Like most people in the Real Food community, I LOVE my coconut products: coconut flour, coconut milk, coconut water, coconut butter, coconut chips, and obviously coconut oil. While coconut is no doubt a healthy traditional food, what many do not realize is that it has the potential to negatively affect the skin. This potential occurs whether it is ingested or put on the skin directly. Such a reaction can be especially distressing for those using coconut oil for weight loss efforts.
From what we know of the immune system, it is not adequately developed until the age of two. The foods we are exposed to in childhood are usually foods that will be less problematic later in life. Why? We have already developed the antibodies for our immune system to recognize these foods as safe.
However, we can overexpose ourselves to a particular food our bodies are familiar with. When this occurs, it can start to negatively impact digestion or the immune system. This is a common occurrence for foods that seem to be in everything like dairy and gluten. My point here is that most people did not consume coconut products in their diet growing up. Unless of course they were born in the tropics or are of African or Polynesian decent. Because coconut is a staple of these traditional diets, these people are adapted and can usually tolerate it better.
Dr. Weston Price made this same observation when studying different cultures and their staple foods. The healthy diets he found encompassed a wide variety. Some were almost exclusively meat-based, others fairly low in animal foods. Still others were a balance between the two. Despite the variations, all these cultures were considered healthy. This is why it’s nearly impossible for everyone to thrive off the same “healthy” diet. It is also important to keep in mind when we discover new “super foods”. Some look great on paper, but how each individual reacts will vary greatly. One’s ethnicity can frequently dictate how well they are tolerated.
Within the last year, I have been exclusively focusing on the root cause of acne internally with clients. Topically, I have not given this much thought until recently. I fortunately met with Kimberly Tan, owner and esthetician at skinSALVATION Acne Clinic in San Francisco. This is where I discovered the term comedogenic, which refers to the ability of something to produce or aggravate acne, usually tending to clog pores on a topical level. Products that contain comedogenic ingredients tend to cause pimples for acne prone skin. The gender or nationality of the person does not matter.
Like many terms that are used freely for marketing purposes, products that claim to be “non-comedogenic”, “oil-free”, “dermatologist tested/ approved” are not necessarily free of clogging ingredients. Just like the supplement industry, beauty and personal hygiene products are not regulated. There is no standard or truth to what a company has to comply to on labels. Therefore, like everything else you choose to put in and on your body, understanding what ingredients to look for is vital to know if it is truly acne safe. Just one comedogenic ingredient in a product is enough to cause pimples in someone who is acne prone.
Not everyone is affected by comedogenic ingredients. It depends on a person’s skin, pores and genes, as to the severity of the problem. If you suffer from acne and have addressed other factors such as diet, digestion, hormones and recognizing food sensitivities, then this is something you should consider.
Coconut Oil Scores High as an Acne Aggravating Ingredient
Kimberly Tan has had great success in addressing acne of all types by educating people and of course treating it topically. The right products make a big difference in skin recovery. I am definitely reaping the benefits of this knowledge. For example, I eat what I consider a very high quality, clean and anti-inflammatory diet. Due to my line of work, I am also very aware of other causative factors. Despite this, I still suffer from regular breakouts. The reason remained a mystery until I began to take a closer look at what I was applying to my skin. Even within my “natural” and practically edible products, many contained coconut oil. To my surprise, coconut oil is one of the highest scoring comedogenic ingredients on the comedogenicity scale. This is the case even when consumed in small amounts as coconut oil capsules.
Removing Coconut Oil from Skincare and Diet
I was worried and hesitant at first to give up my precious coconut oil, but wanted to give my skin a fair chance. So, I tossed my makeup, shampoo, toothpaste and any hair care products that contained coconut and any other clogging ingredient. I also took it out of my diet. The good news was I could keep other coconut foods, just not the oil itself. This is because internally the pure oil seems to be the biggest culprit since it is concentrated in the fatty acid that has the clogging ability.
Personally, I feel fine when I consume coconut. With all the health benefits we know it contains, including the antibacterial properties, this was the last thing I suspected that could be causing my stubborn breakouts. It has been only about a month since switching out all my products containing coconut oil and eliminating it from my diet. I have already seen an immediate reduction in my breakouts.
I was curious about the inflammatory effect that coconut oil has internally on the skin. There are many different types of acne that may appear and be different for every person. According to Kimberly Tan:
Eating it [coconut oil] internally may not be causing inflamed acne, but the seeds are still planted, especially for those who are acne prone. These people NEED to stick to an acne free lifestyle to prevent breakouts. Products help to take the seed (which causes follicles to clog) out once diet and acne safe topical products are in place, but it can come back. Planting a seed is the first step to causing a breakout, and is fairly easy to do if exposed to these factors. Even just one exposure can bring acne back.
Coconut Oil and Stubborn Acne
If you have been struggling with getting your breakouts under control, take a look at everything you have been using on your skin. Check for comedogenic ingredients in every product you use. This includes skin care, face wash, moisturizer, masks, shaving cream, toothpaste, lip balms and lipsticks, sunscreen, toner, scrubs, foundation, face powder and any other makeup. When choosing products to buy, make sure that the company discloses a full list of ingredients on the label. This includes both active and inactive ingredients. Check all of them against the comedogenic list before buying.
Eliminate then Reintroduce
Bottom line: Everyone is different. Like changing your diet and cleaning your pantry of junk food, you’ve got to purge any suspect products to get a clean slate to work with. This includes an acne-safe lifestyle and proven non-comedogenic products. Stay with this routine for at least 6 months. After that, you can reintroduce each questionable and untested product (like those with coconut oil) to see if you notice a reaction in your skin. The process is very similar to introducing food sensitivities back into your diet. Make sure the manufacturer does not change the formulation to these acne safe products. Most importantly, be consistent with your actions and always double check ingredients on everything before applying to your face and body. Hair products too, as it will all eventually come in contact with your skin.
Implementing an acne-safe lifestyle will prevent acne from forming internally (anti-inflammatory diet and the right nutrient support), and non-comedogenic products will prevent acne from forming externally.
Healing acne is a whole body approach!
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Carla Hernandez is a Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) who uses nutrition, diet and lifestyle interventions to support physiological mechanisms within the body. She specializes in Digestive Issues, Weight Loss and Skin Conditions.