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First, let's start with an explanation of what oils do to your face. Do they actually hydrate or do they just help preserve the moisture you already have?
The main role that face oils play for our face is to add hydration. They do actually hydrate and supplement our natural oil production. As we age, oil or sebaceous glands for women decrease the amount of oil produced. Oil production from our oil glands is low in children. It increases during puberty and tends to stay relatively unchanged for many years. In women, post menopausal oil production drops gradually. For men it tends to stay pretty stable until after the age of 80. After this age it starts to decrease.
Using facial oils is meant to supplement our natural production of oil while holding on to or preserving the oil we naturally produce. The two most common groups of people thinking about using these would be children/infants and peri/postmenopausal women.
Most face oils used for this purpose are considered ‘fixed oils’. Plant oils are usually broken down into essential oils and fixed oils. Fixed oils are stable and stay stable and do not evaporate at room temperature. Essential oils are volatile and evaporate quickly. Fixed oils can start to smell or become rancid over time.
Can face oils actually penetrate through your skin or does it depend on the type of oil and the size of the molecules?
The ability of face oils can penetrate through the superficial skin layers is dependent on a couple of properties of the oil. The smaller the particle size of the oil the more likely it is capable of finding its way between skin cells. The second factor to consider is how fat soluble the oil is. The more ‘attracted’ the face oil is to the natural oils in our skin will allow the face oil to find its way into our skin and add and hold onto moisture more effectively. We always have to balance this quality with the ability of the product to find its way into our pores to trigger acne as well!
We do know based on studies that there are different ratios of essential fatty acids in products that do affect the hydrating and protective qualities of these products. Oils that contain a higher linoleic acid to oleic acid ratio can work to protect the skin but the reverse ratio can add to the irritating effects of the products.
There are tons of different types of face oils out there, and we don't really have great research (if any) for most of them. Can you explain what types of problems this presents for the consumer?
With the volume of choices out there for face oils and the lack of studies there are 2 major issues we come across: contact dermatitis and triggering acne/rosacea.
Often products used as face oils are ‘natural’, ‘herbal’, ‘botanical’, or ‘organic’. These words conjure up a sense of how could they ever be the cause of a problem if they are so natural. The reality is that even poison ivy is a natural product but can clearly cause some significant reactions. The same reason that face oils can be effective for hydration – their ability to penetrate into our skin- can be the same reason that they are good at causing allergic reactions or irritation reaction. Don’t forget that within our epidermis, the superficial layers of our skin, we have immune cells constantly looking to protect our bodies from the environment and searching for substances that are ‘not supposed to be there’ or are foreign to our skin. Without a lot of studies on these face oils, it is difficult to say which products are more likely than not to trigger reactions.
The ability of a product to find its way into our skin to hydrate it effectively can also allow it to find its way into our pores and result in clogging our pores. Clogging our pores will lead to acne. Further studies testing how comedogenic face oils are can help guide recommendations. The claim ‘non-comedogenic’ on a product means non-pore clogging. This word isn’t perfect. To make this claim, testing is performed over 21 days. Biopsies before and after using the product are performed to count the number of open comedones (blackheads) before and after use of the product. If there is no increase then it’s labeled noncomedogenic. This testing does not consider closed comedones or whiteheads, pus bumps or inflammation.
It is important to remember however that patients use these. They use them all the time. They trust them even without the studies. They prefer them to drugs or medicated products. In spite of the fact that the FDA approval process is focused on safety not effectiveness for oils and on both safety and effectiveness for drugs- people still prefer the oils.
Are there certain oils, like tea tree oil, that we do actually have some research behind? Or are there other tried-and-true oils that, despite the lack of research, we can feel okay using because they have such a long history?
Tea tree oil has become one of the most common ingredients to find in skin care products. Because it is so prevalent, there are more studies evaluating its use. However these studies are focused more so on the antimicrobial and antiseptic properties in its activity against bacteria, viruses, fungus, mites, etc. We do know based on studies that the use of tea tree oil in acne prone skin is less likely to trigger acne and in many studies has shown improvement overall. This again is less from the hydration and more based on the anti-inflammatory properties of the product. The other benefit of research is that we do know that tea tree oil does have about a 1-2% chance of causing a contact dermatitis in those that use it.
