Tropical oils, namely palm oil and coconut oil, are widely used in tropical countries for a variety of purposes ranging from cooking to grooming. Although the oils are commonly found in beauty care products (eg, shampoos, conditioners, lotions), they are seen less often in American diets.1

Palm oil is the second most consumed vegetable oil in the world. It comes from the tropical plant, Elaeis guineensis. Palm oil is made up of roughly 50% saturated fat, with the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat being nearly equal. Palm oil is rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin E and beta-carotene.2,3

Coconut oil is made up of more than 90% saturated fats. Most of the saturated fats are of the medium-chain variety, which tend to be quickly used by the body to produce energy, rather than accumulating in fat tissue. Some researchers feel that because of its structure, the saturated fat found in coconut oil is not as damaging as other saturated fats, like those found in animal products.13

Sources

Tropical oils may be found in ingredients of various processed foods, such as candy and baked goods. The oils may also be found in their pure or processed liquid forms and as ingredients in skin and hair care products.

What Is the Scientific Evidence for Tropical Oils?

Tropical oils, like palm oil, have been perceived as unhealthy since they may pose a risk of cardiovascular problems. Palm oil has been known to raise cholesterol levels in people who already have high cholesterol. However, the effect of palm oil on cholesterol levels is apparently not so simple.5 Consuming fresh palm oil may lower the amount of cholesterol made naturally by the body more than other oils, and there is evidence to suggest that palm oil may actually reduce the risk of heart attack and similar cardiovascular events, as well as high blood pressure.2,3,5,7,12

Palm oil’s bad reputation may be due to its unhealthy effects after processing. Palm oil used for cooking is usually processed to an oxidized state. Unlike fresh palm oil, the oxidized version may increase the risk of harm to the liver, lungs, kidneys, reproductive organs, and heart.2,3

Some researchers have suggested that palm oil (particularly a version called red or refined palm oil) may protect against certain cancers and vitamin A deficiency due to its high beta-carotene content.2,3,4,5,8,9,10,12 However, the evidence is not solid enough to recommend red palm oil for individuals at risk for these conditions.

Like palm oil, coconut oil has been shown in some studies to raise cholesterol in people with already high levels.6,17 However, a randomized, double-blind study of 40 obese women also found that dietary supplementation with coconut oil does not increase lipid levels in the blood and even reduces abdominal obesity.18

Although consuming coconut oil may not yield health benefits, topical application has been shown to improve skin and hair conditions. A small, randomized, double-blind controlled trial of 34 patients with xerosis (a skin condition in which the skin is dry, rough, and itchy) found that virgin coconut oil is as effective and safe as mineral oil for moisturizing the skin of adults with mild to moderate xerosis.15

Another small, double-blind, controlled trial found virgin coconut oil to effectively treat atopic dermatitis (a chronic inflammation of the skin) in adults.19

A commercially available repellant containing coconut oil and jojoba (a waxy seed commonly used in cosmetics) is reported to be effective in keeping away mites that cause scabies, an infestation of these small insects in the skin.20

Coconut oil has also been shown to prevent hair damage due to combing compared to other oils, such as mineral and sunflower oils. Researchers believe that its relative high affinity for hair protein and ability to penetrate deep into the hair shaft accounts for coconut oil’s superior performance.16

A study also showed that coconut oil may benefit preterm babies as well. Preterm babies given a coconut oil massage had faster weight gain and growth compared to those given mineral oil massage.14

Safety Issues

Although tropical oils are generally well-tolerated, some individuals may experience abdominal discomfort or bloating after consuming them. Other than local irritation, their topical application is also considered generally safe.