PHOTOGRAPH BY YEKO PHOTO STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK
But does coconut oil really deserve to bask in the limelight? Perhaps not: A recent New York Times survey found that while 72% of the American population seems to think coconut oil is healthy, only 37% of nutritionists agree. And as for the research on whether or not the oil can fend off disease? That’s iffy, too.
So before you lather up, pig out, or crack open a jar, find out when to think twice before using.
Watching the scale? Fans of the fatty oil will tell you coconut oil will shrink your waist, but it likely isn’t going to do much. It’s high in calories, says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. Even though coconut oils may seemhealthier than alternatives, at 117 calories per tablespoon, it’s comparable to olive oil.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it—you just don’t want to go overboard. Measure out your portions and be stingy with it to keep calories in check. You usually don’t need much anyway. Even refined coconut oil—which has less of a coconut-y taste—has a distinct flavor in small amounts, says Robyn Youkilis, a healthy cooking expert and author of Go With Your Gut.
“Everything in moderation” holds true for the beloved coconut oil, too. That’s because at 12 g per tablespoon, it’s pretty high in saturated fat, says Gans, and most scientific research still suggests it may up your risk for heart disease or high cholesterol. In fact, the American Heart Association says you should cap your saturated fat intake at 13 g a day. Yikes.
Ever heard of oil pulling? The ancient Ayurvedic practice—which involvesswishing oil in your mouth—is said to promote good dental hygiene and breath. Unfortunately, science disagrees. Research in the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry found that while fluoride and herbal mouth rinses reduced bacteria in the mouth, oil pulling did not. If you’re without a toothbrush for a night, swishing with anything (even water) is better than doing nothing, but coconut oil certainly isn’t the ticket to pearly whites.
Oiling up with coconut oil? Be careful where you rub, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Apply coconut oil only to intact skin.” When it comes into contact with cuts, scrapes, or open wounds, coconut oil can cause skin irritation, redness, and itching, he says. Ouch.
It’s true that coconut oil has some protective effects against UV light, says Zeichner. In fact, some research suggests the SPF power of the oil could be around 8. But repeat after him: “It should not be used in place of traditional sunscreens.” If you want the extra moisture, feel free to lather up before the pool, but always use a broad-spectrum sunblock (which will block both UVA and UVB rays) with at least 30 SPF. And don’t forget to reapply every 2 hours. (Try one of these 5 best mineral sunscreens you can get at a drugstore.)
Coconut oil might be soothing on the skin, but soothing can turn greasy if the oil is not fully rubbed in, says Zeichner. What that means: “If it gets on the tub, it can be dangerous, leading to a slip or fall.” No one wants an emergency in the bathroom, so suds up sans oil. (Check out 5 more things you should never do in the shower.)
“Many people don’t realize that unrefined coconut oil has a much lower smoke point of about 300 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit than refined coconut oil has, which is over 450 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Youkilis. Know which kind you’re using before you start whipping up a meal. You can use unrefined in low-heat baking and light sautéing, says Youkilis, but stick with refined coconut oil for higher-heat cooking, searing, and deep frying, she says.
Fun fact: Coconut oil is a cooling food, says Youkilis. That means while it’s a great, flavorful addition to summer staples, you might want to skip it in the colder months (or on nights when you’re just craving something toasty), she says.