About Coconut Oil: Facts, Benefits and Uses

Raw coconut and liquid coconut oil in bowl with spoon.

What is Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is a natural vegetable oil (or carrier oil) derived from the coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera). When considering what part of the coconut palm is used in making coconut oil, it may be helpful to take a closer look at what a coconut actually is. From the basic name “coconut” many people would assume it is the nut of the coconut palm tree, but that’s not quite true.

Is a coconut a fruit, nut or seed? Well, the answer is all and neither. Technically botanists classify the coconut as a “fibrous one-seeded drupe.” A drupe has 3 layers: an outer layer, a fleshy “fruit” middle layer (also called the “meat” of the coconut), and a hard woody layer that surrounds a seed. Because of the 3 layers and the way the coconut palms germinate, the most basic definitions of fruit, nut and seed can all be used to describe coconuts. (1)

Coconut Botany & Varieties

Although coconut palms (Cocoa nucifera) are called “trees” and look like trees, technically they are what botanists call solitary herbaceous plants. This means that the trunks of coconut palm trees are not made of wood, but of a fibrous stem. (2) When it comes to botanical classification coconut palms are actual giant herbs that happen to grow almost 100 ft (30 m) tall.

A member of the Palmaceae family, C. nucifera takes its species name from Latin phrase “nut-bearing”. Nux (nut) and fero (to bear), (3) even though as we already know the coconut is not actually a nut, fruit or seed, but a drupe. There are two distinct groups of coconut palm varieties from which coconut oil is derived, Dwarf varieties and Tall Varieties. (4)

Coconut trees have 5 distinct parts: The stipe (the fibrous stem often mistakenly called the trunk), a crown of pinnate leaves (palm fronds), bunches of coconuts, and spiked bunches of yellow flowers. The nexus where the palm frond meets the stipe is called the axil and that’s where the flowers and coconuts will sprout. (5)

Parts of the Coconut Palm Tree

  1. Stipe (the fibrous stem)
  2. Pinnate crown (palm fronds)
  3. Coconut Bunches
  4. Yellow flowers
  5. Axils (the nexus of palm frond and stipe)

Dwarf Coconut Palm Varieties

Dwarf palms are generally small in stature, only growing between 16-22 ft (5-7 m) tall and live between 40 and 50 years. Dwarf coconut palms start bearing coconuts earlier than the tall varieties, around the ninth year, and may start producing flowers as early as the third year after planting.

Coconut palms belonging to the dwarf varieties produce small ovoid or round coconuts. Small but mighty, coconuts from dwarf varieties can weigh as little as 3 oz and have a high coconut oil content (about 65%). (6)

Tall Coconut Palm Varieties

As the name implies, tall coconut palms can grow very tall— anywhere between 50 ft (15 m) to almost 100 ft (30 m). Tall variety coconut palms live between 80-90 years and begin to bear coconuts 8-10 years after planting.

The coconuts from these varieties are typically larger, and can vary from a mostly spherical shape to quite oblong. Despite their coconuts being larger, it takes about about 6,000 of these coconuts can yield 1 ton of the copra used for making coconut oil. (7)

The Mysterious Origins of Coconut Oil

Studying the shape and form of biological structures (the morphology method), botanists can deduce where a plant originated and also trace the spread of various crops throughout history. (8) Yet, the exact origins of coconut oil have remained a mystery because the origins of the coconut palm plant is still widely debated today. (9)

Coconuts are different from other crops in that humans have had very little to do with the seed dispersal of coconut palms (10). The floating coconut has a naturally expansive and varied seed dispersal using ocean tides. This has made it difficult for botanists to trace coconut palm plants back to their origins via morphology alone.

According to Kenneth M. Olsen, Ph.D., a plant evolutionary biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, morphology had not yielded answers because humans have a long history of interaction with coconuts and yet there is a lack of apparent universal domestication traits. However, in 2011 Olsen and colleagues uncovered new insights into the history of coconut cultivation using coconut DNA.

From Olsen’s DNA research we know that coconut palms cultivation originated in two separate places: the Pacific basin and the Indian Ocean basin. The structure of coconut DNA also has shed some light on the how coconuts traveled the world with humans from prehistoric times through the colonization of the Americas. (11)

Coconut Palm Cultivation

Coconut palms grow best along sandy shorelines in tropical climates. Along tropical shorelines the soil is typically briny and vegetation is subject to salt spray from ocean. Although coconut palms tend to naturally grow well in salty conditions, salt is not required for cultivating coconuts. Coconut crops can be successfully grown inland as well as on the shore.

Climates which experience regular freezing temperatures are not suitable for coconut crops. Minimum temperature required for growing coconut palms is 72°F, yet germination of seeds is best in temperatures between 90-100°F. In addition to warm temperatures, coconut palms also require 30-50 inches of annual rainfall and direct sunlight (12).

