Refined Vs. Unrefined Coconut Oil: Heres How to Choose

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

But when it comes to choosing which coconut oil to use, things can get tricky. With terms like refined, unrefined, and virgin on the label you have a few options to choose from.

What’s the difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil?

Whether you’re frying up some noms or looking for a glow-up, here’s how to choose which type of coconut oil is right for you .

Refined vs. unrefined coconut oil: How they’re different

Unrefined (virgin) coconut oil
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“Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” Was Madonna thinking about coconut oil? Perhaps. That’s right, unrefined coconut oil is also known as virgin coconut oil because it’s a less processed product. It’s solely pressed from coconuts.

There are two ways to extract unrefined coconut oil from coconuts:

  • Dry. This technique uses machinery to press the oil out of dried coconut flesh, also known as a copra.
  • Wet. This method can get a little sticky by pressing both coconut milk and coconut oil out of the fresh coconuts then dividing the two.

Most unrefined coconut oils use the wet process. And if you see some unrefined coconut oils labeled as “cold pressed,” it means zero heat was used during the extraction process.

Refined coconut oil

Refined coconut oil undergoes a bit more processing.

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The process starts with pressing dried coconuts. This is somewhat similar to the dry technique used for some unrefined coconut oil. Then, one or all of the following steps occur in the manufacturing process to refine the oil:

Degumming. The crude coconut oil is gently stirred with a degumming agent to remove any gums. The gums can adjust the texture and overall quality of the oil. The oil is then put in water to separate gums from the oil.

Neutralizing. Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is added to the oil. This then creates a soap with free fatty acids in the oil. The oil is then washed again with water, removing the soap and the free fatty acids. The technique reduces the risk of the oil becoming rancid.

Bleaching. The oil is filtered through an activated clay filter. It’s called bleaching, but no bleach is actually involved in the process.

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Deodorizing. The oil is deodorized using heat to remove any coconut smell or taste from the coconut oil.

Which oil is healthier?

Refined and unrefined coconut oil have similar nutritional values. They each have about 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon (about 14 grams). And, they contain similar ratios of MCTs, lauric acids, and saturated and unsaturated fats.

Unrefined, however, may have more nutrients like vitamin E and antioxidants like polyphenols.

If you’re more focused on your diet containing less processed ingredients, you may lean more toward unrefined coconut oil because it isn’t as processed. But, there’s been a long debate whether or not coconut oil is healthy in any form due to its high fat content.

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The American Heart Association suggests against using coconut oil due to its high saturated fat, which can be bad for heart health. But other studies, like the ones in this 2016 review, found coconut oil might protect against several chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Either way the research is mixed, and it’s possible the positive or negative effects are dependent on your genetics and how much coconut oil you eat.

Should you choose refined or unrefined coconut oil?

So, how do you want your coconut oil? Fried? Baked? In the shower as a scrub? On your wet or dry hair? The applications are endless whenever it comes to refined and unrefined coconut oils.

Baking

Refined coconut oil may be your best bet due to its neutral taste that won’t compete with other flavors in your baking recipe.

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But, if you’re feeling a little frisky and want that extra coconut taste (hello, brownies), use unrefined. Unrefined’s lower smoking point won’t affect the baked goodies, so setting the oven at 350°F (177°C) is A-OK!

And, for vegan folks, either type of coconut oil is a lovely alternative to butter. The solid fat is especially perfect for pie crusts !

Cooking

Using refined coconut oil is great for high heat cooking like sautéing and stir- frying (cue the spices!). This oil will allow you to cook at a higher temps.

Unrefined coconut oil can also be used for cooking, but you’ll need to cook low and slow.

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And if you feel like getting even hotter with deep frying, try using an avocado oil instead. It’s smoking point is way higher at 488 to 520°F (253 to 271°C).

Skin and hair

Some tout coconut oil as their best-kept beauty secret for moisturized skin and hair. Either type will work, but you might prefer refined coconut oil if you don’t like the scent.

If you have sensitive skin, unrefined coconut oil might be better since its less processed and potentially more gentle.

Low carb diets and keto

Coconut oil is very popular for those sticking to a low carb, high fat diet like keto. This is because it contains small amounts of fat-burning MCT oil, which you can find in both refined and unrefined coconut oil.

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The MCT goes straight to the liver to be converted into energy. This may help with weight loss by regulating thyroid control and stimulating hormones known for fat metabolism and blood sugar stabilization.

If you’re on a paleo or whole food diet, you might prefer unrefined coconut oil since it’s less processed.

How to buy coconut oil

Whether you choose unrefined or refined coconut oil, there are other considerations when browsing store shelves.

  • Organic. Generally, you don’t need to buy organic because coconuts don’t have significant pesticide residue on them. But, buying certified-organic refined coconut oil means no harmful chemicals were used during the extraction process.
  • Cold-pressed. This just means the coconut oil was processed without heat, making it closer to the original coconut product.
  • Transparency. Read labels and research to avoid suppliers and brands that don’t state the type of coconut oil, how it’s produced, and ways it can be used.

Other coconut oil hacks

Don’t just limit coconut oil to the kitchen. Refined or unrefined coconut oil might have a place in your medicine cabinet for things like:

  • Moisturize. Ditch the lotion and potentially reduce the appearance of stretch marks and cellulite.
  • Style. Use it as a heat protectant prior to heat styling.
  • Deep condition. Use a coconut oil hair mask a few times a month for soft locks (also great for a deep conditioning scalp mask).
  • Reduce dark circles. Coconut oil may reduce inflammation and lighten dark circles.
  • Calm rosacea. Moisturizing is your friend when it comes to rosacea. Coconut oil can be super hydrating.

Bottom line

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All in all, coconut oil can be our friend and pretty beneficial when used correctly. Refined and unrefined coconut oils are pretty much twins when it comes to nutrient profiles, but they’re also very different in how they’re processed.

Refined will have less of a coconut smell with a higher smoke point, while unrefined coconut oil has a bold coconut flavor and smell, lower smoke point, and is less processed.

Take a look at what you want to use your coconut oil for then you’ll be able to decide which to choose from. Make that stir-fry, comb that oil through your hair, the choice is yours.

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