Lately it seems like the beauty community is abuzz with the benefits and wonders of facial oils. But are they really that good for your skin? And could moisturizers be better?
It turns out both oils and moisturizers have pros and cons and hopefully after reading this post you will know which is right for you and your unique skin.
The crux of the matter is how healthy your skin barrier is and the symptoms your skin is presenting.
What is the skin barrier?
You might be wondering what the heck your skin’s barrier is in the first place. It is the outermost layer of the epidermis, consisting of dead cells (corneocytes) called the stratum corneum; essentially what you see on the surface. This layer is composed of 15-20 layers of flattened cells surrounded by a waxy substance composed of three lipid components: ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
If you look at the stratum corneum from the side, it would kind of look like a brick wall.
- The “bricks” are the corneocytes and contain a dense network of keratin, a protein that when working normally keeps water from evaporating from the skin. In cases of acne, however, it is common to see a condition called hyperkeratosis, where keratin becomes overactive and glues dead skin cells together, preventing them from shedding normally and clogging pores. In healthy skin, living skin cells (keratinocytes) die and then get pushed up and out of the skin and then are naturally and easily exfoliated off.
- The mortar between the dead skin cells is the “intercellular matrix” which is made of lipids.
The lipid layer (different than your sebum) is the glue that holds the dead cells of the stratum corneum together. It’s what creates skin that is hydrated, firm, and soft. It holds the water in, and keeps irritating chemicals and bacteria (including acne bacteria) out.
Sebum is different – it is produced by sebaceous glands and coats the very surface of the skin. The sebaceous lipids (quick definition – a lipid is anything that is not soluble in water and feels oily – it can be oils, waxes, sterols or fats) are primarily lipids as triglycerides, wax esters, fatty acids and squalene.
Your lipid layer is NOT created by sebaceous glands and fills the spaces between (not the surface of) the cells, like mortar or cement. Epidermal lipids are a mixture of ceramides, free fatty acids and cholesterol – a different composition than sebum.
When the stratum corneum is healthy, it appears and feels smooth, soft, and plump (like a baby’s skin). In contrast, a damaged surface skin looks dry, rough, dull, and dehydrated.
What Damages the Skin’s Barrier?
Think about it like the brick wall. When the mortar starts breaking down, then that’s when you get holes and cracks in which water can evaporate from, and bacteria can enter. So the lipid layer is CRUCIAL to healthy barrier function.
If the skin has lost water to evaporation and is all dehydrated, the skin will tighten on the pores and prevent the dead skin cells (or other stuff stuck in the pore) from being pushed up and out, and will lead to a clog that creates a yummy feast for bacteria as the sebum builds up and the airflow is blocked. Then your body reacts by sending inflammation to the area and the rest is history – red inflamed zit.
Just FYI, oily skin is just as prone (even more so, in fact) to dehydration as dry skin. In fact, oily skin is a sign that your skin is trying to support a damaged skin barrier by over-producing sebum as a plan B protective measure.
If you’ve got any skin issues – whether it’s acne, or it’s red, sensitive, rapidly aging, or dry flakey skin… chances are you’re having some trouble with a damaged lipid layer.
This isn’t just an aesthetic issue. A damaged barrier makes it much more difficult to repair issues like wrinkles, post-acne red marks, dry skin, extra-sensitive skin, and breakouts – in the same way it does a poor job of keeping water in and bacteria out, it does a poor job of keeping nutritive and active ingredients from beneficial skin care in! Healing takes a lot LOT longer.
The old saying, “prevention is the best cure” applies to your skin’s barrier. Avoiding damage can go a long way to making sure your barrier remains healthy. Here are some ways to do that:
- Don’t use water that is too hot or too cold; both are irritating to skin.
- Avoid putting too much water on the skin too often (pruning is a sign of barrier damage)
- Stop using harsh scrubs or over-scrubbing, which can tear the skin’s surface. For mechanical exfoliants, jojoba microspheres or the oat peeling method are best.
- Don’t use drying cleansers, including soap, which remove essential moisturizing substances from your skin, damaging the skin barrier. THIS IS A BIGGIE.
- Don’t use skincare products that contain irritating ingredients or ingredients that can degrade the skin barrier, like harsh preservatives and oleic acids.
- Don’t overdo it when it comes to products with high amounts of bio-active ingredients like AHA, BHA, retinol, or anti-acne medications. Find a concentration that works for you but doesn’t cause irritation, even if this means you don’t use the product daily. You will get BETTER results with LESS use sometimes! ANOTHER BIGGIE.
