The Craze for Coconut Oil and Its Many Magical, Miracle Uses

What is a new day except a fresh opportunity to discover new uses for coconut oil? From beauty aid to bathtub scrub, oil of coconut will make you prettier, thinner, softer, suppler, and a better lover on account of how it will do all those others things. Soon, it will unlock the mystery of all diseases and the world will shine.

For instance, Lauren Conrad uses coconut oil. Her recent blog post on the wonders of coconut oil is typical of the fawning language and cult-like devotion this once-vilified oil now enjoys:

Years ago, if someone were to tell me that there was one single product that solved dozens of health and beauty woes, I most likely wouldn't have believed them. One product that you can use to cook, moisturize your hair, remove your makeup, and hydrate your skin? Not possible, I would have thought. However, this little miracle does exist. And, unlike many fancy beauty and cooking products out there, it is free of chemicals and 100 percent natural. This wonder is none other than coconut oil.

I use coconut oil every day on my skin, my hair, and even in the kitchen. In fact, most of the time when a friend comes to me asking for a quick fix for a beauty or skin problem, my answer is "just put some coconut oil on it."

It wasn't always this way. Coconut oil was not always the most popular oil in the oilfield. According to a piece in the New York Times from 2011 that picked up on the presence of the stuff in health food stores again, the story goes a little something like this:

The last time I checked, coconut oil was supposed to be the devil himself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard or beef tallow.

Its bad reputation caused a panic at the concession stands back in 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest put out a study claiming that a large movie-theater popcorn, hold the butter, delivered as much saturated fat as six Big Macs. "Theater popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it's been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil," Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the center, a consumer group that focuses on food and nutrition, said at the time.

Turns out, all those hate studies were done on partially hydrogenated coconut oil, according to nutrition sciences professor Thomas Brenna at Cornell. Partially hydrogenated oil not only obliterates the good stuff in coconut oil — antioxidants, fatty acids — it also creates trans fats.

Said Brenna:

"Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn't so bad for you after all."

This is how many nutritionists and scientists talk about coconut oil — it has some good stuff going on, and, hey, turns out, maybe it isn't so bad for you, but research is limited. Saturated fats are not what they were thought to be either, meaning there are some benefits to them, but they should still not comprise more than 6% of your total daily intake, according to the American Heart Association, which says that if you eat 2,000 calories a day, only 120 of those should come from saturated fat. (One tablespoon of coconut oil is 117 calories.)

Regardless, you should know that there is only one rule of coconut oil use: Don't ask the universe what else coconut CAN do, ask if there is anything left coconut oil cannot do. Based on the last few months of coverage by coconut oil advocates, that answer is nothing. This tropical delight apparently has many magical, surprising, genius, beautifying, amazing, previously unknown-to-you uses (including possible treatments for HIV, hair damage, lice, and Alzheimer's). Why buy a $30 serum to minimize fine lines when you can grab an $11 jar of the good stuff and also put it on your popcorn?

Use it to:

Cook

Bake

Remove makeup

Moisturize skin

Treat damaged hair

Clean grime off bathtub

Make a face scrub

Treat eczema/psoriasis/skin fungus

Treat acne

Treat herpes

Take internally as a daily vitamin

Put in coffee (alone or with butter )

Use for oil pulling or swishing

This is not all crazy talk. As for the beauty uses, a number of dermatologists are on board with it as a natural beauty remedy:

Dr. Cynthia Bailey told the LA Times:

Research has shown coconut oil to "hydrate as well as mineral oil and reduce bacterial skin colonization of dangerous Staph aureus infections," says Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a dermatologist in Sebastopol, Calif. Many of her patients prefer chemical-free products, and she has found coconut oil to be effective in treating eczema, dermatitis and skin inflammation. "It's also economical and lasts forever if you keep it in the fridge."