Coconut palm crops can begin to produce coconuts after 5 years, and come to full coconut-producing potential about 15 years after planting. Once they are ripe, the coconuts are harvested and the coconut meat is dried to produce copra, from which coconut oil is extracted. Today the Philippines and Indonesia lead the world in copra production for coconut oil and other coconut products (13).

How is Coconut Oil Made?

After a coconut drupe has reached maturity, the fleshy middle part (coconut meat) is harvested and dried. This is referred to as copra, and that is the part of the coconut that’s used to make coconut oil. (14) Regardless of how coconut oil is made, all coconut oil comes from coconut meat. (15)

In general, coconut oil is made by cold pressing the dried coconut meat (copra) to extract the oils inside. However, different methods of extracting the coconut oil, how the coconut palms are grown, and how the coconut oil is refined (or not refined) result in different types of coconut oil, each with their own properties.

Different Types of Coconut Oil

Raw virgin coconut oil in husk with spoon.

Organic Coconut Oil

Organic means that a plant or crop has been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides. (16) Organic coconut oil has been extracted from the drupes of coconut palm crops that have followed the USDA guidelines for organic farming. Coconut oil labeled “organic” legally must contain minimum 95% organic ingredients (not counting salt and water). (17)

Unrefined or Virgin Coconut Oil

Unrefined coconut oil (also known as virgin coconut oil) has not been chemically treated or changed in any way. Virgin coconut oil has a sweet coconut flavor and is often used in cooking. (18) Unrefined (virgin) coconut oil is also smells like coconut and has a milky white appearance. (19)

Virgin Coconut Oil vs. Extra Virgin Coconut Oil

What is the difference between virgin coconut oil and extra virgin coconut oil? Nothing. Extra virgin and virgin coconut oil are the same thing; simply unrefined coconut oil that has not been changed or chemically altered. The main confusion is likely caused by the actual tangible difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oils. It is likely that the popularity of extra virgin olive oil has led to the “extra virgin” label being attached to simple unrefined coconut oil in marketing efforts. (20)

Fractionated Coconut Oil

Fractionated coconut oil is a natural product made from virgin coconut oil using steam distillation and hydrolysis. After the process is complete, the remaining fractionated coconut oil contains primarily saturated fatty acids and stays in liquid form. (21)

Benefits of Coconut Oil

What is coconut oil good for? Although virgin coconut oil has a variety of applications in cooking and nutrition, some of the best coconut oil benefits are in the field of natural beauty and essential oil aromatherapy. Natural hair care is one of the most common ways the benefits of coconut oil are harnessed for beauty. Coconut oil for skin care is also becoming increasingly popular.

In particular, fractionated coconut oil is good for use in all-natural skin care, DIY natural hair care, and aromatherapy massage.

Benefits of Coconut Oil for Hair

Helps reduce loss of protein: The hair on your head is made of a protein called keratin. (22) The protein fibers of your hair are similar to other fibers like wool, as in they are bundled together to form a single strand. Styling, bleaching, combing and even washing too often can easily damage those protein fibers. (23)

Studies have indicated that using coconut oil for hair can help reduce further damage to hair strands because it helps reduce loss of protein. One of the principal fatty acids in coconut oil is a triglyceride called lauric acid. This particular type of fatty acid has is known to have a high affinity for hair proteins which means it can help them stick around. Lauric acid also has a low molecular weight and straight linear train. These two qualities help coconut oil penetrate deeper than other oils into the hair shaft. (24)

Helps prevent damage by hygral fatigue: Hygral fatigue is the repeated swelling and drying of hair. This is bad because the back and forth can cause weaker hair shafts that are more susceptible to breakage. This is common in naturally curly hair, which is porous and loves to suck in moisture (swelling up) but has a hard time retaining it (drying out). (25) (26)

Filling the gap in porous hair with oil may help prevent hair breakage by keeping out damaging substances and keeping the hair shaft lubricated. (27) Studies using a “time-of-flight” TFO mass spectrometer have suggested that coconut oil may be better at reducing hygral fatigue damage because it’s capable of penetrating the hair shaft better than other oils tested. (28)

Coconut oil & sun protection: Extra exposure to the sun can also contribute to dry damaged hair. Sun damaged hair actually has many similarities to hair that’s been damaged from bleaching. Visible signs of sun damaged hair can include dryness, brittle strands, split ends and sometimes discoloration. (29) Coconut oil by itself isn’t enough to wear as a sunblock to protect your skin, but using coconut oil for hair treatments like a leave-in conditioner can be helpful when spending extra time in the sun as it has been shown to block up to 20% of UV rays. (30)

