MCT Oil for Skincare


Plant oils like coconut oil, rosehip oil, and argan oil are popular natural ingredients for topical skincare. MCT oil, riding on the heels of the ketogenic diet, is the latest nutritional fad. But can topical MCT oil also offer benefits for your skin?

What is MCT oil?

MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, or in other words, a triglyceride constructed of medium-chain fatty acids. All oils are composed of triglycerides.

A triglyceride is a glycerol backbone attached to three fatty acids. A fatty acid is a long carbon chain with a carboxylic acid head.

The fatty acids themselves can differ, depending on the length of the carbon chain, and the number and location of double bonds. This is why different oils (for example, coconut oil versus olive oil) have different properties and uses.

MCT oil is composed of triglycerides that are made up of medium-chain fatty acids, which means 6 to 12 carbons. These fatty acids are fully saturated, meaning they have no double bonds (denoted by the zero following the carbon number).

Carbon Chain Systematic Name Common Name
6:0 Hexanoic acid Caproic acid
8:0 Octanoic acid Caprylic acid
10:0 Decanoic acid Capric acid
12:0 Dodecanoic acid Lauric acid

MCT oil versus coconut oil

MCT oil is often conflated with coconut oil. There is significant overlap in the chemical makeup of coconut oil and MCT oil, as well as some important differences.

This is important because a lot of what we can hypothesize about MCT oil for the skin – in the absence of clinical trials – comes from what we know about coconut oil. So, let’s first clarify the similarities and differences between coconut oil and MCT oil.

Although coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides, it also contains a significant portion of longer chain fatty acids, like myristic acid (14:0) and palmitic acid (16:0). Within the fraction of medium chain fatty acids, coconut oil also contains a disproportionately high amount of lauric acid (12:0). Although lauric acid is technically classified as medium-chain, it is metabolized more like the longer-chain fatty acids. This is perhaps more relevant for oral MCT applications, as opposed to topical applications.

There aren’t any plant oils that contain only the medium-chain triglycerides. As such, MCT oil is usually derived from coconut oil or palm kernel oil, which contain a relatively high fraction of medium-chain triglycerides. To obtain just the MCT fraction, the triglycerides in coconut oil need to be hydrolyzed – this is the chemical reaction that allows fatty acids to break off from the triglyceride. The free medium-chain fatty acids, once separated, are again esterified to reform the triglycerides.

MCT oil for skin care

Here are some of the potential benefits of MCT oil for skin care:


Many of the skin-softening and hair-conditioning benefits of coconut oil are attributed to lauric acid. Lauric acid comprises nearly half of coconut oil. As a medium-chain fatty acid, it is retained in the MCT-fractionation of coconut oil, and is even more pure.

Antibacterial action

Furthermore, lauric acid is shown to have more antibacterial activity than benzoyl peroxide, and as such could be beneficial in preventing and treating acne break-outs.

Make-up Removal and Cleansing

Another component of MCT oil is capric/caprylic triglycerides, which can be found in some make-up removers and cleansing balms.


MCT oil may also have the potential to act as a moisturizer. Coconut oil itself is an excellent moisturizer, as it helps to prevent trans-epidermal water loss by sealing the water within the skin.

Will MCT oil cause break-outs?

A common concern with coconut oil is that it may clog pores and trigger acne in some individuals. Although MCT oil may have a lower comedogenicity rating compared to coconut oil, these ratings are notoriously based on unreliable data (such as testing on rabbit ears – which are quite different from human skin). Individuals vary widely in what will and won’t irritate skin, and as such, ingredients need to be tested on an individual basis.

The importance of formulation

We’ve addressed some of the isolated benefits of capric/caprylic triglycerides as well as individual fatty acids, specifically lauric acid.

However, when it comes to cosmetic chemistry, formulation plays a huge role. MCT oil may be chemically more pure than coconut oil, but it still contains multiple different triglycerides. Therefore, we can’t necessarily extrapolate the benefits of capric/caprylic triglycerides to MCT oil itself.

Furthermore, we can’t rely on MCT oil (or plant oils) for the benefits of individual free fatty acids. For example, we talked about some of the antibacterial benefits of lauric acid. However, oils actually contain a very small proportion (less than 1%) of free fatty acids. Most of the fatty acids are bound up as triglycerides, unless the oil begins to go rancid (which we don’t want either).


MCT oil has the potential to act as a skin cleanser and moisturizer, and may even offer some antibacterial activity. As with unpurified plant oils, topical use of MCT oil may vary widely between individuals.

Lab Alley is pleased to provide you with high quality MCT oil for use in skincare formulations. If you have any questions regarding MCT oil, or any of our products, please feel free to contact us for more information.

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