For many people, part of the allure of coconut oil is its characteristic odor, reminiscent of a tropical paradise and festive, delicious food. But as a general rule, the stronger the scent of a coconut oil, the less pure it is. This is not necessarily a bad thing: coconut oil is so good for you that even impure oils are better than most! But for skin and hair care — particularly for very sensitive or atopic skins, or medically-managed skin conditions — organic, first-cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is the most hypoallergenic.
The Nose Knows.
When virgin coconut oil is harvested quickly, using no heat or chemicals, there is hardly any odor. This method, however, is more expensive as it is slower and less efficient. Heating, the addition of chemicals, and/or other methods of processing, are faster and get more of the oil…but do result in a less-pure oil with a strong scent.
Getting into the chemistry a bit (a very tiny bit, we promise): the natural scent of VCO is due to the presence of lactones. Not all lactones are allergens, and the lactones in VCO are not among those in the sesquiterpene lactone mix (a common allergen and a standard in patch test trays). Still, heating results in an increase in lactones, which is why unheated VCO is safer.
Still…Not All Odorless Coconut Oils Are For Skin
Another type of coconut oil that has little to no scent is RBD (Refined, Bleached, Deodorized) — which, while scentless, is not recommended for skin.
In RBD coconut oil, deodorization is done by vaporization: high heat and pressure to steam off the smell. This completely masks the inherent odor of the raw material, as well as the smell from the outdoor sun or smoke-drying of the older meat. This is because RBD is made from copra or coconut meat that is dried via sun exposure (such as on the sides of roads and highways). The resulting scent is quite strong and can affect cooking, which is a primary purpose of RBD coconut oils. Hence the need to Refine, Bleach and Deodorize copra oil by both pressure and with chemicals: RBD makes the taste of coconut cooking oils more bland/generic, which allows it to be used for a wider range of dishes.
While less ideal than virgin coconut oil, RBD oil is still healthier than corn and other vegetable oils for cooking. Still, while without scent, this treated RBD oil is an irritant and should not be used on the skin.
So, As Long As the Label Says “Virgin Coconut Oil” and The Oil Doesn’t Have a Strong Smell, It’s The Right Oil for Skin, Yes?
Maybe…maybe not. Like so many substances (including honey and wine), when the market learns that a particular quality or certain characteristics fetch a higher price, some manufacturers take advantage and try to fake the desired quality or characteristics using other methods.
Some manufacturers pack and label RBD oils as “virgin coconut oil” for application on skin and/or as an ingredient for topical products. Being scentless and labeled “virgin” is not, therefore, a guarantee that you are actually getting virgin coconut oil.
On the other hand, some VCOs are heat-treated. Heat-treated VCO is, strictly speaking, still “virgin” but it does have a stronger smell. Therefore, a mild scent is not a guarantee either.
Furthermore, adulteration does occur, such as when other oils are mixed into coconut oil or virgin coconut oil to try to recreate the scentless cold-manual product without the costlier cold-manual processing. Because it is now more known that the mildest smell is one sign of no heat and less processing, and because of the higher price that this increasingly popular oil in its purest/least processed form fetches, there now are manufacturers who adulterate VCO with cheaper oils that are refined and have no smell (such as corn or soybean) to lessen the heated coconut oil’s inherent scent.
A better guarantee of purity is if the product is certified organic. The USDA and other country’s organic certifiers have clear regulations regarding organicity and manufacturers/farms are regularly, physically audited by the certifier.
How Hypoallergenic Is Coconut Oil?
A review of medical literature has yet to show reactions reported to organic, unheated, cold-and-first pressed virgin coconut oil.
There are some reports of reactions to RBD coconut oils and some coconut oils processed with allergens (such as with added flavoring or fragrance, or stored in vats with such allergens), but not to pure VCO.
Some reported reactions to RBD coconut oil may also be due to how the oil might be mixed or heated or otherwise processed or stored in vats which are also used for storing or mixing other oils that are allergenic (such as lavender) or other ingredients that are allergens (such as fragrance mixes).
VMV’s virgin coconut oil is certified-organic (important to confirm the absence of fertilizers, insecticides, antibiotics, additives, etc. used in inorganic farming methods), as well as cold-and-first-pressed (why there is no smell). It is prepared within hours of optimum age (the longer a coconut stays out in the sun and heat, the more important antioxidants and phytochemicals are lost, and the more lactones are released). It is pressed entirely manually, without centrifuge, heat or additives, and is stored in vats exclusively used by VMV. As we own the farm, oversee its organic certification, and control the unheated-manual processing, as well as its storage and transport, we can confirm that our VCO never comes into contact with allergens. One of our published studies on it was specifically on its use for atopic skin, and we have since received no reported reactions since its introduction.
1. Santos JER, Villain BJ, Soza AR, Dayrit FM. Analysis of Volatile Organic Compounds in Virgin Coconut Oil and their Sensory Atrtibutes. December 2011. Philippine Journal of Science 140(2).
2. J. S. PaiS. S. Lomanno W. W. Nawar. Effect of heat treatments on the volatile composition of coconut oil. J Americ Oil Chemists’ Society April 1979, 56(4):494-497.