The Chemistry of Coconut Oil
There is no disputing the fact that coconut oil has a long history of safe use as a skin treatment, sun protector and all-round good guy but as I discussed in my article – Would Coconut Oil make a good sunscreen for me – that doesn’t mean that it will suit everyone.
With that in mind I thought it would be wise to look into the chemistry of this oil a little more and find out what (if any) protection coconut oil could offer me.
Oh and I also wanted to find out if the benefits are best gained by slopping it on or eating it as I’m sure there is a difference!
So, here we go!
Coconut oil is classed as a saturated fat because of its chemistry. Saturation (in terms of fat terminology) relates to double bonds and hydrogen which might sound like TOO MUCH INFORMATION for some so I’ll leave it in favour of what the oil looks like and how good or bad it is to eat.
Saturated fats are usually harder than their unsaturated brothers and sisters and were given a bad wrap in the 80′s and onwards after a blanket labelling of them as ‘artery clogging’ – a statement that is partly true.
Commonly used saturated fats include beef tallow, butter, lard, ghee, cream, cottonseed oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil and suet.
The ‘artery clogging’ message was endorsed by manufacturer of unsaturated edible fats who were developing and selling alternatives such as your synthetic spreads, margarines, butter replacements and cooking oils.
The only problem with that being that not all saturated fats are created equal.
In recent years coconut oil has had a revival as the saturated fats it contains have been found to be easily digested, non-clogging and generally highly beneficial. Indeed the type of saturated fats contained in coconut oil are actually fed to new-born babies and the chronically sick to help them thrive. These fats are called Medium Chain Triglycerides or MCT oil for those in the cosmetics industry. Excuse me for being cynical for a moment but maybe the fact that coconut oil’s goodness can’t be patented, owned and therefore cashed-in-on made these facts ‘inconvenient’ back in the day……. So yes Coconut oil is a saturated fat but no, it isn’t particularly ‘bad’ or artery clogging.
But does that saturation make it good or bad for skin?
The fact that the oil is ‘saturated’ doesn’t mean that much for the oil in terms of its ability or not to protect the skin from the sun but what it does mean is that this is a very stable oil. The fact that the chemical backbone of this oil is stable is significant as it means that any other chemical goodies that are present in the oil including antioxidants and vitamins are more likely to remain active and therefore available to do good.
As far as usability and skin feel goes the chemical structure of coconut oil give it a skin-compatible melting point (it goes solid at below 27C but isn’t hard and above that it is a soft, light oil).
Any other interesting components?
The information on the left is a summary of some research that I carried out earlier this year on this topic. Coconut oil does contain a few interesting and skin-active antioxidants which I guess could help the skin to mop up free radicals on/ in the skin arising from excessive sun exposure. The key point that I discovered during my research was that the way that the oil is produced really does matter. The traditional way of preparing what we call ‘virgin’ coconut oil is to take the milk and leave it for a couple of days to ferment. You can try this with ordinary milk left out in the summer and see what happens. You will get some curdling but over time the oil phase and water phase fully split leaving you able to extract them as two separate components. The oily component of this liquid is the virgin coconut oil which is then gently heated to remove any last traces of moisture.
Most cosmetic grade coconut oil is produced from the copra (the meaty stuff) in one of a number of possible ways. It is possible to produce a ‘virgin’ coconut oil from the meat as described by the coconut development board. From what I have read, this process will result in an oil that (for whatever reason) doesn’t have the same sun protective factors as traditionally produced oil. I imagine it is missing one or more of the antioxidants but I haven’t been able to find enough information to validate this plus relationships between chemical components can also matter so the different ways of processing may elicit a more subtle change in the resulting oils chemistry.
The long and short of it is that while coconut oil does seem to contain chemicals with potential ‘sun protective’ or repair qualities the way it is processed matters with the vast majority of commercial oil not prepared in the right way.
So chemically speaking will coconut oil make a good natural sunscreen?
Potentially yes if it has been processed in the right way but finding such oil will be a huge challenge and even then we don’t know what SPF to expect.
And would I be better off eating it rather than sloshing it all over me?
Well, based on the info that I’ve found on the health benefits of MCT oils of which coconut is chocked full then yes I’d say always opt for the eating and only slather it on if the above condition has been met (with regards to processing methods). Edible sunscreen, yummmmmmm.
The next post will look at the theoretical SPF of coconut oil using a labsphere spectrometer.
More about the author: Amanda Foxon-Hill is a consultant Chemist and Science Communicator with over 12 years of experience in the global cosmetics industry. She is a peer-reviewed writer, after dinner speaker and lecturer with the Institute of Personal Care Science. Read more from this author