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Coconut Oil

Scientific Name(s): Cocos nucifera L.
Common Name(s): Coconut oil, Copra oil, Palm oil, Virgin coconut oil

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jun 17, 2019.

Clinical Overview

Use

Consumption of coconut oil is promoted for a wide variety of health conditions; however, clinical trials are lacking to substantiate many of these benefits, and excessive consumption may contribute to dyslipidemia. Topical application is recognized as safe and may be effective in managing eczema.

Dosing

Clinical studies to inform therapeutic dosing are lacking.

Contraindications

Contraindications have not yet been identified.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

GI effects (cramping, diarrhea) have been reported.

Toxicology

Coconut oil is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Scientific Family

  • Arecaceae (palm)

Botany

The coconut palm grows in Florida, Hawaii, and North Carolina in the United States, and throughout tropical Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, Africa, and South America. There are 2 main varieties, distinguishable according to height. The tall variety (up to 27 m [90 ft] tall) is slow-growing, producing fruit after 6 to 10 years, while the dwarf tree (9 to 18 m [30 to 60 ft] tall) bears in 4 to 5 years. The coconut drupe weighs around 1.4 kg (3 lb), and like other fruits has 3 layers (the green exocarp, the mesocarp or coir fibers, and endocarp). The fruit endosperm is the white, fleshy "meat" (or "copra") from which the oil is expressed, and the cavity at the center of the drupe is filled with coconut water and air.Duke 2003, USDA 2012

History

The coconut palm provides a source of food throughout the world, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India, and has been widely used in Asian cooking for many centuries. Many therapeutic claims exist, and in the traditional Ayurvedic medical system, the oil is used in hair loss, burns, and heart problems. The tree has been called the "tree of life" and "the fruit of aspiration" and was traditionally offered to the gods at the start of new ventures in India. Coconut water was used as an intravenous fluid in World War II because the pH is consistent with plasma. Today, coconut oil is widely used in cosmetics, as well as in cooking.Burnett 2011, DebMandal 2011, Duke 2003

Chemistry

The white flesh/meat of the coconut consists of approximately 70% coconut oil that is mechanically pressed from the fruit. It can then be further refined, bleached, and deodorized. Other techniques produce hydrogenated coconut oil, coconut acid, hydrogenated coconut acid, and esterification products. Virgin coconut oil is prepared with no heating during the extraction process and the resultant oil does not have the same odor as ordinary coconut oil. By-products of oil production include coconut skim milk and insoluble protein.

Coconut oil is composed mainly of saturated fats (90%), primarily lauric acid and other monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The primary triglycerides include trimyristin, trilaurin, tripalmitin, and tristearin. Medium chain triglycerides of caprylic, capric, and phenolic acids, (eg, caffeic, coumaric, ferulic acids) are also present. Minerals such as iron, phosphorus, and zinc, and vitamins E and K are found in minor amounts. The oil is heat stable and slow to oxidize or turn rancid. Standards have been published for coconut oil.Burnett 2011, DebMandal 2011, DeDea 2012, FAO 2012, Marina 2009, Naik 2012

Uses and Pharmacology

Dermatological

Animal data

Coconut oil is considered safe for use in cosmetic and dermatological preparations, making data from animal studies largely irrelevant.Burnett 2011 Improved wound healing has been demonstrated in rats with applications of virgin coconut oil.Nevin 2010

Clinical data

A randomized clinical study conducted among adults with atopic dermatitis found an improvement in severity scores and a reduction in colonization with Staphyloccous aureus with twice-daily topical application of virgin coconut oil over 4 weeks.Verallo-Rowell 2008 Limited clinical studies support potential therapeutic applications for eczematic conditions in addition to its use in cosmetic preparations.DebMandal 2011

Lipids

Animal data

Older experiments in rats demonstrated harmful effects of coconut oil as a dietary fat.Assunção 2009

Clinical data

Contrary to conventional thinking, limited short-term studies (4 to 12 weeks) suggest that limited ingestion of coconut oil may decrease high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels or at least have no adverse effect on the lipid profile.Assunção 2009, Liau 2011, Vijayakumar 2016 Approximately half the saturated fat content of coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid, giving coconut oil a different profile from other highly saturated fats, such as butter and animal fats; this composition may be potentially responsible for the observation that coconut oil may not be as harmful as other saturated fats.Cunningham 2011, Willett 2011 When compared to sunflower oil in a single-blind randomized trial, the use of coconut oil for cooking did not yield differences in body mass index, body fat percentage, lipid profiles, lipoprotein A, glycosylated hemoglobin, or surrogate markers of endothelial function in patients with coronary artery disease.Vijayakumar 2016