Hippies love it, and they always know first about everything natural. In this post at Wellness Mama documenting 101 uses for coconut oil, we learn that it can be dabbed on any old weird skin thing:

+As a naturally SPF 4 sunscreen

+In homemade lotion recipes

+To get rid of cradle cap on baby- just massage in to head, leave on for a few minutes and gently rinse with a warm wash cloth

+Topically to kill yeast or yeast infections

+As a delicious tropical massage oil

+It's high Lauric acid and MCFA content helps boost metabolism

+A tiny dab rubbed on your hands and then through hair will help get rid of friz

+As an intensive nighttime facial moisturizer

+Mixed with equal parts sugar for a smoothing body scrub (use in the shower)

+Rubbed on lips as a natural chap stick

+Topically, can help skin heal faster after injury or infection

+Directly on the perineum to help heal after birth

+As an incredibly intensive natural conditioner- Rub into dry hair, put a shower cap on and leave for several hours

+On feet to fight athlete's foot or fungus

+In place of Lanolin cream on nursing nipples to sooth irritation (also great for baby!)

But it isn't going to work for everyone. Dermatologists warn that people with acne-prone or very oily skin could find themselves in more trouble, because it might be comedogenic.

As for diet and health: The research on coconut oil for weight loss, according to the Washington Post, involved "modest weight loss in small groups over short periods of time." An examination at WebMD reiterates that most of the praise for coconut oil come from testimonials rather than research:

There is very limited evidence on disease outcomes, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. "All that has been studied well is the impact of coconut oil on cholesterol levels and the findings are intriguing but we still don't know if it is harmful or beneficial," Mozaffarian says.

Neither the American Heart Association (AHA) nor the U.S. government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats. Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7%-10% of calories because it can increase risk for heart disease, according to the AHA and 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

Coconut oil does have an advantage over other fats, though:

Coconut oil contains an unusual blend of short and medium chain fatty acids, primarily lauric (44%) and myristic (16.8%) acids. It is this unusual composition that may offer some health benefits.

And

"Coconut oil is better than butter and trans fats but not as good as liquid vegetable oils," says Penn State University cardiovascular nutrition researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD.

Mozaffarian agrees that coconut oil is better than partially hydrogenated trans fats and possibly animal fats.

Due to this better-than-but-maybe-not-great caution, researchers and nutritionists insist there is not enough data to start telling everyone to take a tablespoon of coconut oil a day. If you're so inclined to start using it, they say, the main thing to keep an eye out for is that if you're going to start adding 14 fat grams and 117 calories a day to your diet, it should be in place of something else. In a piece at the LA Times looking at coconut oil's new image, we learn from the director of nutrition research at Sundown Naturals, Susan Mittesmer, "Coconut oil should never be an addition; it should be a substitution for other saturated fats."

Dr. Mike Fenster, an author, chef and board-certified interventional cardiologist who has read and studied coconut oil research for years, thinks the caution about coconut oil is overboard.

"For 40 years, we've cut saturated fat in our diet and fat overall, and we didn't get the great health we were promised, or the end of the heart disease," he said by phone. He is a big fan of coconut oil's benefits, has written about its uses in cooking, and continues to promote it to patients and readers. He's looked at observational studies of the indigenous people in the South Pacific.

"An incredibly huge portion of the diet is fat (we average 30% daily energy is fat; in some of these island cultures it's up to 40 or 44%), and most of that is derived from coconut oil," he says. "The rates of disease, diabetes, hypertension and strokes, are a fraction of what we see in the modern Western diet."

He has an upcoming book called The Fallacy of the Calorie, which he says will continue the conversation about the fact that "when we fixate too much on caloric value, we ignore the quality of the food."

"Naturally occurring coconut oil is a very good part of a healthful diet and a healthful approach," he says. "When you substitute unhealthy fats (pro-inflammatory, omega-6, polyunsaturated fatty acids found in salad dressings, condiments, baked goods and fast food oils) with healthy fats, you are taking positive steps in the right direction."

He says when it comes to using fats in his diet, he asks two questions: "Does it make food taste great, and is it good for me? The answer to both of those questions with coconut oil is yes." (He also recommends using it as a supplement and explains its benefits in greater detail here.)

As with all trends, best hurry up and use it before it's not trendy anymore, because supposedly almond oil is already the new coconut oil anyway. VITAMIN E IS JUST AS GOOD, someone is already screaming somewhere. AND SLIGHTLY LESS EXPENSIVE.

P.S. Try to get "put the lime in the coconut" out of your head now.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.