Coconut Oil Or Shea Butter? And The Better Moisturizer Is...

We weigh the pros and cons of these single-ingredient skin soothers.

March 24, 2016
coconut oil and shea butter
Anna Ewa Bieniek/shutterstock

You’re looking for a great moisturizer that’s free of artificial fragrances, parabens, and petroleum, but buying a bunch of products to test out can get pricey, so where should you start? Coconut oil and shea butter are two of the most popular ways to naturally hydrate the skin, and there’s no trickery here—just one ingredient, no additives. 

“They’re both emollients, so they’re very good at moisturizing and smoothing skin,” says Sarah King, a naturopath in Toronto. King has suffered from eczema and dry skin all her life, so she knows her way around all the oils, creams, and lotions on the market. When it comes to coconut oil and shea butter, she says both are good options, but they do have some distinct differences. We put them through a side-by-side comparison. 


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Coconut Oil

Pros: Coconut oil has antimicrobial properties, so it’ll help if you’re suffering from any type of fungal infection. It’s also great at keeping moisture from escaping (though not as efficient as heavier oils, like olive or avocado).

Cons: If you’ve got acne, coconut oil may make things worse since it’s so greasy. Be careful not to over apply, warns King, since it can build up on skin and cause blockages. When it comes to coconut oil, less is more.

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Shea Butter

Pros: Shea butter, which is a fat derived from the seed of the shea tree, has a slightly deeper moisturizing effect compared with coconut oil, says King. Even better, it’s anti-inflammatory, so it does a superior job of calming irritated skin. King also finds that it helps heal abrasions or wounds—like if your arms get scratched up in a thorny patch of raspberries.

Cons: None, unless you’re allergic.

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The Final Verdict

Shea butter is the winner but only by a hair. “I love them both,” King says, but shea butter edges out coconut butter since it can work for managing all skin types and has superior moisturizing power. However, King says you may actually benefit by using them both together since you get the combined anti-inflammatory power of shea butter and the antimicrobial property of coconut oil. 


For best results, apply your moisturizer as soon as you get out of the shower to help keep skin hydrated. “Applying a layer of oil to skin after bathing will slow trans-epidermal water loss,” says Valorie Treloar, a holistic dermatologist in Newton, Massachusetts. She adds that virgin forms of both coconut oil and shea butter contain more antioxidants, which can help protect against damaging UV rays and air pollution as well. 

What To Buy

Look for cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil and shea butter. Other extraction techniques, especially those involving heat, can lead to quicker oxidation (meaning the oils become rancid), damaged fats, or residual chemicals, notes Treloar. “I believe we should minimize exposure to pesticides, so organic is optimal,” she adds. We like this organic hydrating body balm handcrafted in small batches in California.