Facial oils are deeply nourishing but can cause subtle inflammation and dehydration if used incorrectly. How to use facial oils correctly? Here are best practices.
I love putting oil on my face so much. But a lot of people recoil at the thought of putting oil on their face or have tried it and had a negative experience. So I wanted to write this post to make facial oils a little easier to use. Because it’s true – it’s not like cream or lotion – it does require a little bit of know-how in order to “get it.”
Why are facial oils so tricky
First, a little bit about WHY facial oils are so tricky.
They are extremely concentrated – both in terms of how much nutrition and nourishment they provide, BUT ALSO in terms of lipids. They are 100% fatty acids, vs creams/lotions and serum, which usually have AT MOST 20-25% oils in the overall formula.
These fatty acids are a double-edged sword for your skin. On the one hand, if your skin barrier is depleted (a very common skin issue these days), they can do their part to replenish the fatty acids in the lipid matrix of the skin barrier.
However, depending on YOUR unique skin and the condition of YOUR skin barrier, they can ALSO disrupt the optimal balance of lipids. The lipid matrix in our skin isn’t composed of 100% fatty acids, like oils are. It is a blend of fatty acids (about 60%), ceramides (about 20%) and cholesterol (about 20%). So if you are constantly (like 2x daily) slathering the skin with 100% fatty acids, that will cause the skin barrier composition to change unfavorably.
Not all fatty acids are created equal
The second thing that makes facial oils (and balms) so tricky is that there are over 50 different types of fatty acids, and each oil from each different plant has its own unique composition – like a fingerprint.
Some of these fatty acids play better with our skin than others. NOW – huge caveat – this depends in large part on YOUR unique skin. A mature and dry skin may swear by coconut oil – and even the richness of ghee!, while a youthful, oily acneic skin cannot handle the richness of those butters, and responds best to a very light, “dry” oil like hempseed.
There are a few types of fatty acids you will hear about more often. The two most common players are oleic acid and linoleic acid. You may also hear about linolenic acid.
Oleic acid – when facial oils first became popular – was touted as the fatty acid of choice for dry and mature skin since it is rich and emollient. A recent trend has demonized this fatty acid, suggesting that it causes inflammation and skin degradation with long term, consistent use. In general, since both mature/dry and acneic skintypes can benefit from linoleic acid, there is no harm in trying to minimize your oleic acid use.
Please note, however, that you will not find a SINGLE oil or butter that doesn’t have SOME percentage of oleic acid in it. It is nonsense to treat natural ingredients with such black/white thinking, so please begin now to train yourself to see things in a more nuanced way, otherwise your journey into green beauty will be torturous.
I want to stress, small amounts of oleic acid, and even medium and high amounts that are used inconsistently, are not problematic. And there may be some skins that simply love oleic acid. The truth is, the research that we have on this subject is quite minimal and inconclusive, whereas there is a rich body of ancient traditions that is also valuable to consider. The most important thing to take into account is, of course, how your own skin reacts.
If there is one thing that is crucial to beauty, it is learning to read your skin correctly while learning how to test products/ingredients correctly. If you master this, then beauty becomes effortless.
Linoleic acid is a fatty acid that our bodies cannot manufacture – we must get it from our diet. It is a critical component in our sebum. Interestingly, studies have shown that acneic skins tend to be deficient in linoleic acid. This is part of what changes the composition of acneic sebum and makes it thicker and more sticky (ie, more comedogenic).
Since our bodies cannot make linoleic acid, and since acneic skin is deficient in it, it feels logical to supplement this type of fatty acid topically. In fact, there are countless anecdotal stories about how someone cured their acne by using a high linoleic oil like hemp seed or pumpkin seed.
Linoleic acid is also lighter and less occlusive than other fatty acids, meaning it absorbs easier and leaves less of a coating on the skin.
While linoleic acid is generally recognized to be more beneficial than oleic acid, there are a few things to be wary of with its regular use – we’ll get to these soon.
Linolenic acid (not to be confused with linoleic – very similar words!) is another fatty acids our bodies cannot synthesize – it is more commonly known as Omega 3. Internally, it is highly beneficial and helps to reduce systemic inflammation. Topically, reactive skins and eczema sufferers report excellent results.
There are some experts (you will ALWAYS find some) that caution agains using high percentages of linolenic acid consistently on acneic skin, due to concerns of comedogenicity.
