How Environmentally Friendly Is Coconut Oil?

From shampoo to lipstick, coconut oil is practically everywhere these days.

Coconut oil with fresh coconut half on wooden background
AshaSathees Photography / Getty Images

When it comes to the beauty industry, coconut oil has skyrocketed in popularity due to its natural attributes and broad versatility. Especially among those who prefer to live minimalist lifestyles, a product that proves just as useful in the kitchen cupboard as it does in home beauty treatments seems like a huge win for sustainability.

Coconut oil has gone through its share of ebbs and flows throughout history, however. In the Western world, the product was vilified in the 1950s for its high saturated fat content but rose to popularity again in the early 2010s. Before that, coconut oil had a long history of use in the tropical regions where coconut trees grow, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and India.

Is coconut oil environmentally friendly, though? The claim that coconut oil is the holy grail of sustainable beauty products has been up for debate, especially considering its large transportation footprint and ethical demands. We’ll walk you through everything there is to know about the sustainability of coconut oil in the beauty industry.

Products That Contain Coconut Oil

  • Lip balm and lipstick
  • Bronzer and self-tanning moisturizer
  • Shaving cream and aftershave
  • Bubble bath, soap, shampoo, and conditioner
  • Sunscreen, lotion, and foot cream
  • Face masks, body scrub, face wash, and makeup remover
  • Hair, skin, and nail supplements
  • Deodorant and toothpaste
  • Diaper cream

How Is Coconut Oil Made?

Manufacturing coconut oil in Seychelles
LRPhotographies / Getty Images

While it may be considered a somewhat new product in the West, coconut oil has been used for millennia in the tropical regions where coconut trees are native as both a food ingredient and a cultural element.

European traders first brought the oil over to Europe and the United States in the late 19th century after running across it in India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Polynesia, and Indonesia.

Coconut oil is made by pressing fresh or dried coconut meat (also called the kernel) that’s also used to produce coconut milk and dried coconut flakes. Typically, refined coconut oil uses dried coconut (also called copra) and virgin coconut oil uses fresh, though the terms “virgin” and “extra virgin” aren’t regulated in the same way as olive oil.

Although coconut is cultivated in more than 90 countries, over 83% of the world’s total yield comes from Asia, with Indonesia and the Philippines representing the largest producers and exporters of coconut oil.

There are basically three types of coconut oil: virgin (interchangeable with extra virgin), refined, and partially hydrogenated. Virgin coconut oil can either be expeller-pressed (produced with coconut meat and a machine press using steam or heat) or cold-pressed (produced without heat at a temperature below 120 degrees Fahrenheit).

Refined coconut oil uses the same machine press method on cobra—or dried coconut—before heating and filtering the oil to remove any impurities or bacteria. Because of this process, refined coconut oil is both flavorless and odorless.

With partially hydrogenated coconut oil, the small amount of unsaturated fats naturally present in the coconut oil is charged or combined with hydrogen to extend the shelf life and maintain a solid texture even in warm temperatures.

Environmental Impact of Coconut Oil

Sun drying coconut in Indonesia
by Alfian Widiantono / Getty Images

In general, the main environmental issue associated with coconut cultivation is deforestation. Many of the conversations surrounding the environmental impact of coconut oil compare it to palm oil, which grows in the same tropical regions with important levels of biodiversity.

Although they can still be developed as a single crop in a single area at one time (also known as monoculture, which can disrupt the natural balance of soil by robbing it of its nutrients), coconut trees aren’t associated with the same level of deforestation as palm oil trees.

While oil palm trees tend to produce higher quantities of oil than coconut trees, coconuts generate more products—such as coconut milk, cream, water, and activated charcoal. Coconut trees also grow well with other crops like banana, coffee, and cacao, integrating more naturally with the surrounding environment, whereas palm oil trees don’t mix well with other plants. Coconuts are also harvested by hand rather than gas-guzzling machinery.