Nervous system effects

Animal data

Induced paw and ear edema were reduced in rats administered topical and oral virgin coconut oil. Granuloma formation was decreased and a reduced writhing response was obtained with similar treatment. The researchers were also able to demonstrate an antipyretic effect on the rats.Intahphuak 2010, Zakaria 2011 Limited animal studies suggest that high fat and ketogenic diets, such as those from a coconut oil−based diet, may exert positive effects on motor neuron disease.ALSUntangled 2012

Clinical data

Clinical studies on coconut oil’s anti-inflammatory or antinociceptive properties are lacking. Coconut oil has been suggested for use as a medical food in the management of Alzheimer disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, dementia, and other diseases of the nervous system; however, clinical trials to substantiate these claims are lacking.DeDea 2012, ALSUntangled 2012 The basis of these claims derive largely from case reports as well as a clinical study of medium-chain triglycerides in patients with Alzheimer disease in which improved cognition scores were found after 90 days of treatment with caprylic acid (marketed as caprylidene in the United States).DeDea 2012

Pesticide poisoning

Coconut oil is reported to be of use in the management of aluminum phosphate pesticide poisoning. The oil is thought to form a protective layer in the gastric mucosa and prevent the absorption of phosphine gas, and may also dilute the hydrochloric acid present, thus slowing the breakdown of the phosphide.Gurjar 2011, Mehrpour 2012

Repellant

In 2013, a 10-week randomized controlled field study in Madagascar documented rapid and significant improvements in tungiasis outcome measures in subjects treated twice daily with a coconut oil-based herbal repellent that includes jojoba oil and aloe vera. Tungiasis is a parasitic sand flea skin disease that can cause significant morbidity in many resource-poor tropical communities. At 2 weeks, the sand flea attack rate was zero and the intensity of infestation as well as the severity scores for acute and chronic tungiasis were significantly decreased. Within 10 weeks, the degree of tungiasis-associated morbidity approached zero.Thielecke 2013

Other uses

Limited studies describe antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antiparasitic applications for coconut oil, as well as use as an insect repellant, dental agent, hepatoprotective, and immunostimulant.Abujazia 2012, DebMandal 2011, Zakaria 2011

Dosing

15 mL/day gradually increased to 60 to 90 mL/day (in divided doses) has been suggested in Alzheimer disease and other diseases of the nervous system; however, clinical trials are lacking to substantiate any benefit, and excessive consumption of coconut oil may contribute to dyslipidemia.Cunningham 2011, DeDea 2012

Pregnancy / Lactation

Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking. Traditional use of ginger in coconut water as an emmenagogue suggests caution is warranted in pregnant women.Duke 2003 A study in pregnant rats found no effect of coconut oil on hematological or metabolic parameters.Nandakumaran 2011

Interactions

Limited information is available on drug interactions.

Adverse Reactions

Consumption of coconut oil can cause adverse GI effects, such as cramping and diarrhea.DeDea 2012 Topical coconut oil is relatively nonallergenic even in pure form.Burnett 2011

The consumption of large quantities of saturated fats, such as those found in coconut oil, is recognized to contribute to dyslipidemia and cardiovascular disease.Cunningham 2011, Komaroff 2006, Willett 2011

Toxicology

In cosmetic products, coconut oil is considered safe for use. Animal toxicology tests suggest coconut oil is nontoxic by ingestion.Burnett 2011 A study in pregnant rats found no effect of coconut oil on hematological or metabolic indices.Nandakumaran 2011