Read this disclaimer please
I hope to repeat this multiple times during this post, but if you take away ONE idea, it is that natural, vegetable oils are one of those ambiguous ingredients that skins react to VERY INDIVIDUALLY. Some people SWEAR by coconut oil healing their acne, while others find it exacerbates their acne significantly – as an example.
Here is WHY there are these individual, seemingly contradictory reactions: Not all acne is created equal. Acne is one of those systemic conditions where a perfect storm of factors creates breakouts. It is a very different condition from say, measles. With measles there is one, direct, obvious cause. A virus. If you kill the virus, the measles go away.
Acne is caused by a complicated web of genetics, diet, stress levels, hormone levels, age, gender, environment, gut bacteria composition, skin bacteria composition (did you know there are over 20 p.acnes bacteria subtypes!?!?), mineral deficiencies, other nutritional deficiencies – just to name a few. In one person, maybe the MAJOR factor in their acne is a SPECIFIC P. ACNES subtype that is especially vulnerable to lauric acid (yet another fatty acid that happens to be abundant in coconut oil). So for this person, it makes sense that the coconut oil has a positive effect.
For another person, the MAJOR factor is a severely compromised skin barrier – lots of skin dryness and congestion. With this individual, the coconut oil will only exacerbate the clogged pores.
So – the better you understand your acne and what is causing it, the better you will be able to tell if skincare or other holistic methods will help manage it, instead of just following reviews/blog posts blindly like a sheep.
Which fatty acids?
Back to the topic at hand. Most facial oils are a blend of multiple plant oils – a synergy the formulator has created to accomplish a particular goal. Maybe they are desiring to create an anti-inflammatory blend, or an antioxidant-rich blend, or a light/dry blend or a blend specially created for rosacea.
Or maybe you want to use 100% of one particular oil – like 100% rosehip or 100% prickly pear. What should be 1000% clear is that you must choose the most appropriate blend for YOUR UNIQUE skin.
The last reason facial oils are tricky is because the quality of oils used in them varies drastically. There are a number of ways to obtain oils – you can cold press, expeller press, solvent extract or CO2 extract. I won’t go into the different extraction methods here but I encourage you to practice your research and google them.
What I will say is that the different methods yield varied results. CO2 extraction yields the purest, most nutritional oils, while solvent and expeller extracted oils are much lower quality, since they typically suffer chemical contamination and heat damage, respectively.
Next the oils may or may not be “refined.” This includes using heat and chemicals as well as other methods to alter the physical characteristics of the oils – bleaching and deodorizing are two common treatments.
However, we want the oils as unrefined as possible. Color and scent, not only do they not bother us, but they indicate that the oil is rich in nutrients and life-force. Unfortunately, when you buy a facial oil, there is no way for the manufacturer to communicate the exact type of processing the oils they are using went through.
Even though oils do not need preserving, they have another issue that is problematic – they oxidize. This means that over time, light, heat and oxygen degrade the oil, and it goes from being beneficial for your skin to actually causing your skin oxidative stress through free radial damage. Oils need to be fresh and they need to be packaged/stored in a protective way. They should contain antioxidants to prevent and forestall oxidation, giving them a longer shelf life.
Lastly, conventionally grown oils will contain far less nutrition, may have an altered fatty acid composition and may even be contaminated with pesticides. Even organic vs. wildcrafted oils can look very different. Oils, like grapes, are VERY dependent on “terroir.” Where and how they are grown can cause oils from the same plant to look SO different you would not believe both oils are the “same.”
So – as you can imagine, oils can be GEMS for your skin, delivering extremely concentrated and vital nutrition OR they can cause significant damage, deteriorating the skin barrier and accelerating aging. Here are some tips on how to use facial oils correctly.
1) Shop wisely.
Good facial oils may be spendy – high quality oils are a super expensive ingredient and facial oils contain 100% of them. Ask the company questions about the origins and refinement process of the oils. Look for CO2 extracted oils. Purchase a blend suited to your skin type.
2) Err on the side of (way) too little.
This stuff is uber-concentrated – we DO NOT slather it on like a lotion! Oil absorbs best onto skin that is clean, damp and properly exfoliated.
It is best to put just a few drops on your fingertips, then dot the oil over the entire face, making sure the first place you dot doesn’t get the majority of the oil. DISTRIBUTE FIRST, then massage. Once the oil is dotted, THEN massage it in.
