Coconut Oil: Your big hairy questions, answered
Updated: Sep 20
Everyone has jumped on the coconut oil bandwagon in recent years, touting it as the perfect thing to slather on your face/toast/hair and virtually anywhere else you can think of. But with the publication of a viral article by a Harvard professor calling coconut oil “pure poison”, is coconut oil really what we have been led to believe?
What is coconut oil?
Harvested from the coconut palm, (cocos nucifera) using methods involving heat, chemicals and/or pressing, coconut oil is definitely edible, but also has numerous other applications ranging from soap-making to industrial lubrication. In 2020, the animal rights organization PETA broke a story about companies using forced monkey labour to pick and harvest coconuts in Thailand. I have included their list of brands of coconut oil that do not use forced monkey labour here.
Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, which prevents the oil from going rancid in warm temperatures, but also makes it one of the less heart-healthy fats to consume. The flavor of extra virgin, unrefined coconut oil is absolutely delicious, but at almost 1,000 calories per quarter cup, 82% of which is saturated fats, coconut oil is definitely meant to be consumed in moderation!
On the good side, virgin coconut oil is rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and long-chain fatty acids, making it better for you than, say, an animal fat like butter or lard – and great for your skin.
What is fractionated coconut oil?
You may have seen this term pop up on hair and body care product labels containing coconut oil. While virgin coconut oil has a distinctive coconutty taste and smell, the fractionation process removes long-chain fatty acids like lauric acid via hydrolysis and steam distillation, in order to make the oil into a liquid at room temperature. This unfortunately destroys the delightful coconut aroma, but liquid coconut oil will of course be lighter and less greasy, penetrate skin better, and mix with other oils and ingredients better, making it a desirable product for use in facial care.
After the fatty acids are removed, what remains? Medium chain fatty acids like caprylic glycol, natural antioxidants, and coconut oil’s many other skin-loving vitamins like A, C, and E, are still retained after the fractionation process.
Cosmetic uses of coconut oil
One of the reasons for coconut oil’s popularity is that it can be used for just about everything – often with minimal human interference! Because the oil is naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial, some people swear by it as the only moisturizer they will use on their face, especially for dry skin (though people with oily skin may find it pore-clogging). Some even use it as a facial cleanser! Coconut oil is also used as a common base for vegan soaps, creating a hard bar which lathers well. As a moisturizer, it can be used on hair and skin as-is; it’s moisturizing, nourishing, and a key ingredient in DIY natural skin care products ranging from deodorant to diaper cream. We love using coconut oil for our natural bath soap as well as in products like melting peppermint foot butter, body scrub and natural bug repellent sticks.
Why is there controversy surrounding coconut oil?
Apart from the concerns around risk of cardiovascular disease from over-consumption of coconut oil, some people are concerned about the environmental impact of coconut oil quite separate from the ethics of how (or by whom) it is harvested. While it may be common knowledge that vast swathes of orangutan-habitat rainforest were cut down in the production of palm oil before widespread controversy brought this practice to light, the truth is that even coconuts are grown and harvested in tropical countries where farmers are often exploited and in turn exploit the land for ever-greater harvests.
Though coconut farms tend to be smaller and aren't supposed to be destroying any new virgin forested areas, there are still potential problems with any product coming from countries whose agricultural and labour regulations differ from ours. Instead of growing a variety of crops, farmers will naturally plant more and more coconuts (monoculture), which is a more lucrative practice than growing a variety of other food crops but takes a toll on the land and on local economies. Also, consider the amount of fossil fuels that are required to ship coconut oil and coconut products from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia to Canada!
How to use coconut oil responsibly
You don’t have to give up the coconut habit altogether to make sure you are using this resource responsibly. Virtually every natural ingredient has its pros and cons and, as with most things, balance is key. Here's what you can do to feel good about using coconut oil:
-Limit consumption of coconut oil to mitigate heart disease risk
-Look for organic, fair trade coconut oil
-Look for cold press, virgin coconut oil whenever possible to limit the chemicals used in extraction and ensure the purity of the oil and its healthy ingredients
-Experiment with other rich oils for hair care, skin care, bath and body care and cooking: sweet almond, hemp and extra-virgin olive oil are great coconut oil alternatives.
So, what’s the deal? Are you hooked on the coconut? Or have you found an even better, more sustainable choice? Let us know!
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