Coconut oil extraction, on the other hand, does use industrialized equipment—especially among some of the larger, more conventional brands. Expeller processing often uses a chemical solvent called hexane to separate the coconut from the oil. Hexane is a colorless liquid that has been linked to neurotoxicity in animals (more brands are advertising hexane-free ingredients on their coconut oil labels, however).

Cold extraction methods are generally more environmentally friendly as they don’t require solvents and refining processes, such as deodorizing and bleaching, and require less energy. Some techniques use a low-pressure extraction process, which saves energy while also producing sustainable biomass, like coconut shells and husks that can be reused as fuel.

A 2020 paper in the journal Current Biology made headlines and raised controversy when it suggested that coconut production posed a threat to biodiversity that was five times greater than that of palm oil. According to the report, coconut crops threaten 18.33 species for every 1 million tons of oil produced, while olive oil and palm oil threaten 4.12 and 3.79 species respectively. This countered other views, such as one by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—which, ironically, the paper uses in its research—maintaining that palm oil is associated with more threatened species than any other crop—specifically, almost five times more than coconut oil.

Other researchers deemed the paper misleading since it referred to how many species coconut oil threatened on a per ton basis, dividing the number of species under threat by the quantity of oil produced by the crop annually.

Coconut trees become less productive as they age, and replacing them with newer trees to keep up with demand can negatively affect soil quality and lead to farmers relying more heavily on chemical fertilizers to stay productive.

In 2017, the total global production of coconuts was 60,773,435 tons.

Can Coconut Oil Be Ethically Sourced?

Coconut plantation at Icacos on the tip of the Cedros Peninsula of south west Trinidad
Mark Meredith / Getty Images

It's very common to see coconut oil advertised as "fair trade'' and there's a reason for this. Coconut cultivation has gained a bad reputation for the use of child labor, and in some cases, monkey labor, as well as underpaid workers and illegal land grabs.

According to the United States Department of Labor, coconuts represent one of the major sources of child labor and forced labor in the Philipines, with nearly 45% of the entire working child population (between 5 and 14 years old) condensed to the agriculture industry as a whole.

In 2020, a new PETA Asia investigation discovered that monkeys were still being used to pick coconuts in at least eight major farms in Thailand, all of which were observed abusing or exploiting the animals.

Rather than extensive industrial plantations, the coconut oil industry in Indonesia and the Philippines is primarily made up of small-scale farms, accounting for about 95% of total production in the countries. In the Philippines, coconut smallholder farmers are among the poorest in the country, with 60% living at or below the national poverty line.

The Fair Trade certification helps indicate brands that provide farmers with a liveable wage and use cultivation methods that take environmental sustainability into account. Coconut oil products with Fair Trade practices benefit everyone, since farmers who are being adequately compensated are less likely to use unsustainable means to grow their crops, thereby protecting local biodiversity and nurturing the economy.

The United States-based non-profit Fair Trade USA has a certification program that addresses transparency in the coconut industry at its source.

Other Concerns With Coconut Oil

It’s no secret that food transportation is a growing concern when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. When a product that is primarily produced in a limited number of countries gains immense popularity in other parts of the world—such as people in the United States becoming obsessed with coconut oil produced in Indonesia and the Philippines—it contributes enormously to transportation emissions.

Apart from mere transportation, whether by ship, truck, or plane, coconut oil requires packaging (which can range from glass to plastic) to boost shelf life while it gets from point A to point B.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is organic coconut oil better for the environment?

    Certified organic coconut oil is grown using non-synthetic pesticides and herbicides, which many believe produces more threats to insect populations and contaminates water sources.

  • Is coconut oil sustainable?

    Coconut has the potential to be a much more sustainable alternative to other oils, like palm oil, if the product has been certified as Fair Trade (ethically sourced).

    Currently, there are no global standards for sustainability specifically in the coconut oil industry, though organizations like the Fair Trade Sustainability Alliance and the Rainforest Alliance are beginning to create the framework.