Summary of Coconut Oil Benefits for Hair

  1. Helps reduce loss of protein in hair.
  2. Helps prevent hair damage from hygral fatigue.
  3. Reduces hair exposure to UV rays by 20%

Benefits of Coconut Oil for Skin

Coconut oil for moisturizing: The top layer of your skin is called the stratum corneum and this layer contains a permeability barrier that controls the movement of water and electrolytes. (31) When the natural skin barrier is disrupted, it doesn’t function as well as it should and the skin can lose moisture by the process of transepidermal water loss. (32)

Emollient moisturizers, like coconut oil, add a protective layer to skin that temporarily enhances the natural skin barrier. Improving the barrier helps your skin stay hydrated by slowing down transepidermal water loss. (33)

Coconut oil for smoother skin: Small cuts, acne lesions and ingrown hairs can be painful and unsightly. Clearing up these minor wounds can help skin look and feel better. Research has indicated that virgin coconut oil may help wounds heal faster and increase collagen and antioxidant levels. (34)

Non-comedogenic: Moisturizing the face can be particularly tricky because you must balance delivering moisture, retaining moisture and not clogging pores. Unfortunately chemical moisturizers and even many of nature’s finest moisturizers are considered comedogenic (meaning they are likely to clog pores) and can lead to unwanted breakouts.

Virgin coconut oil is highly comedogenic which is why it is not generally recommended for use on face. However, individuals prone to breaking out in such areas as the back or shoulders can use fractionated coconut oil on the face or body as a moisturizer because it is considered non-comedogenic.(35)

Summary of Coconut Oil Benefits for Skin

  1. Great for moisturizing
  2. Helps heal wounds
  3. Fractionated coconut oil is non-comedogenic

Fractionated Coconut Oil vs. Virgin Coconut Oil

Unrefined (virgin) coconut oil is composed of free fatty acids known as long chain and medium chain triglycerides. The free fatty acids in virgin coconut oil include: lauric acid (49%), myristic acid (18%), palmitic acid (8%), caprylic acid (8%), capric acid (7%), oleic acid (6%), linoleic acid (2%), and stearic acid (2%).

Fractionated coconut oil is simply coconut oil that has been split apart (into fractions) to isolate the types of fatty acids the oil contains. Specifically the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) which include caproic, caprylic, capric and lauric acid. (36) Coconut oil is fractionated through the process hydrolysis followed by steam distillation. In fractionated coconut oil the long chain fatty acids have been removed and only concentrated medium chain triglycerides remain. (37)

Differences Between Virgin Coconut Oil & Fractionated Coconut Oil

Material state: At room temperature virgin coconut oil is a solid and only becomes liquid when warmed up. Fractionated coconut oil (also known as “liquid coconut oil”) remains a liquid at room temperature. (38)

Color & smell: Virgin coconut oil is milky white and mostly opaque in its solid state (room temperature), but becomes clear when warmed. Fractionated coconut oil is always clear. Virgin coconut oil smells strongly of fresh coconut, while fractionated coconut oil is generally odorless.

Shelf life: Depending on storage methods, virgin coconut oil can last between 6-12 months. If stored properly (in a sealed container kept in a cool, dark place when not being used) fractionated coconut oil can last anywhere from 4-5 years. (39) Or up to 2 years after opening.

Effect on pores: Virgin coconut oil is considered highly comedogenic, which means that it has the potential to clog pores even for people with skin that is not generally prone to breakouts. Is fractionated coconut oil pore clogging? Fractionated coconut oil is categorized as NON-comedogenic, which means it is NOT likely to clog pores and increase breakouts. (40)

Is Fractionated Coconut Oil Natural?

Quality fractionated coconut oil is simply virgin coconut oil that’s been distilled to create a fractionated liquid oil with concentrated medium chain triglycerides. Fractionated coconut oil with just one ingredient (coconut oil) and no added synthetic ingredients or chemicals is a refined natural vegetable oil.

What is Fractionated Coconut Oil Good For?

Art naturals fractionated coconut oil with coconut on yellow background.

Fractionated Coconut Oil for Face & Beauty

Oil cleanser makeup remover: The reason waterproof and/or long lasting makeup stays on all day is because it is generally not water soluble. If it was, sweat would easily cause smearing and smudging. Although these types of makeup are not water soluble, they are easily dissolved by oils. If your usual natural makeup remover isn’t working, fractionated coconut oil may be the answer.

How to use: Using a clean cloth, add a few drops of fractionated coconut oil and wipe away the product. Repeat as needed. If the makeup is really thick or resisting removal, let the oil soak in for a few minutes before wiping and rinsing.

Non-comedogenic face mask substitute: Many DIY face mask recipes require the addition of oil to help blend the mixture for easy application. If you are trying to avoid clogged pores, you can substitute fractionated coconut oil for face treatments that call for oil to be added.