Last step after massaging, you press the fingers into the skin to help the oil absorb. It should absorb readily – there should NOT remain a greasy layer on the skin.
3) Help the oil to sink in.
There are a few ways to help the oil sink in – spend the extra time to massage/press it in, or use absorbing fluid (ie toner/water/aloe vera gel) alongside it. If you use a true fluid (watery texture) you’ll apply the oil first. Then you’ll either mist the fluid over the face or blot a few drops of fluid over the face and massage again.
If you’re using a gel, then I like to combine the oil and gel (few drops of each in an anointing dish prior to application and mix them with my finger to create an emulsion, then apply the emulsion to my skin.
The combo of dampness and oil will help the oil sink right into the skin.
Another thing to consider if the oil is not sinking in is to make sure the skin is properly clean and exfoliated. If there is a layer of dead skin, oil, dirt or other products on the skin, this will create a barrier and prevent the oil from being able to absorb.
Acneic skins especially tend to have dead skin cell build up since they are especially vulnerable to hyperkeratosis. You will be amazed at how much better the oil absorbs after a gentle exfoliation. The key word is gentle because over-exfoliation is the #1 cause of skin barrier stress!
Lastly, if the oil is not absorbing, consider these two things:
- How long/how consistently have you been using it? If you have been using this oil daily for over a month, your skin may be telling you that the oil did its job, helped the skin rebalance, and now the skin is “full.” You should take a break from oils at this point, or perhaps go down to using the oil as a special weekly treat.
- Is this the right oil for my skin type? Is oil (of any sort) the right skincare choice for my skin right now? Perhaps not…
4) Do not make oils a consistent part of your skincare.
I DO think there is some truth to overuse (notice I said OVERuse, not merely “use”) of oils contributing to low-grade skin inflammation.
Too much oil use can cause other skin issues as well. It can disrupt the skin’s production of sebum, ironically causing dry skin to get even more dehydrated! It can even cause once-oily skin to dry out too much!
And, of course, we already mentioned, it can cause skin barrier complications.
Remember, oils are SUPER concentrated! They are 100% active! You wouldn’t do a 25% glycolic acid peel 2x per day for months on end, would you?
Use oils wisely – maybe once a day, instead of twice. Maybe just as a special treat, after masking, once a week.
Maybe you are just adding a single drop or two to your nightly lotion/cream.
These are all examples of ways to get the benefits of oils without overusing them.
5) Use oil as part of a complete skincare regimen.
Do not rely on oils as your sole form of “moisture” for the skin. This is a recipe for disaster. The reason is that skin requires both oil-based moisture and water-based moisture. In fact, I think water-based is even more important!
You may have heard the term TEWL – trans-epidermal water loss. This means water is escaping from your skin, leaving it parched and inelastic instead of plump and healthy.
Did you know that if the skin is too dry, certain key enzymatic processes simply STOP WORKING? Dehydrated skin is skin operating with a skeleton crew!
You absolutely MUST have some strategy in your skincare regimen for supplementing your skin’s hydration, and oil is NEVER the complete picture.
Now – if you are using an absorbing fluid of some sort with the oil, then this is a rudimentary solution.
You can also look for ingredients that specifically help increase the skin’s water content. These include humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid. Plant sugars and saccharides are also often used.
You will sometimes see even more sophisticated moisture-increasing ingredients like ceramides, or specialized plant extracts.
At moss, our serum and moisturizer have multiple ingredients for increasing skin moisture levels. Our Illumina Treatment uses a complex of Tamarind Seed Extract (superior to Hyaluronic acid), N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG – a skin identical ingredient that helps the skin manufacture it’s OWN hyaluronic acid and collagen) and Ceramides.
Potentci Hydrating Milk really takes it over the top. It contains Ceramides and NAG, AND in addition contains pomegranate phytosterols, beet sugar, rice peptides and a glycoprotein from an antarctic bacteria that helps the skin retain moisture. It has an AMAZING and very robust hydration complex, while remaining lightweight and easily absorbable.
So if you are supplementing the skin with water moisture, then the oil helps by locking that moisture in. BUT – if you are using solely oil, you are most likely making your skin even more dehydrated. So be sure to add a hydric moisturizer!
Find these tips helpful or have one of your own? Let me know in the comments! Thank you for reading!