Coconut Oil vs MCT Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis: Which is Better?
Admittedly, dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are tricky to treat. And if you've had either of them, you may be familiar with the frustration of treatment failure, frequent recurrences, and consistent flare-ups.
From antifungal agents and medicated foams to anti-dandruff shampoos and hairsprays—you may feel like you've exhausted your options.
You're not alone, which is why many people have turned to natural remedies to alleviate their symptoms.
Natural remedies for seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff are spiking in popularity. Among the host of natural treatments available, you'll usually find options such as apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, mineral oil, and even olive oil.
If you're well-assimilated into the seb derm community, you've probably heard personal accounts and stories of people using coconut oil or MCT oil to treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. Usually, these reports involve the application of these oils directly to the scalp or affected area.
But should you really be using coconut oil for dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis? Is coconut oil suitable for these skin conditions, or is it an overlooked culprit responsible for notorious flare-ups and symptom aggravation?
The short answer could be a bit surprising: Coconut oil may not actually be suitable for treating dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis. We'll explore the reason behind this and how it compares to MCT oil and other natural remedies.
Table of Contents:
- Dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis Symptoms
- The Malassezia Fungus and Seborrheic Dermatitis
- Types of Coconut Oil
- Coconut Oil Composition
- The Truth About Using Coconut Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff
- What is MCT Oil?
- MCT Oil Composition
- Comparing Coconut Oil and MCT Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis: Is One Safer than the Other?
- How to Use MCT Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis
- Other Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff Treatment Options
Dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis Symptoms
The hallmark symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff are an itchy scalp and skin flakes. While both skin conditions share some similarities, seborrheic dermatitis is usually more severe in nature.
Seborrheic dermatitis can encompass symptoms such as stubborn dandruff, scaling, flaking, and skin inflammation.  Severe, untreated cases may even lead to premature hair loss or bacterial infection. 
You may experience seborrheic dermatitis whether you have oily or dry skin. But this skin ailment tends to affect areas of your body rich in sebaceous glands, such as your scalp, chest, and behind the ears.
Sebaceous glands are oil-producing skin glands that secrete a natural oil known as sebum. This natural oil serves as food and fuel for a fungal species known as Malassezia.
The Malassezia Fungus and Seborrheic Dermatitis
The Malassezia fungus usually is harmless. It is typically found on your scalp, a silent inhabitant with no mischief up its sleeve.
Though scientists can't pinpoint the exact underlying mechanisms behind the development of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, the Malassezia fungus population could play out as one causative factor.
The rapid multiplication and growth of this fungal species can evoke a particular immune response, which, in turn, triggers inflammation and leads to a seborrheic dermatitis flare-up.
Additionally, M. globosa and M. restricta, which are two different species of the Malassezia fungus, predominantly reside in the scalps of patients with dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis. 
This fungus tends to feed on certain types of oils, which is what we'll explore further in this article. You don't want to be unknowingly fueling its growth with these oils.
Types of Coconut Oil
Essentially, there are two main types of coconut oil, which are refined and unrefined coconut oil.
Unrefined coconut oil is also known as virgin coconut oil. The difference between virgin and extra virgin coconut oil could be somewhat surprising—because there isn't any difference between them both at all.
Nonetheless, unrefined coconut oil does differ from its refined counterpart in several aspects. In essence, refined coconut oil undergoes some additional processing steps, whereas the unrefined variation is extracted but undergoes no further processing after that. 
Coconut oil can be found in various skin and hair products, even those labeled as anti-dandruff shampoos.
Coconut Oil Composition
Coconut oil generally comprises several fatty acids, including caprylic acid, capric acid, lauric acid, and palmitic acid.
The fatty acid with the highest percentage (almost 50%) in coconut oil is lauric fatty acid. These are medium-chain fatty acids with a carbon chain length of 12. 
Applying coconut oil to your skin or scalp could be a recipe for disaster. But the science behind it lies in the composition of coconut oil.
The Truth About Using Coconut Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff
You may have heard that coconut oil possesses antimicrobial and antifungal properties and is said to help nurture a healthy fungal scalp microbiome.
While coconut oil may display antimicrobial or antifungal activity against certain microbes, the same cannot be said about the Malassezia fungal species.
Quite the opposite, Malassezia enjoys feeding off fatty acids with a chain length between 11 and 24. And if you recall, the fatty acid with the highest percentage in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has a 12-carbon chain.
That's why lipids such as coconut oil facilitate Malassezia growth and can worsen your seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff.
The bottom line is this: Some people report using coconut oil. According to them, it has helped to eliminate dandruff and treat seborrheic dermatitis symptoms. But many others have reported worsening seborrheic dermatitis flare-ups after coconut oil application to the skin.
That said, when you use coconut oil on your skin and scalp, you're risking flare-ups and symptom aggravation when there are, in fact, other safer oils and remedies available. These options are less likely to be food and fuel for the Malassezia species.
What is MCT Oil?
MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides. These are a type of fat found in coconut and palm kernel oil. It is also present in certain dairy products.
MCT oil is created through a process known as fractionation. During this process, MCT oil is separated from the original oil and then concentrated.
MCT Oil Composition
Before diving deeper into MCT oil's composition, let's first understand what differentiates medium-chain triglycerides from other triglycerides.
In general, there are three main categories of triglycerides. They are divided based on their fatty acid carbon chain length as follows:
Short-chain fatty acids: Less than 6 carbon atoms
Medium-chain fatty acids: Between 6-12 carbons
Long-chain fatty acids: More than 12 carbon atoms
MCT oil is made of 100% MCTs, meaning that the fat molecules present in this type of oil contain fatty acids with a carbon chain length between 6-12.