- Avoid unprotected sun exposure, which not only weakens the skin barrier BUT also stresses it more – a double whammy of damage.
How to Fix a Damaged Barrier
If your skin’s barrier is already damaged – or you just want to make sure it doesn’t become that way – using skincare products that will give your skin what it needs to heal is critical.
~ Skin care for repairing the skin barrier contains an abundance of skin-identical or skin-repairing ingredients – ingredients that replenish components of our epidermis OR that help boost the skin’s own creation of those components. Fatty acids, cholesterol, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and humectants – just to name a few. Potentci contains ceramides, as well as niacinamide and glucosamine, two important nutrients that actually help the skin make its own ceramides.
~ Protect your skin from UV light every day. Sun exposure is one of the leading causes of impaired barrier function, so make certain you wear an antioxidant-rich product daily and use a zinc oxide sunscreen rated SPF 25 or greater every day. It is important to use a mineral vs. a chemical sunblock since the chemical sunscreens may damage the skin barrier even further, whereas Zinc Oxide not only protects your skin from the sun, but also really helps to soothe and strengthen it.
~ You might also want to consider applying active products like AHA or BHA exfoliants and retinol treatments at different times of the day if applying them at the same time results in redness or flaking. For example, you can apply your exfoliant in the morning, and retinol product at night. But if your skin is really sensitive and red? STOP immediately with ALL exfoliation. Your skin needs a break and a chance to rebuild and thicken.
~ Stop cleansing so much – a little dirt is not nearly as harmful as an impaired barrier. (And it is a myth that dirt and bacteria cause acne). Use the gentlest, non-foaming cleanser possible. An emulsifying oil cleanser like Revele is a really good option. Only cleanse the skin in the evening. In the morning, if you must cleanse, use a little rose water (don’t use witch hazel, it is too drying) and gently blot the skin with a high quality cotton pad. Don’t rub!
~ Be patient. The skin barrier simply cannot be repaired quickly. It takes time to rebuild the “brick wall” of skin cells and lipid matrix. You might see some results within a few days but it takes months to get the barrier fully healthy again.
~ So to recap – go simple and gentle with skincare, add skincare that supports skin barrier rebuilding, and be very patient and kind with the skin.
Why is oil not the greatest?
It’s common in green beauty to use oils in place of a moisturizer, but is this really the best thing for your skin?
It turns out long term use of oil (especially oil high in oleic acid, like olive or argan oil) can actually damage the skin barrier. Oleic acid can actively damage and disintegrate the skin barrier, while oil in general prevents the skin barrier from self-repair.
As we age, the number of skin cells that make the lipids contained in the lipid layer are dramatically diminished. Therefore our skin barrier naturally weakens with age and inflammation increases as the skin gets worse at defending itself from bacteria and pollutants. Inflammation destroys our collagen and elastin and the skin begins to age rapidly.
By just using oil and using it all the time, am and pm, you stop the skin barrier from repairing and your skin develops a consistent low level grade of inflammation which continually degrades your collagen and elastin. So by over-using oil you are actually aging yourself in two ways – by impeding the skin’s ability to repair the skin barrier and by hastening the degradation of the proteins that make your skin youthful – collagen and elastin.
Not to mention, your acne is not healing because your skin barrier is not healthy!
What to do for healthier skin
There are a few things you can do to make sure you are not adversely affecting your skin barrier.
Make sure the oil you are using is high in linoleic acid and NOT in oleic acid. Oils that are high in oleic acid include olive, argan, almond and avocado. The more occlusive the oil, the more it will hamper barrier repair, so coconut oil is not a good bet either. Linoleic oils are much lighter and less occlusive but should still be used with care. If you ever feel like your skin is both dry and oily, or that oils are not absorbing into your skin well no matter how little you use and how much you massage and leaving a greasy surface layer, this is a SIGN that you need to take a break from oils, that your skin barrier is feeling frustrated.
(A good facial oil can still contain oils high in oleic acid, as long the overall formula is BALANCED.)
Please, don’t toss your oils just yet!
Facial oils are popular for good reason – they are the skincare product that is the MOST nutritionally dense and bioactive! They can be invaluable in your skincare routine. The key is to balance them with hydric moisture – so use them alongside or mixed into hydrosols, gels, and/or moisturizers. You can also just use them less often, more like a treat a few times a week, or as a “booster” to your moisturizer.
