There’s a lot of discussion about coconut oil these days and its potential benefits, from a hair conditioner to a natural moisturizer for many skin types.
But what about using coconut oil for acne and cystic acne? We’ve interviewed top experts on this topic, which offer their opinions on whether or not coconut oil works to help alleviate both of these conditions.
Keep in mind that this article is not to be construed as medical care or medical advice. Rather, we are providing you with as much information as possible so you can decide if using coconut oil for acne or cystic acne is right for you.
Let’s begin by discussing the difference between cystic acne and acne, as well as the factors that contribute to both skin conditions. Later on, we’ll offer advice from two dermatologists about the use of coconut oil for acne.
What’s the Difference Between Acne and Cystic Acne?
Cystic acne is a type of acne that has a deep inflammatory component and increased risks for scarring, according to Dr. Kally Papantoniou, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic, laser and surgical dermatology in New York City, Queens and Eastern Long Island.
“Acne generally is more superficial clogged pores, also known as blackheads, and closed pores known as closed comedones,” Dr. Papantoniou explained. “These later form of acne tend to not be scarring, and often respond better to topical treatments.”
Cystic acne is deeper, larger acne blemishes, noted Dr. Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas.
“Most dermatologists consider an acne blemish to be considered cystic once it reaches a diameter greater than 1cm,” Dr. Lain explained. “Cysts are more inflamed and tender than smaller pimples, and are usually more difficult to eradicate.”
What Factors Contribute to the Development of Acne and Cystic Acne?
Acne starts as a tiny blackhead, called a microcomedone, Dr. Lain said. This is when dead skin cells, oil, and debris plug the hair follicle or pore.
Exposure to oxygen in the air causes this plug to oxidize and turn black, hence the term blackhead, Dr. Lain said.
“This plug allows the acne bacteria to proliferate, leading to an immune system response,” he noted. “Inflammation, redness, and swelling ensue and the blackhead forms into a pink to a red pimple. A more exuberant infection and an immune response would result in a pus bump or a pustule.”
According to Dr. Papantoniou, acne is caused by usually a combination of factors including genetics, age, hormones, diet, and stress.
Several examples of how certain practices can also contribute to breakouts are not washing off makeup, touching the face too much, putting a dirty phone on the cheek, and not changing pillowcases regularly.
“Bacteria, accumulated oils, oil production, and dead skin cells all contribute to the formation of acne in our pores,” Dr. Papantoniou said.
Most individuals start to develop acne or cystic acne as teenagers, which we discuss next.
At What Age Does a Person Typically Start to Develop Acne and Cystic Acne?
The majority of people will develop acne and cystic acne in their teen years, according to Dr. Papantoniou.
However there are a good number of people, women especially, that will develop acne later in life, late 20s through the late 40s, she said.
“This is due likely to change in hormones over the decades and other contributing factor, such as diet and lifestyle,” Dr. Papantoniou explained.
It depends on when adolescence starts, but most kids will start to notice small blackheads at around age 9 or10, and the inflammatory acne with puberty, 2 to 3 years later, Dr. Lain noted.
“Of course acne usually arises in girls when they start getting their cycles,” Dr. Lain said.
Acne and cystic acne can affect various parts of the body, which we cover in the next section.
What Parts of the Body Can Acne and Cystic Acne Affect?
It commonly starts in the T-zone on the face (forehead, nose, and chin), and can progress to other areas of the face, chest, back and shoulders, Dr. Lain noted.
“Cystic acne is often found on the chest and back in boys, and along the jawline in girls,” he said.
The most common areas for acne to occur are the face, chest, back, and neck, Dr. Papantoniou said.
“Cystic acne is very commonly seen in the lower face distribution, reflecting the hormonal component to cystic acne,” she noted.
Now that we’ve offered some details about acne and cystic acne, the next sections address whether or not coconut oil can be used to help offset these skin conditions.
Can Coconut Oil Help Treat Acne and Cystic Acne?
Coconut oil that is virgin and not fractionated is composed of fatty acid chains which have natural anti-inflammatory and mild antibacterial action, Dr. Papantoniou said.
“Some people will see improvement with the use of coconut oil on their skin, yet others find it to be pore clogging and may make them prone to breakouts,” she explained.
Dr. Lain noted that coconut oil contains short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which are easily absorbed into the skin.
“One of these fatty acids, called lauric acid, has antibacterial properties, and therefore can help reduce the acne bacteria in the pores,” Dr. Lain said. “Decreasing the infection logically leads to less inflammation, redness, and swelling.”
Can the Properties in Coconut Oil Help Offset Acne and Cystic Acne?
Coconut oil has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties and is also rich in Vitamin E.
According to Dr. Papantoniou, bacteria play a role in the development of acne, which is why many of the acne treatments available target bacteria.
“It is this property of coconut oil that may benefit acne-prone skin,” she said. “Vitamin E is a potent anti-oxidant, and has anti-inflammatory effects on skin, it can also help reduce redness and irritation that accompanies acne breakouts.”
