Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/04/2020
Looking for a natural treatment for your acne? If you’ve spent more than a few minutes reading about natural acne treatments online, you’ve no doubt seen recommendations for products that use coconut oil as an ingredient.
Once largely unknown and ignored, coconut oil has become one of the world’s trendiest health foods. Search online for information about coconut oil and you’ll see it described as everything from a vital dietary supplement to a hair treatment, skincare ingredient and cooking oil.
Like other fad foods, not all of the claims made about coconut oil are accurate. In fact, many of them rely on incomplete or unreliable scientific study data, while others don’t draw on any real scientific evidence at all.
Below, we’ve looked at whether or not coconut oil has any real, science-backed benefits as an acne treatment, or whether it’s best ignored in favor of other treatments. We’ve also looked at how acne develops in the first place, as well as the role treatments play in keeping it at bay.
Whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne develop when your pores become blocked due to a buildup of oil and dead skin cells.
Every day, your sebaceous glands release a small amount of natural oil onto your skin. Known as sebum, this oil is designed to protect your skin from the elements, helping you to maintain a natural barrier between the outside and inside of your body.
When your sebaceous glands secrete a normal amount of sebum, your skin is lubricated and protected. But when you start to produce too much sebum, the excess oil can build up inside your pores, causing blockages that develop into whiteheads, blackheads and other pimples.
Sebum production is mostly regulated by your body’s hormone levels, a topic we’ve covered in more detail in our guide to hormonal acne.
A second factor that can contribute to acne breakouts is dead skin. Every day, your body sheds old skin cells and replaces them with new ones — a biological process that’s known as the skin cell turnover cycle.
When too many dead skin cells build up on the surface of your skin, they can block your pores and cause you to break out with whiteheads, blackheads and other types of acne.
All acne breakouts are the result of an increase in oil production due to hormones,, dead skin cells, or both. Of course, genetic factors do play a role in how our bodies respond to these things, but at the root, it’s all about oil and dead skin cells.
The only other factor that can affect your acne is bacteria. If bacteria gets trapped inside a pore that’s blocked by sebum and dead skin cells, it can cause the pore to become inflamed, infected and painful.
This is how cystic acne, the most painful and serious form of acne, develops. This form of acne can leave you with lasting, visible scars, making it important to act quickly if you spot any cystic acne nodules forming on your face.
Acne treatments generally work by either reducing the amount of oil your sebaceous glands release, or by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover cycle.
Treatments like hormonal birth control and spironolactone work by targeting your hormones and suppressing the androgens that make your body produce extra sebum.
Treatments like tretinoin and isotretinoin work by targeting your skin cell turnover cycle, helping your body get rid of old skin cells at a faster pace.
Treatments for infected, cystic acne work by targeting the factors that cause acne to develop in the first place, as well as the bacteria that causes acne to become inflamed. Many healthcare providers treat cystic acne using antibiotics, ranging from clindamycin and tetracycline to more powerful oral medications.
In general, if an acne treatment doesn’t either reduce your production of sebum, speed up your skin cell turnover cycle or directly target bacteria, it’s unlikely to produce any real improvements in your skin.
Like many other natural health cure-alls, the claims made about coconut oil on health websites and blogs aren’t completely consistent.
Some bloggers claim coconut oil works as an acne treatment by moisturizing your skin — a claim that’s half right, half wrong. While coconut oil is a good moisturizing ingredient that does improve skin barrier health, moisturizing is not a first line treatment of acne and may not have any effect on pimples.
Others point to substances like vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are present in coconut oil. While these are useful ingredients for skincare in general, neither are linked to any real, measurable improvements in acne.
Another common claim is that coconut oil has antibacterial benefits, making it a good treatment for inflamed, infected and cystic acne.
Like other acne-related coconut oil claims, this one also isn’t accurate. While the lauric acid in coconut oil may have some antibacterial benefits, lauric acid only accounts for around 50 percent of the total fat content of coconut oil.
Coconut oil also spoils, meaning it’s susceptible to all types of harmful bacteria.
It’s also important to know that the jury is still very much out on lauric acid as a treatment for acne-causing bacteria. While studies show lauric acid might have some antibacterial activity, most data shows that it’s less effective than even mild topical antibiotics like ciprofloxacin.
Overall, there is little evidence that coconut oil has any benefits as a treatment for acne, whether it’s hormonal acne or more serious cystic acne.
In fact, using coconut oil on skin with blackheads, whiteheads and other types of acne may make your acne worse than better.
This is because coconut oil is — get this — oily. When you apply any type of external oil to your skin, you increase the risk of clogged pores, leading to a higher chance of your skin breaking out with acne.
In an interview with Byrdie, dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD pointed out that coconut oil is ranked four on the zero-to-five comedogenicity scale, meaning it’s considered one of the most pore-blocking substances by dermatologists.
In short, coconut oil isn’t just ineffective as an acne treatment, but it also has potential to make you break out with more pimples than normal. If you’re prone to acne or currently going through a breakout, it’s best to add coconut oil to your “avoid” list.
While coconut oil can have real benefits as a moisturizer and cleanser, it’s best avoided if you’re prone to acne breakouts.
Instead, the best treatments for acne are retinoids like tretinoin, antibiotics like clindamycin and hormonal treatments like birth control pills. We’ve covered all of these in more detail below, with information on how each treatment works and why it’s effective for getting rid of acne.
Tretinoin is a topical retinoid that works by increasing the speed at which your body produces new skin cells. This helps you get rid of old, dead skin cells at a faster pace, lowering your risk of dealing with blocked pores.
Studies show that tretinoin produces real, noticeable results for acne, usually after two to three months. Our guide to tretinoin as an acne treatment covers how tretinoin works in more detail, as well as how you can use it to get rid of hormonal acne for good.
Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic. It works by getting rid of the bacteria that can cause pimples to become inflamed and infected, helping you lower your chance of developing inflamed, cystic acne lesions.
While clindamycin doesn’t directly get rid of sebum or dead skin, it’s an important part of treating infected acne. Our guide to clindamycin goes into more detail on how clindamycin works, as well as how you can use it to treat inflamed, infected or cystic acne.
These birth control pills work by reducing your body’s production of hormones like testosterone, which can contribute to oily skin. By making your skin less oily, you’re less likely to get clogged pores and pimples.
Not all birth control pills are effective for treating acne. Our guide to hormonal birth control and acne goes into more detail on how birth control pills work as an acne treatment, as well as the specific pills that are approved by the FDA for improving your skin.
As a general skincare ingredient, coconut oil can have real, science-backed benefits for your skin. Studies show that it can help to protect your skin from sunlight (although remember: it’s not a substitute for sunscreen!), moisturize dry skin and even improve the healing process for some burns when used with compounds like silver sulphadiazine.
However, coconut oil is not an effective treatment for acne and should not be applied to your skin if you’re experiencing an acne breakout. Instead of getting rid of acne, coconut oil is far more likely to make your whiteheads, blackheads and other pimples worse.