There are four types of MCTs: 
Caproic acid (6 carbon atoms)
Caprylic acid (8 carbon atoms)
Capric acid (10 carbon atoms)
Lauric acid (12 carbon atoms)
Research suggests that MCTs can bring various health benefits as it possesses impressive antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Because of this, MCT oil is becoming an increasingly popular method of treating seborrheic dermatitis.
Some science-backed benefits of MCT oil include:
Supports weight loss: Some studies suggest that MCT oil supplements may contribute to weight loss by increasing energy expenditure and the oxidation of lipids. 
Supports healthy digestion: Some research has found that an MCT-rich diet can help to improve and regulate the balance of your gut microbiota, and this, in turn, may also aid in the prevention of metabolic diseases .
Fights fungal and bacterial growth: MCT oil displays antimicrobial activity against various species of bacteria and fungi.
Improves hair health: Research discovered that MCT oil can help to protect and reduce damage to hair .
Let's explore the effects of MCT oil on seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff.
Comparing Coconut Oil and MCT Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis: Is One Safer than the Other?
While MCT oil is technically extracted from coconut oil, the two differ largely because of this fact; MCT oil has been purified and concentrated and, thus, only contains medium-chain triglycerides.
MCT oils consist mainly of caprylic acid (around 50–80%) and caproic acid (20–50%). In contrast, the primary fatty acid found in coconut oil is lauric acid.
As mentioned earlier, Malassezia enjoys feeding on fatty acids with a carbon chain length between 11 and 24.
We've also established that coconut oil, with its high lauric acid (12 carbon atoms) content, can fuel Malassezia growth and aggravate symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.
But because caprylic acid (8 carbon atoms) and caproic acid (6 carbon atoms) are the main constituents in MCT oil, it is much less likely to become food and fuel for the fungus.
Thus, MCT oil is considered a safe, natural remedy for Malassezia-related conditions, including dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis.
In fact, the antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties of MCT oil can help reduce the growth of Malassezia and manage symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.
Aside from MCT oil, squalane oil is the only other safe oil for managing seborrheic dermatitis.
Squalane oil consists of hydrocarbons, which are compounds made only of hydrogen and carbon. It's commonly included in various skin care products and is known to have anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties.
Because MCT oil and squalane oil can help to relieve seborrheic dermatitis symptoms without fueling Malassezia growth, we've included these restorative ingredients in our range of products.
How to Use MCT Oil for Seborrheic Dermatitis
If you'd like to use topical MCT oil as a natural remedy for seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
Pick an MCT oil product that does not contain lauric acid. Most MCT oil products generally do not contain any lauric acid, but it's essential to read the label to ensure this is the case.
Opt for MCT oil from a reputable source. Many hair products contain coconut oil (which contains MCTs and lauric acid), making them less safe for Malassezia-prone skin. Ensure the product you purchase does not contain coconut oil or go for pure MCT oil.
We recommend gently massaging a few tablespoons of MCT oil into the affected area. You can leave it in for a few minutes or even overnight before rinsing it off.
If this is your first time using MCT oil on your skin, perform a patch test. To do so, apply the product to a small section of your skin. You can rinse it off after a few minutes or hours, depending on how long you plan to leave the oil in. You can repeat this test daily for a week or so and look for signs of an adverse reaction, such as skin irritation, redness, or itching. You're likely good to go if you don't notice any of these signs!
If you experience worsening symptoms and irritation after using topical MCT oil, it's best to discontinue its use.
MCT oil is also one of the few safe oils that can be utilized as a carrier oil.
Essential oils, such as tea tree oil, peppermint oil, and lavender oil, are examples of essential oils with antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties that can aid in managing seborrheic dermatitis.
However, these pure, undiluted essential oils cannot be applied directly to the skin. They must first be diluted with a suitable carrier oil to reduce the risk of skin irritation upon use. In this case, MCT oil is a safe choice for those with Malassezia-related conditions.
Other Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff Treatment Options
Seeking professional medical advice on tackling your seborrheic dermatitis is the best route to take. However, if you'd like to try other treatment options for seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff, here are some safer alternatives that won't feed the growth of Malassezia (but help to counter it instead).
Before trying any of these remedies, perform a skin patch test first.
Apple cider vinegar
There are many anecdotal reports of success with apple cider vinegar (ACV), which has antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
In fact, one study showed that a mixture of diluted lemon juice and ACV displayed positive results in hampering the growth of Malassezia on the scalp. 
The most common ratio used is one part ACV to four parts water, and this mixture is applied to the affected area or scalp. Be sure to avoid using undiluted ACV on your skin.
One study on manuka honey involved participants who had atopic dermatitis. In the study, manuka honey alleviated the various symptoms related to eczema, such as itching, irritation, and inflammation.  Hence, manuka honey may help soothe some symptoms related to seborrheic dermatitis.
Opt for medical-grade manuka honey, and you may wish to water it down since it has a naturally thick and sticky texture. The diluted mixture can be applied directly to the affected area.
In one study, participants with sensitive skin bathed in dead sea salt solution. They found that the sea salt solution helped reduce skin irritation and improve skin barrier function. 
You can dissolve sea salt in warm water, pour it slowly over the affected region, and gently massage it in. Then, leave it on for a few hours or overnight, depending on what you're comfortable with.
The Calming Seborrheic Serum
Last but not least is a serum crafted with a mix of holistic ingredients. This serum combats seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, and associated symptoms such as scalp irritation, dandruff flakes, and skin inflammation.
It disrupts the Malassezia biofilm, gently yet effectively clears the fungus, and soothes the skin without using lipids that feed the fungus. Ultimately, the Calming Seborrheic Serum reduces flakes, itching, and redness to give your skin much-awaited peace and relief.