The ‘how bad is coconut oil’ debate is perennial. The world may or may not consume coconut oil, but virgin coconut oil is now popular in skincare products worldwide. The merits of virgin (unrefined) coconut oil are numerous — it is a moisturiser, rich in antioxidants, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory.
Coconut oil is a relative newcomer to the oil discussion, which olive oil dominated for years. In Kerala, virgin coconut oil has not only been used for skincare, especially for babies and mothers post-partum, but has been used as the base for Ayurvedic preparations.
“The principle is similar to that of salad or raw/uncooked food — that it is good. Anything had raw retains its inherent goodness and the same applies to virgin coconut oil,” says Dr Suja Nair, Ayurveda consultant at Punargeny Ayurveda Clinic, Thrikkakara, Kochi. She says the presence of lauric acid in coconut oil aids immunity, which in turn helps the human body combat infections including certain skin conditions.
Caprylic acid and capric acid, found in coconut, also have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. “The lauric acid found in coconut milk makes it nutritious and palatable,” Suja adds. Caprylic acid is also found in breast milk. Coconut oil as well as virgin coconut oil, is part of many Ayurvedic oils and lehyams.
“Its primary property is cleansing, its natural anti-oxidant profile makes it skin food. The natural vitamin E profile of coconut is very different from store-bought vitamin E,” says Ranjini Krishnan of Body Tree. The team leader with Sahapedia makes artisanal soaps and skincare products, in which virgin coconut oil forms the base.
Ranjini did her homework before she took the plunge into making this range. She uses oil extracted using the cold press method where coconut milk is not heated for oil extraction. The oil is closest to the natural, un-compromised state when it is not heated. Besides the wet milling and cold press techniques, oil is also extracted through fermentation.
When Bengaluru-based Mayura Kadur set up Do Bandar in 2012, she says she was drawing from the experience of people in South India who had been using coconut oil “forever”. She calls it their “hero ingredient,” she extracts oil in-house, using the fermentation technique.
“Coconut oil has always played a big role in skin and hair care, it is not new to us. I would use it as a natural makeup remover, to remove kajal for instance.” Do Bandar has a range of skin care products such as soaps, lip balms, body scrubs and hair oils.
Since it lathers easily, coconut oil is a primary component in soaps. But Ranjini says there is a downside to coconut oil-based soaps—“You cannot make soap only with a base of coconut oil. If used singly in soap, it might strip the body of natural oils.” She uses a combination of three oils in a ratio of 6:3:1, with virgin coconut oil comprising 60%.
Heating brings out the aroma of the oil, and changes its colour. Cold-pressed oil has only a faint smell of coconut and is colourless, making it easy to work with other ingredients and also with people not used to it.
Cooked virgin coconut oil has long been part of the skin care routine of infants and children in Kerala. Thenga ventha velichenna, oil extracted from cooked coconut milk, is the result of an elaborate process. “In the old days, every house had a bharani (ceramic jar) full of ventha velichenna. Post-partum application of this oil reduces stretch marks, and is also good for nursing mothers who develop cracked nipples. You can still nurse the baby, as it has zero side effects if the baby ingests it. It can also be used to treat certain skin conditions,” says Asha Devi Varma, who retails traditionally-made oil under the brand name Sudha Baby Oil. She only uses the first milk that grated coconut yields, “it is the best since it is undiluted.”
Gynaecological and paediatric use aside, she says this cooked, virgin oil is ideal for skin care. “It doesn’t irritate the skin, and is the ideal leave-on.”