What Are the Different Types of Coconut Oil?

By Liz Thompson in Natural Products

Coconut oil (Cocos nucifera oil) shows up in many personal care and beauty products, such as lip balm, skin moisturizer, and hair conditioner. But shopping for this staple can be confusing.

You've probably noticed the terms "unrefined," "refined," and "virgin" on coconut oil product labels. But what do these terms mean? What are the different types of coconut oil, how do they differ, and which is best? Educating yourself on the nuances of coconut oil products can make shopping much simpler.

Where Does Coconut Oil Come From?

The coconut is quite a versatile fruit. Or is it a nut? Or a seed? Actually, it's all three!

Coconuts, according to the Library of Congress, are one-seeded drupes, otherwise known as dry drupes, which are fruits containing a single seed. Encyclopedia Britannica states that drupes contain a thick middle layer that is sometimes fleshy like a peach, tough like an almond, or fibrous like the coconut.

Milk, "meat" (the white flesh found inside the coconut), water, and, of course, oil can all be obtained from the coconut. What's even more interesting is that all of the components of the coconut come with their own set of benefits.

Let's talk about coconut oil, specifically. Both refined and unrefined types of coconut oil are fatty acid oils obtained from the meat of the coconut. Though they are taken from the same part of the plant, the distinction between them lies in how they are processed.

What are the Different Types of Coconut Oil?

What Are the Different Types of Coconut Oil and How Are They Made?

The two types of coconut oil most commonly spotted on supermarket shelves are refined and unrefined (also called virgin).

Refined coconut oil, as Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains, is usually obtained by machine pressing the dried meat of the coconut, known as "copra." Sometimes, chemicals such as hexane are used to extract the oil. The extracted oil is then heated or steamed to deodorize the oil and put through a filtering process to remove impurities and bacteria. This filtering processing, commonly performed via the use of clay, is why refined coconut oil is often referred to as "refined, bleached, and deodorized" or "RBD" coconut oil.

Unrefined coconut oil is derived from fresh coconut meat. With this process, the meat is cold-pressed or expeller-pressed and separated to produce the oil. Unrefined coconut oil is usually obtained with less intensive heat and does not undergo deodorizing or bleaching. This is why unrefined coconut oil has a fresh coconut taste and aroma and refined coconut oil has a much milder, often imperceptible coconut taste and aroma.

So, what about virgin coconut oil? Unrefined coconut oil and virgin coconut oil are the same thing. When shopping for coconut oil, these two terms may be used interchangeably.

Choosing between Refined vs. Unrefined Coconut Oil

While refined and unrefined coconut oils have similar fatty acid content, a review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition states that the unrefined version contains higher amounts of certain nutrients, such as vitamin E, and other compounds, such as polyphenols. If you are looking for a coconut oil with a higher nutrient value, or if you're concerned about the deodorizing and "bleaching" processing to produce the refined version, you may want to choose unrefined coconut oil. You can always check the coconut oil brand's information online to see if they disclose their processing practices.

Jar of coconut oil with coconuts

Coconut Oil for Personal Care

A study in Jurnal Teknologi (Sciences and Engineering) showed that lotions containing virgin coconut oil had the potential to improve hydration and elasticity in skin. Beyond skin care, coconut oil is also a popular ingredient for hair, as many people enjoy using it as a conditioning treatment.

You may find coconut oil as an ingredient in a variety of natural personal care products. In natural deodorant, it can serve as a fragrance agent, and it may be included as a moisturizer in bar soap and body wash.

The main differences in refined and unrefined coconut oil lie in the processing methods. But there are more subtle differences to take into account, as well, such as taste and aroma. Whichever type you choose, you can feel confident knowing that coconut oil is a naturally derived ingredient with a bounty of benefits.

Learn more about what's in the products you use on the Ingredients from Nature board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest.

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Both refined and unrefined (virgin) coconut oil offer numerous benefits. Whichever you choose, coconut oil can be a great addition to a natural personal care routine.