Summary of Fractionated Coconut Oil for Face & Beauty

  1. Oil cleanser makeup remover.
  2. Non-comedogenic face mask substitute.

Fractionated Coconut Oil as a Carrier Oil

Using an essential oil diffuser for aromatherapy dilutes the essential oils using water and dispersing the particles in the air. However, when applying essential oils to your body, you should always dilute them with a carrier oil. The many delightful coconut oil benefits for skin make it a popular choice for aromatherapy oil recipes. However, there are three reasons fractionated coconut oil is the best version of coconut oil to use.

No melting necessary. Unlike virgin coconut oil, fractionated coconut oil is always a liquid, regardless of temperature. This makes it easy to mix, measure and apply via spray bottle.

No coconut aroma. The smell of virgin coconut oil can be overpowering and the truth is some essential oil aromas simply do not smell good mixed with it. Fractionated coconut oil has no aroma of its own so it’s a clean slate for essential oils to shine.

Non-comedogenic massage oil. Even if your back is not prone to breakouts, getting a massage with an oil that clogs your pores can cause a flare up. Fractionated coconut oil provides all the lubrication of other natural oils, but won’t clog your pores.

Summary of Fractionated Coconut Oil as a Carrier Oil

  1. No melting necessary.
  2. No coconut aroma.
  3. Non-comedogenic massage oil.

Coconut Oil Safety & Precautions

Is coconut oil bad for you? According to the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), coconut oil is considered nontoxic and is placed in the Generally Regarded As Safe category by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). (46)

Topical Application of Virgin & Fractionated Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is likely safe for topical application on most adults. (47) Extremely rare cases of people with coconut oil allergies have happened but if you have tree nut allergies, you should speak to your doctor before trying it on your skin. Before using any new product, you should always do a small skin test patch first.

Coconut oil may irritate eyes with contact, but no other concerns have been reported with topical application. (48)(49)(50)

Skincare sun safety warning: UV and UVB radiation can damage skin cells, which can mutate cellular structure and lead to skin cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend using a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 when spending time outdoors. (51) Coconut oil by itself isn’t enough to wear as a sunblock to protect your skin.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the world’s most common cancer. (52) In the United States, with more than 1 million Americans diagnosed with the disease each year. (53)

Consuming Virgin & Fractionated Coconut Oil

We do not recommend consuming or ingesting fractionated coconut oil intended for beauty and cosmetic uses.

Consuming virgin coconut oil is generally safe and is a food staple in many diets and cultures worldwide. However, coconut oil does contain fats that can increase cholesterol levels. People who already have high cholesterol should speak to their physician before consuming any type of coconut oil. Children and pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take coconut oil by mouth as medicine, considering there is not enough reliable information about the safety of this practice. (54)

DIY Fractionated Coconut Oil Recipes

Stay Alert DIY Essential Oil Rollerball

What it does: Essential oils known for creating an energetic mood combined with skin-friendly fractionated coconut oil for an easy-to-apply personal scent. The perfect blend to use when you want to clear your head and focus.

What you’ll need:

  • 2 tbsp fractionated coconut oil
  • Essential oils, 2-3 drops each*:
  • 10 ml roller bottle for essential oils
  • Small funnel (optional)

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in roller bottle. Cap bottle and shake until mixed. Shake before each use, apply as needed.

*For sensitive skin, use only 1-2 drops of each essential oil.

Liquid Coconut Oil DIY Leave-in Conditioner

What it does: Using virgin coconut oil for hair can be tricky, this coconut oil leave-in conditioner is made with fractionated coconut oil for easy application. Enjoy the pleasant aroma of essential oils that promote relaxation and a clear mind.

What you'll need:

Instructions:

  1. Combine all ingredients in spray bottle.
  2. Replace the nozzle and shake until mixed well.
  3. Shake before each use to evenly disperse essential oil ingredients.
  4. Work through hair from ends up to roots.
  5. Repeat daily or as needed.

Fractionated Coconut Oil DIY Face Mask

What it does: Renews and refreshes. Fractionated coconut oil deeply moisturizes skin without clogging pores. Egg white thickens mask and acts as an astringent to tighten skin. (55) Tea tree and peppermint essential oils help reduce bacteria for a fresh deep clean and hydrated feeling. (56)

What you'll need:

Instructions:

  1. Separate the white of one egg and add to bowl.
  2. Whip until fluffy, slowly adding coconut oil and other ingredients.
  3. Apply mixture all over face, avoiding eye contact.
  4. Relax for 30 minutes.
  5. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry.
  6. Repeat weekly.

Disclaimer

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please confirm any information obtained from or through this web site with other sources, and review all information regarding any medical condition or treatment with your physician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on this website.

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