Monday, 18 August 2014

Coconut Oil: Should You Use Virgin or Refined?


Why have I spent all weekend eating coconut oil? No, I'm not pregnant. Neither am I storing fat for winter (not deliberately anyway). Coconut oil is growing in popularity among naturals and I am often asked which oil is best for hair so I decided to do some research (including taste and smell tests) for this post.

First things first; there is no such thing as Extra Virgin Coconut Oil (EVCO). Say what?? Yup. It's true.  All coconut oil is either Virgin or Refined. There is no production standard for EVCO in the same way there is for EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) so although some coconut oils (not local ones) may label themselves Extra Virgin, this is really no more than a marketing ploy and some brands have started changing their labelling as more people cotton on. 

So, is Virgin better than Refined?
I will first explain some common terminologies used by coconut oil producers to the best of my understanding. If I get anything wrong, please feel free to comment:

Raw: This means the oil has not been refined and no additives have been added. No heat has been used during the production. Raw coconut oil should have a mild coconut taste and smell.

coconut oil is solid below 24 degrees centigrade
Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO): This means the oil has not been refined and no additives have been added; heat may or may not have been used during production. Virgin coconut oil will taste and smell of coconut. If heat is used, the oil will have a toasted smell and taste. The more heat, the stronger.

Extraction: The method of removing oil from the coconut flesh. There are two main methods; chemical and physical:

a) Chemical:
A chemical solvent (hexane which is a toxic chemical) is used to dissolve the flesh to remove the oil. This method yields the most oil. High heat is then used on the oil to remove the hexane and make the oil edible. Because of no real regulations in the coconut oil manufacture industry, some producers will rather sneakily label oil that has been chemically extracted as 'virgin' or 'additive free', rather than 'refined', as the hexane is removed after.

b) Physical:

  1. Cold pressed - Technically, there is no such thing as a cold pressed coconut oil. Unlike other seeds or fruit, mechanically pressing fresh coconut flesh doesn't produce oil, it produces coconut milk which then has to be further processed if you want an oil. What you can have is an oil produced from cold pressed milk. Producers often use the words 'cold pressed' as a clever marketing gimmick as in reality, temperatures start from 40 degrees Centigrade and can rise up to 99 degrees due to friction. To be truly cold-pressed, temperatures should be controlled at no more than 49 degrees. (note: for olive oil, the first press is what is known as Extra Virgin - cooking with this will ruin it; use instead raw on salads etc. Second Press is Virgin. Can be used for cooking with low temperatures. Pure Olive Oil is usually refined - not recommended for eating uncooked due to poor taste).
  2. Expeller Pressed - Oil is pressed out of dried coconut flesh using an expeller press. Temperatures can rise very high during expeller pressing. It is possible to cold expeller press as long as temperatures are controlled.
  3. Centrifugal Process - Fresh coconut flesh is first cold-pressed to produce coconut milk. This is also known as wet milling. This milk is then put in a centrifugal machine (think of the spinning drum of a washing machine) which separates the oil from the water. No heat is used. This is the best method for producing virgin coconut oil.

Refined: Often labelled as 'Pure Coconut Oil': This is coconut oil that has been extracted (whether chemically or physically) and then further processed by:
  • bleaching using clay to remove impurities which usually arise when drying the flesh. 
  • deodorising using high heat to remove the coconut smell and taste and make it less sensitive to light.
  • Sodium Hydroxide is usually added to prolong shelf life
  • The oil may also be partially hydrogenated, turning it into a trans fat.
Refined coconut oil is usually very white and has no taste or odour. It is usually edible and is the most common coconut oil found on Western shelves. It generally has a long shelf life and is often cheaper than VCO.

Copra: Dried coconut flesh used most often in the manufacture of refined coconut oil. It is often dried over a period of about a week and different drying methods (sun, chemical, kiln) and unhygienic handling lead to varying amounts of dirt, mold or decomposition, bacteria and contamination from animals and insects. Oil made from copra needs to be refined to remove these. Some virgin oil producers grate the coconut flesh straight after opening then dry it quickly in a kiln to reduce the likelihood of contamination.

sun dried copra

Refined coconut oil has had most of the nutrients and antioxidants removed so although this has no external impact on hair, if you also eat your oil, you should use virgin oil as much as possible. That said, refined oil retains the same number of fatty acids as virgin oil and as far as external application to hair is concerned, this is the most important factor. The fatty acids are what make coconut oil so good for our hair so because these aren't affected, refined oil works just as well on hair as virgin oil! (as long as no additional chemicals or fragrances other than those named above were used in the refining process). 

Surprised? So was I. See my next post for my ranking of locally available coconut oils.



  1. Yes, its surprising! I also have the habit of tasting my coconut oil when mixing butters coz the smell just gets to me. Quite informative!

  2. Wow! I have been educated! So in terms of products who actually produces the best coconut oil for hair, face and body?

  3. Very informative piece. Thanks.