If you’ve ever gotten a severe sunburn, you know just how soothing aloe vera can be. But, have you ever wondered if there’s another natural ingredient that might be more effective? As of late, beauty lovers have been experimenting with coconut oil—an ingredient fantastic for skin hydration but not necessarily proven for after-sun care.
Before diving into coconut oil's efficacy and benefits, let’s get one thing straight: Whether or not you should use a home remedy like coconut oil in the first place solely depends on the level of your burn.
“The most common type of sunburns are superficial burns that cause redness, inflammation, and discomfort,” explains NYC board-certified dermatologist Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose. “When sunburns cause damage to deeper layers of the skin they can lead to blistering and even skin breakdown, if severe.” Fortunately, she says that most sunburns don’t require medical care and can be easily treated at home. “Sunburns warrant medical attention if the burn covers a large surface area of skin, blisters are extensive, pain is not controlled by NSAIDs, or you are having systemic symptoms like fever, headache, nausea, confusion, or fainting,” Murphy-Rose concludes, noting that these side effects are most common with second and third-degree burns. So, Since we’re as eager to find new skincare remedies as you are, we tapped a few of the industry’s top derms for their thoughts on how coconut oil compares to aloe.
Benefits of Coconut Oil For Skin
- Relieves itching and peeling
- Reduces redness
- Speeds up skin recovery (if applied correctly)
- High in fatty acids, so it can be used as an emollient (AKA a skin softener)
- Antimicrobial properties
According to NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Michele Green, coconut oil is great for the skin because it aids in every aspect of a sunburn. From soothing the feel of the burn and lessening the appearance to deeply hydrating skin to repair crisped damage, it’s pretty much a godsend. Of course, it’s only so beneficial if it’s applied with care. More on that below.
Is it Safe to Treat Your Sunburn With Coconut Oil?
Yes, but only at a certain stage of the burn, otherwise it can make things worse. While coconut oil can be notably beneficial for the skin, it’s only a helpful addition to your post-sun skincare routine if it’s applied at the perfect time.
According to Murphy-Rose, all occlusive products, like oils and ointments, should be avoided in the first few days following a sunburn—hence why so many people have historically reached for aloe vera over coconut oil.
The reason you don’t want to apply coconut oil to just-burned skin is that, thanks to its occlusive properties, it can smother the skin and make your burn look and feel even worse. “This is because applying any oil over a fresh sunburn will trap the heat on the surface of your skin,” Green explains. “This can worsen the burn, increase inflammation, and keep your skin hot and red making the healing process take longer.”
Due to the potentially harmful effects of immediately applying coconut oil to burned skin, Murphy-Rose says that you’re better off to stick to non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, paired with aloe vera gel, hydrocortisone cream, and cool compresses until your burn has subsided a bit—which brings us to our next point.
How to Safely Use Coconut Oil For Sunburn
If you can’t shake wanting to slather your skin in coconut oil (it’s hydrating and smells good, after all), simply wait until the burn has cooled down. Depending on the severity of your burn, this could take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. The best way to gauge it is to place your hand (or have a friend place their hand) on your skin and assess whether it’s still radiating more heat than usual. If it doesn’t feel overly warm, you’re good to go.
“Once the skin has cooled, it is time for you to get all the benefits coconut oil has to offer your skin,” Green exclaims. “Using organic coconut oil to soothe sunburn will nourish and energize the skin cells. That will stimulate your body’s healing and repair process to naturally help your skin shed those excess layers of dead cells that make it rough, uneven, dull, and scaly.”
But remember, whatever you do, don’t apply coconut oil to blistered or broken skin—even if it feels cool to the touch. Both Murphy-Rose and Green advise against it given its trapping nature.
Is Coconut Oil Effective at Soothing a Sunburn?
The general consensus is that coconut oil can prove beneficial in superficial sunburns, but shouldn't be considered for anything beyond a first-degree burn—and never before the skin has already cooled itself down.
“Still, I prefer aloe vera in the early phase of a sunburn. It will not occlude skin or trap heat, so it can be used to immediately soothe (and even cool) the skin,” Murphy-Rose says, noting that, once the skin is cooled, she likes to follow it up with a rich moisturizing cream. “[Choosing creams] with ingredients like ceramides, shea butter, oatmeal, and hyaluronic acid to continue soothing and protecting the skin barrier during the shedding process.”
When to Skip the Coconut Oil
We know, we know, we’ve been over this. But let’s be 100% clear. Below are the instances when you should never, ever apply coconut oil for sunburn relief.
- Immediately after you get burned
- While skin still feels hot to the touch
- If there are any blisters in sight
- If it’s anything other than a first-degree burn
“There are many home remedies that can help heal and soothe our skin after a sunburn. It is safe to turn to home remedies when the sunburn is mild and there is no exposed skin under the burn,” Green says. “However, it is recommended that you see a doctor if it is a second or third-degree burn which can cause a high fever or extreme pain, nausea or vomiting, blisters covering a larger area of the body, and yellow drainage leaking from the blisters.”
How Coconut Oil Compares to Aloe Vera for Sunburn Relief
At this point, it’s no secret that aloe vera is the fan-favorite when it comes to sunburn relief. That’s because, according to Green, aloe vera is ripe with antioxidants and antibacterial properties that work together to inhibit the growth of bacteria and promote healing and overall healthier skin. “Aloe vera is also widely known to accelerate the healing of burns—studies have shown that it’s an effective topical treatment for first- and second-degree burns,” she adds. “Aloe vera can be beneficial for the skin as well—it contains enzymes, vitamins A and E, and also anti-inflammatory properties that can help with dry skin, acne (specifically on superficial acne rather than deep or cystic acne), and inflammation.”
Of course, coconut oil is not without benefits. “Coconut oil is a great moisturizer for when you need something that is both soothing and simple,” Green says. “Aloe vera gel and coconut oil are a wonderful natural combo that can be used after a long day in the sun. When aloe vera gel and coconut oil work together the results are amazing, your skin feels soothing, refreshed, and moisturized.”
Remember that home remedies should only be used for mild sunburns (which are the majority of sunburns). If the sunburn is accompanied by severe blistering, a fever, or spans large areas of the body, you should see a physician immediately and skip the home remedies. If you do have a mild sunburn that can be treated at home, coconut oil is considered a safe treatment, but only after the burn has cooled down. If your sunburn is still hot to the touch (or if you have blistering or broken skin), skip the coconut oil, as its occlusive nature can trap heat and delay the healing process. In general, aloe vera is still considered better-suited for healing sunburns faster and more effectively.
Of course, the best thing you could do for your skin (and your sanity, because, honestly, sunburns hurt) is to slather on sunscreen (Murphy-Rose recommends a golf ball-sized serving for your body) with at least SPF 30 every few hours (and even more so if you’re continuously taking a dip in the water). What’s more, you should avoid peak UV hours between 10am and 2pm—your skin will thank you. Doing these simple things will save you from unnecessary pain, bold burn lines, premature aging, and having to decide between coconut oil and aloe vera in the first place.
Varma SR, Sivaprakasam T, Arumugam I, et al. In vitro anti-inflammatory and skin protective properties of Virgin coconut oil. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. 2019 Jan;9(1)5-14. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2017.06.012