References

Abujazia MA, Muhammad N, Shuid AN, Soelaiman IN. The effects of virgin coconut oil on bone oxidative status in ovariectomised rat. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:525079.22927879
ALSUntangled Group. ALSUntangled 15: coconut oil. Amyotroph Lateral Scler. 2012;13(3):328-330.22471904
Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF, Cabral CR Jr, Florêncio TM. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids. 2009;44(7):593-601.19437058
Burnett CL, Bergfeld WF, Belsito DV, et al. Final report on the safety assessment of Cocos nucifera (coconut) oil and related ingredients. Int J Toxicol. 2011;30(3 suppl):5S-16S.21772024
Cocos nucifera. USDA, NRCS. 2012. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 8 March 2012). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Accessed September 1, 2012.
Cunningham E. Is there science to support claims for coconut oil? J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111(5):786.21515127
DebMandal M, Mandal S. Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): in health promotion and disease prevention. Asian Pac J Trop Med. 2011;4(3):241-247.21771462
DeDea L. Can coconut oil replace caprylidene for Alzheimer disease? JAAPA. 2012;25(8):19.22928270
Duke JA. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2003.
FAO/WHO. Codex Alimentarius: International Food Standards. http://www.codexalimentarius.org/ Accessed September 4, 2012.
Gurjar M, Baronia AK, Azim A, Sharma K. Managing aluminum phosphide poisonings. J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2011;4(3):378-384.21887030
Intahphuak S, Khonsung P, Panthong A. Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil. Pharm Biol. 2010;48(2):151-157.20645831
Komaroff AL. By the way, doctor. I've read recently that organic coconut oil has health benefits. Could coconut oil improve lipid profiles if consumed every day? Harv Health Lett. 2006;31(6):8.16680851
Liau KM, Lee YY, Chen CK, Rasool AH. An open-label pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of virgin coconut oil in reducing visceral adiposity. ISRN Pharmacol. 2011;2011:949686.22164340
Marina AM, Man YB, Nazimah SA, Amin I. Antioxidant capacity and phenolic acids of virgin coconut oil. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2009;60(suppl 2):114-123.19115123
Mehrpour O, Jafarzadeh M, Abdollahi M. A systematic review of aluminium phosphide poisoning. Arh Hig Rada Toksikol. 2012;63(1):61-73.22450207
Naik A, Raghavendra SN, Raghavarao KS. Production of coconut protein powder from coconut wet processing waste and its characterization. Appl Biochem Biotechnol. 2012;167(5):1290-1302.22434355
Nandakumaran M, Angelaki E, Al-Azemi N, Al-Sarraf H, Al-Saleh E. Influence of coconut oil administration on some hematologic and metabolic parameters in pregnant rats. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2011;24(10):1254-1258.21736409
Nevin KG, Rajamohan T. Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2010;23(6):290-297.20523108
Thielecke M, Raharimanga V, Rogier C, Stauss-Grabo M, Richard V, Feldmeier H. Prevention of tungiasis and tungiasis-asoicated morbidity using the plant-based repellent Zanzarin: a randomized, controlled field study in rural Madagascar. PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2013;7(9):e2426.24069481
Verallo-Rowell VM, Dillague KM, Syah-Tjundawan BS. Novel antibacterial and emollient effects of coconut and virgin olive oils in adult atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis. 2008;19(6):308-315.19134433
Vijayakumar M, Vasudevan DM, Sundaram KR, et al. A randomized study of coconut oil versus sunflower oil on cardiovascular risk factors in patients with stable coronary heart disease. Indian Heart J. 2016;68(4):498-506.27543472
Willett WC. Ask the doctor. I have started noticing more coconut oil at the grocery store and have heard it is better for you that a lot of other oils. Is that true? Harv Health Lett. 2011;36(7):7.21702109
Zakaria ZA, Rofiee MS, Somchit MN, et al. Hepatoprotective activity of dried- and fermented-processed virgin coconut oil. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:142739.21318140
Zakaria ZA, Somchit MN, Mat Jais AM, Teh LK, Salleh MZ, Long K. In vivo antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory activities of dried and fermented processed virgin coconut oil. Med Princ Pract. 2011;20(3):231-236.21454992

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This information relates to an herbal, vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplement. This product has not been reviewed by the FDA to determine whether it is safe or effective and is not subject to the quality standards and safety information collection standards that are applicable to most prescription drugs. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to take this product. This information does not endorse this product as safe, effective, or approved for treating any patient or health condition. This is only a brief summary of general information about this product. It does NOT include all information about the possible uses, directions, warnings, precautions, interactions, adverse effects, or risks that may apply to this product. This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your health care provider. You should talk with your health care provider for complete information about the risks and benefits of using this product.

This product may adversely interact with certain health and medical conditions, other prescription and over-the-counter drugs, foods, or other dietary supplements. This product may be unsafe when used before surgery or other medical procedures. It is important to fully inform your doctor about the herbal, vitamins, mineral or any other supplements you are taking before any kind of surgery or medical procedure. With the exception of certain products that are generally recognized as safe in normal quantities, including use of folic acid and prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, this product has not been sufficiently studied to determine whether it is safe to use during pregnancy or nursing or by persons younger than 2 years of age.

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