Vitamin E is a potent anti-oxidant and is often combined with Vitamin C in creams meant for rejuvenation, Dr. Lain said.
Alone, it may help reduce free radicals in an acne blemish, thereby shortening the duration of redness and lightening pigmentation, he noted.
“However, studies focusing on Vitamin E application for acne have mixed results, and I am not able to conclude that Vitamin E’s high concentration in coconut oil has any benefit for acne,” Dr. Lain said.
Sometimes, coconut oil can be mixed with other ingredients, which we address in the next section.
Can Coconut Oil Be Mixed with Other Ingredients to Treat Acne or Cystic Acne?
Coconut oil provides a great vehicle for applying essential oils such as tea tree oil, which, if used directly, can be very irritating to skin, Dr. Papantoniou said.
To make a mixture, she recommends taking a half a teaspoon of coconut oil, adding 2 to 3 drops of tea tree oil, and applying this to the acne prone areas up to two times per day.
“Aloe vera is water soluble so may not mix well with the coconut oil,” Dr. Papantoniou added. “Other essential oils occasionally used for acne diluted with coconut oil are frankincense and lavender oil – both provide anti-acne properties.”
Dr. Papantoniou further noted that coconut oil can help provide an oil barrier to the skin which helps it maintain healthy hydration levels.
“This speeds the healing process,” she said. “We also know that coconut oil has anti-oxidants which can help with the healing process, and help with the reduction in redness.”
Dr. Lain agreed that the antioxidant effects of coconut oil could help diminish residual inflammation in the skin after a blemish resolves, thereby decreasing redness and pigmentation.
Consuming coconut oil – as opposed to applying it topically – might also help, which we discuss next.
Can Consuming Coconut Oil Help Offset Acne or Cystic Acne?
Dietary coconut oil provides healthy fatty acids which can help with the production of healthy skin, Dr. Papantoniou said.
“It is composed 90% of saturated fatty acids that are actually beneficial for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels,” she noted. “A daily intake of 1 to 2 teaspoons, or better yet, to be used as a cooking substitute for another oil or butter, would be sufficient.”
On the flipside, Dr. Lain said it’s unlikely that eating coconut oil can help offset acne.
“Unfortunately, the research is contradictory, with some retrospective studies finding mild health benefits from ingesting coconut oil and others the opposite,” Dr. Lain said.
For those considering using coconut oil topically for acne or cystic acne, the next section briefly explains how to do it, while also offering a warning for those who want to give this a try.
How to Use Coconut Oil for Acne and Cystic Acne
If you want to see if coconut oil can work for you, Dr. Papantoniou recommends applying it in the evening because, as an oil, it can be heavy for daytime use.
“In the evening gently cleanse your skin; if you have an acne regimen or use topical serums apply this next,” Dr. Papantoniou advised.
After several minutes, use 2 pea-size amounts of virgin coconut oil that will liquefy on contact if it’s solid.
“If it is liquid, you can apply 3 to 5 drops with a dropper to your skin and spread over the affected areas,” Dr. Papantoniou explained.
Coconut oil is comedogenic – that is, it can actually lead to the formation of blackheads, especially in people with an oily complexion, Dr. Lain warned.
“I would not recommend this oil as an actual treatment for acne,” he said.
“But if other, more established treatments – such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or adapalene – are being used and are causing dryness, I think a very thin layer of coconut oil may be helpful,” Dr. Lain advised. “I recommend rubbing a small amount between thumb and index finger to warm and liquefy the oil, then apply a thin layer to the face.”
Coconut Oil for Acne and Cystic Acne: The Bottom Line
Dermatologists do not recommend coconut oil as a treatment for acne, according to Dr. Lain.
“Because it is comedogenic, and without solid data supporting its benefit, most would advise people to consider an anti-inflammatory moisturizer that should be applied in limited amounts and only to dry skin,” Dr. Lain said.
However, for those who want to try coconut oil for acne or cystic acne, “I would say stick to the extra virgin coconut oil to avoid contaminants,” Dr. Lain advised.
It’s important to purchase virgin coconut oil that has not been fractionated, Dr. Papantoniou recommended.
“This will ensure that those healthy medium chain fatty acids are present,” she said.
Additionally, Dr. Papantoniou suggests seeing a specialist for help if over-the-counter remedies are not helping.
“And coconut oil may not work for everyone,” she warned. “Some people may actually worsen with use in my experience. This may be due to the oil being too heavy and clogging pores for those who have this type of acne.”
Nevertheless, coconut oil has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, and may be helpful in some cases of acne, Dr. Papantoniou added.
“It is worth trying because it is healthy and inexpensive,” she said.
Was this article helpful? Read more we’ve written on this topic:
- Acne Scars: When Over-the-Counter Treatments Aren’t Cutting It
- Guide to Coconut Oil for Hair: Benefits, Uses, Do’s and Don’ts