Can You Use Coconut Oil to Treat a Sunburn?

Summer is the season of sun — and of course, that also means it’s the season of sunburns. We’ve all been there. They make showers unbearable, bra straps pure evil, and usually end with massive peeling. In those moments, you’re looking for relief of any kind. Coconut oil has gotten buzz for its amazing skin benefits — but should you use it to help you treat a sunburn?

“In laboratory studies, coconut oil has been shown to reduce inflammation of the skin and help promote skin barrier repair,” says Rajani Katta, MD, board-certified dermatologist and author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. “I have to emphasize that we only have limited research, so it’s not clear if coconut oil is necessarily better than other moisturizing products that help to repair the skin barrier.”

However, it may not be the best thing to use right after you’ve been burnt. “Coconut oil should not be the first step in healing your skin following a sunburn,” says David Lortscher, MD, board-certified dermatologist and CEO of Curology. “The American Academy of Dermatology recommends putting a cold, damp towel on your skin for relief for 15 minutes a day in conjunction with a cool bath or shower. Stick to a basic routine, cleansing gently with water or a very mild cleanser while your skin recovers.” To help soothe sunburned skin, opt for a moisturizer that contains aloe vera or soy. Also, keep in mind that sunburn causes dehydration, so make sure you are drinking enough water.

If you’re really struggling, you can take further steps to heal your sunburn. “If necessary, use hydrocortisone cream in conjunction with moisturizers to reduce inflammation,” says Michael Kassardjian, DO, board certified dermatologist in Los Angeles. “Avoid using petroleum jelly on a burn as it will trap heat in your skin, leading to further discomfort and a slower recovery. Ibuprofen (Advil) can also help reduce redness and swelling if pain continues.”

Only after you’ve taken the above steps should you reach for coconut oil. “Coconut oil can be applied to the skin as a moisturizer once the sunburn has begun to heal,” says Lortscher. If you’re wondering what type to use, cold-pressed is the best option for sunburns. “Other coconut oils undergo processing methods that destroy some of its beneficial components,” he explains. Look for these buzzwords on the label: ‘organic,’ ‘virgin,’ ‘expeller-pressed’ (under 120 degrees Fahrenheit) or ‘cold-pressed’ (under 210 degrees). Lortscher’s picks are Garden of Life Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, Jason Smoothing Organic Coconut Oil, Anjou Coconut Oil, Dr. Bronner’s Organic Coconut Oil (Unrefined), and Nutiva Organic Virgin Coconut Oil.

To get the most bang for your buck, apply it at just the right time. “It is best to use after a shower or bath when the skin is slightly moist to help trap water and hydrate the skin, but use just a thin layer so your skin can still breath,” Kassardjian says.

While it can’t hurt to try it, there is one exception: If you’re acne prone, you should probably skip it. “Contrary to popular belief, most oils are well-tolerated on acne-prone skin,” Lortscher says. “One exception is coconut oil, which tends to block pores. This may happen slowly and imperceptibly, so if you have sunburn on your face or if you are prone to body acne, coconut oil may not be the best choice.”

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