Really, the key to both oils and moisturizers is that they must be correctly formulated.
Moisturizers can be as problematic as oils! Poorly formulated moisturizes can also occlude the skin and damage the skin barrier. Most emulsifiers are occlusive (the ones we use at moss are not – our emulsifiers are liquid crystal and create a lamellar structure that mimics the lipid bilayers in our stratum corneum, which helps reduce transepidermal water loss) and all moisturizers MUST be preserved while oils do not.
Preservatives, especially harsher anti-microbials, ALSO damage the skin barrier. Most companies OVER preserve products to achieve the multiple year shelf life customers are used to getting with conventional skincare. Natural brands like moss are very careful with preservative systems – we make sure they are gentle yet also effective. Our shelf life is only one year (once opened) but this isn’t just due to the gentle nature of our preservative system. It is also just the truth about natural ingredients – their potency simply diminishes with time.
Once you’ve made sure your moisturizer isn’t made solely with oils high in oleic acid, has a non-harmful emulsifier and utilizes gentle anti-microbials, the next step is to make sure it has ingredients that help REPAIR the skin barrier (see the next section).
I personally find that facial oils are best used for a finite period of time – this is why you may see a facial oil that you and your skin used to love giving you disappointing results lately – it has nothing to do with the oil changing – it just has to do with your skin’s needs changing.
Skin that has been ravaged by harsh acne medication and poor skin care will respond very well to oils initially – after all, the lipid barrier is 60% fatty acids and oils provide those AND also a host of incredibly beneficial nutrients! But after a time, you may find the skin asking for a breather.
If you adore oils and find that they are really helping the skin, then your skin barrier may not be in bad shape and your skin may be greatly benefiting from the nutrients in the oil, so continue to use it.
Signs that the skin is needing a breather from oils include skin that feels both oily and dry (actually dehydrated) at the same time and a lack of responsiveness to the oil’s supposed benefits.
If this is not you, then by all means, keep using your oils – only consider supplementing with some of the ingredients we’re about to discuss, and maybe consider taking your oil usage down to anywhere from 1x per day to 1x per week.
Ingredients that help repair the barrier
Look for high linoleic fatty acids and anti-inflammatory Omega 3s and Omega 6s, ceramides and cholesterol as ingredients. Ceramides can show up under a variety of guises including the terms Ceramide 1, Ceramide 3, Ceramide NP, Ceramide EOP, Phytosphingosine, Ceramide 6, and Glycosphingolipids. Cholesterol can show up as cholesterol, as a “sterol” complex, or even in certain plant extracts like soya bean extract. You might also see the botanical equivalent of cholesterol, ie phytosterols.
Another helpful ingredient is niacinamide or Vitamin B3 which helps the skin to naturally produce it’s own ceramides plus is an anti-inflammatory. Glucosamine is another ingredient that achieves this.
You can also look for humectants like glycerin, osmolytes, or hyaluronic acid that help rehydrate skin that is losing water through a weakened barrier.
Lastly, if you love your oil, combine it (either by creating a micro-emulsion in an anointing bowl or by applying before or after) with a serum that contains humectants, niacinamide and ceramides to help restore these crucial ingredients to the skin. AMBAR’s Hydrating Mineral Gelee contains a saccharide from Tamarind Seed that has been shown in trials to offer the same moisture retaining capability as hyaluronic acid. I love using HMG as the hydric complement to facial oils, since it has a mineral complex that contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
For repairing the skin barrier, Potentci and Soothing Moisture Fluid (from AMBAR) are both excellent choices. Potentci is more “science-y” and contains a ceramide complex and phytosterols in addition to ingredients that help the skin rebuild itself (niacinamide, glucosamine, horse chestnut and lion’s mane mushroom). SMF contains oat lipids and extracts which are naturally high in ceramides and also beta glucans (a type of glucose found in certain plants that helps moisturize and heal wounds faster).
Bottom line, if your skin feels or looks weary or dull or inflamed, it is important to assess what skincare changes need to be made to restore it to health.
If you think oil is the issue, give yourself an oil break by decreasing how frequently you apply oil, only using high linoleic oils in very small or mixed quantities, finding a good moisturizer or serum to alternate with oils, using products that contain ceramides, cholesterol and niacinamide, and when using oils, making sure to ALSO use a product that contains barrier repairing ingredients.