, diaper rash and eczema. The same component that makes it antiviral -- lauric acid -- makes it antifungal as well. (The lauric acid dissolves the fatty outer membranes of microbes) [source: Gordon].


Speaking of itches, coconut oil is the main ingredient in chick-chack, a natural remedy against pediculosis, the skin irritation that comes from an infestation of lice. It's more than 90 percent effective at getting rid of lice -- better than many chemical alternatives [source: Guenther].

Many people claim that coconut oil helps alleviate acne. One supplier recommends applying a paste of turmeric (the main spice in curry powder) and coconut oil, which -- even if it doesn't work -- will at least smell really good [source: Acne Resource Center]. Since coconut oil soothes itches and kills microbes, it could at least offer some relief, but there aren't any clinical studies to support this use. One dermatologist notes that for some people, coconut oil could in fact make acne worse [source: Carp].

You might have already seen coconut oil conditioners in the hair care aisle. Some people consider pure coconut oil the world's best conditioner [source: Peterson]. Others claim that rubbing it into your scalp can actually promote hair growth. (That's debatable, although the scalp massage itself might help, depending on whom you ask.) A coconut-oil scalp massage can help treat dandruff. But why stop at the scalp? Many aficionados claim that coconut oil is a fantastic massage oil [source: Minnesota Wellness Directory]. That claim might be worth testing yourself.

Some people think coconut oil could help treat a more serious skin problem, psoriasis. Although many individual users claim it has relieved their symptoms, only one scientific study has been conducted. It measured the effectiveness of coconut oil in conjunction with ultraviolet light therapy. Used this way, the coconut oil did not have a significant effect [source: George].

Does coconut oil have promise as a natural remedy? Sure, but more study is needed. Is it a cure-all? Let's not go nuts.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Babcock, Michael. "The Truth About Coconut Oil." Thai Food & Travel. 2003. (Accessed 3/18/09)
  • Carp, Jonathan, MD. "Coconut Oil and the Skin." My Friend the Dermatologist. September 23, 2007. (Accessed 3/19/09)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Human Nutrition: Triglycerides." (Accessed 3/18/09)
  • George, S.A., Bilsland, D.J., Wainwright, N.J., Ferguson, J. "Failure of Coconut Oil to Accelerate Psoriasis Clearance in Narrow-Band UVB Phototherapy." Abstract at PubMed. (Accessed 3/19/09)
  • Gordon, Serena. "Coconut Oil May Help Fight Childhood Pneumonia." U.S. News. October 30, 2008. (Accessed 3/18/09)
  • Guenther, Ann, MD. "Pediculosis." Medscape: eMedicine from WebMD. November 1, 2007. (Accessed 3/19/09) [registration required; see accompanying screenshot.]
  • Mayo Clinic. "Coconut oil and weight loss." August 13, 2008. (Accessed 3/19/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Coconut oil: can it cure hypothyroidism?" June 18, 2008. (Accessed 3/18/09)
  • Minnesota Wellness Directory. "Coconut Oil." (Accessed 3/19/09)
  • Peterson, Josh. "Condition Your Hair with Coconut Oil, and How." Planet Green. December 2008. (Accessed 3/19/09)
  • Peterson, Josh. "Remedy Dry Skin with Coconut Oil." Planet Green. February 2, 2009. (Accessed 3/19/09)
  • Tsang, Gloria. "Saturated Fat in Coconut Oil is Bad for Your Heart." Health Castle. August 2006. (Accessed 3/18/09)
  • Weil, Andrew, M.D. "Is Coconut Oil Good for You?" (Accessed 3/18/09)
  • Zuckerman, Ethan. "Coconut Crude." Worldchanging. September 22, 2005. (Accessed 3/19/09)