While there has been much hype in the media lately, with wild claims about coconut oil curing everything from cancer to heart disease - with no scientific studies to back them up - I'm not going to jump on that irresponsibly promoted bandwagon. What I will tell you however, is why I like, organic unrefined coconut oil for beauty & personal care products, rather than the industry standard, RBD or Cosmetic Grade coconut oil, and why I think you too should seriously consider the distinction between them. There is a HUGE difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil, and if you're buying personal care items with coconut oil in them, you really need to understand the difference.
A lot – if not most skin care companies use RBD coconut oil. Why? Well, here are a few reasons – price being the primary one:
It can also be hydrogenated and/or fractionated (removing the long-chain fatty acids and thus, liquefying it at room temperature), which is a good reason you shouldn't be eating it. Whether it has been subjected to any of these processing methods or all of them, it has been stripped of its naturally beneficial nutrients and chemically altered.
Hydrogenation – a process by which oil is heated and pressurized while hydrgoen is added in order to liquefy the oil – destroys the carbon bonds and creates trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils, and saturated fats in fully hydrogenated oils. It also destroys most if not all of the good essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other beneficial attributes present in unrefined or "virgin" coconut oil. While the motivation behind this process is to extend shelf life, it does nothing positive for your health...in fact, it is harmful...inside and outside of your body. Most importantly, it is a way to utilize an inferior product, which could not otherwise be used without processing.
You see, the coconut meat used for processing – and hence, used for most beauty/personal care items – is not the same as the coconut meat used in obtaining unrefined or "virgin" coconut oil. It is made from "copra", which is the meat from the coconuts which have fallen from the tree. They are baked in the sun for several days and then chemically treated in the methods outlined above. They have to be chemically treated to be of any use, because they are actually quite disgusting before they reach refinement. If that does nothing for you, maybe this will: The practice of collecting copra and schlepping it sometimes 100+ miles to the refinery is a backbreaking form of slavery in poor countries like the Philippines. Its unhygienic drying practices in such humid environments, sometimes leads to a form of contamination called "aflatoxin", which are poisonous carcinogens produced by certain molds. If you're still not nervous about putting this on your skin, try this on for size: Copra is refined with solvents and hydrochloric acid, which is a highly corrosive and dangerous carcinogen.
All that scary stuff aside, lets talk about how it works on your skin: While the organic, unrefined coconut oil has antimicrobial & antifungal benefits and is packed with skin-loving nutrients like Vitamin E and cancer fighting polyphenols or micronutrients. It has the ability to improve moisture in skin and even help with eczema and other skin related issues. Its small molecules can easily penetrate the skin and provide a trans-dermal delivery of these nutrients which reach your bloodstream, which means that you don't have to risk the dubious and controversial possible cardiovascular perils in order to reap its benefits. RBD coconut oil on the other hand, has been stripped of its micronutrients and antioxidant benefits, so all that is left is its emollient properties...but because of the chemical processing, which changes the molecular structure of the product, it has negligible absorption in comparison to the unrefined version. All the claims of its skin-loving benefits are misleading, and actually referring to the generic name "Coconut Oil" in an ambiguous manner so as not to disclose the truth, that the benefits of "Coconut Oil" do not in fact refer to refined "copra" or RBD coconut oil, but solely to the unrefined, natural oil. Cleverly worded marketing coupled with lax regulations allow you to be deceived by many harmful chemicals lurking in your food & skin care items. If I've sufficiently freaked you out and you'd like to know more about this, a great documentary on the subject is "The Human Experiment", which exposes a lot more than just the coconut industry's little indiscretions. You may never eat again after watching! Actually, it will inspire you to start reading labels and becoming a more informed consumer...so that's a good thing.
While you may not know from the label, whether or not you are buying RBD or Cosmetic Grade coconut oil vs. Organic, Unrefined coconut oil, if it doesn't say "Organic, Unrefined, you can pretty much bet it's the former. Another tell is the addition of "Tocopherol".
While organic, unrefined coconut oil contains a natural preservative and has a shelf life of several years, refined oils require the addition of a preservative to keep the oil from becoming rancid, Tocopherol is used as a preservative in thousands of beauty products...and this should make you nervous. The reason it is used so often is because it's Vitamin E – well, a form of it anyways – so, it ostensibly functions as an antioxidant; skin-conditioning agent as well as a preservative. By telling you about its benefits, it makes their product sound really great, and you trust it to be safe and effective...but not so fast...
Tocopherol is a very complicated thing. It's not as simple as just isolating a molecule from a natural source, It can also be created synthetically, and there are problems with this...for one, you really don't know just by reading the label. One would typically have to inquire with the manufacturer. Rather than repeating a rather complicated dissertation on Vitamin E, I am going to hand this part over to the experts to explain this in more depth. The upshot is, the finished products can contain traces of hydroquinone. According to EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, Hydroquinone is an aromatic organic compound that may be used as an active ingredient in OTC drug and is a possible impurity in pretty much any variation of Tocopherol – of which there are many. It is highly hazardous with health concerns that pertain to cancer, developmental & reproductive toxicity, allergies & immunotoxicity, and non-reproductive organ system toxicity...HOLY CRAP! - really? And there is no way for you to know whether or not the tocopherol in your skin care ingredient has been contaminated. It's a pretty unnerving thing when you think about it. Are you really willing to risk it?
In review, coconut oil in its unrefined state, is very useful in trans-dermal applications. Its small molecules make it absorb into the skin much easier than olive oil. So while I would rather eat olive oil, I wholeheartedly recommend coconut oil for the skin. Its antimicrobial & antibacterial properties have been shown to help with skin problems such as Tinea Versicolor, and Athlete's foot. Anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that unrefined coconut oil also has the ability to ameliorate the severity of Psoriasis, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. It also contains Vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that helps to block free radicals - highly reactive atoms which create cellular damage - along with Vitamin K -which has an anti-inflammatory effect on skin & helps improve dark spots and dark circles under the eyes.
So for the purposes of trans-dermal delivery of nutrients, the benefits of unrefined coconut oil makes the choice between refined and unrefined, a no-brainer. Plus, that lovely tropical scent reminds me of sipping Piña Coladas in a cabana on a beach in Maui.
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