Coconut oil is gaining a lot of attention in skin care products. It is a proven emollient that can effectively hydrate the skin. It also has antimicrobial and anti inflammatory properties.
Sunflower seed oil has been studied as well in pediatric dermatology to determine its ability to enhance the skin barrier. It has high levels of essential fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid, that make it effective. Based on these studies, optimal concentrations of this oil in products has also been studied.
Olive oil has also been studied in the pediatric dermatology literature. Interestingly this product with wide spread use has been shown to increase the risk of eczema, atopic dermatitis, and may dryness worse!
Jojoba oil has been shown to work very well to enhance moisture and to improve the absorption of medications.
Argan oil has been studied to show enhanced hydration, increase in the skin barrier and an added bonus of increasing the ‘water holding capacity’ of the skin. This means it allows our skin to hold on to moisture more effectively.
It seems like dry skin probably gets the most benefit from face oils—is this true? If so, can you please explain what those benefits are?
Because most face oils stay in the superficial layers of skin and tend to stay there based on the particle size and their affinity for the skin, the main benefit they provide is hydration and enhancing the barrier function of the skin. The added bonuses of some- anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, etc- are bonuses.
For oily/acne-prone skin, should you avoid face oils? Why or why not?
The answer is that it depends. Most people with acne prone skin have oily skin at baseline. They are looking to soak up some of this oil, not add more! However, some face oils have been studied for their acne fighting benefits. Most that achieve this result have added anti-inflammatory properties. The studies here are not great to show a long term benefit of acne prevention- most studies are primarily focused on reducing inflammation associated with acne in the short term.
Since many ingredients in face oils haven't been thoroughly studied, should those with sensitive skin stay away?
Here we have the benefit of quite a few pediatric studies showing the benefit of a few oils in particular. If you do have sensitive skin and are looking to add a face oil to your routine, sunflower seed oil and coconut oil. The only issue here is that they have not been well studied for their acne causing potential.
Are face oils particularly beneficial for aging skin or is it more of a can't-hurt type of use? AKA are the benefits scientifically proven or just the oils hydrate so why not use?
The main benefit for aging skin is the added hydration. Adding hydration to the superficial layers of skin increase the turgor of the skin and improve its overall appearance. Cosmetic studies routinely show that the more hydrated the skin is the more youthful it appears! The other benefit is that the added hydration is likely to minimize itching or sensitivities of skin. The number one complaint of eldery patients is the tendency to feel itchy. Much of this has to do with how thin our skin becomes as we age making it less capable of regulating body temperature and making us much more sensitive to small irritations.
Is it true that, for pretty much every skin concern, there is an option out there that we know more about?
Absolutely. I am routinely asked about natural alternatives to treat the skin. This is the only reason I stay on top of this topic because realistically I have to provide care regimens that patients will actually follow. This requires me to be respectful of their wishes and choose options that they are comfortable with. That being said, for my family I simply prescribe things that have been well tested and work quickly and effectively. There is less waiting and watching and the ability to predict results. After all this the the big difference between the cosmetic and drug industry. Cosmetics only need to prove safety not effectiveness. Drugs or medications have to prove both safety and effectiveness. As a practitioner the care I can provide is far more efficient if I can predict how and why it will and should work.
What are some things you should do before using face oils in general?
The most important thing is to talk to your doctor. Understand your options and the research that is available to make the best choice. Understand that there actually is some research out there and there is a reason for it- there is no need to find out the hard way that something doesn’t agree with your skin! Also recognize that the benefit is in the superficial layers of skin and only effective while using the products. Once you stop using them the benefit goes away. Also recognize that there needs to be caution before using these and going out in the sun. It was common for people ‘back in the day’ to induce a sunburn by putting on baby oil and iodine or olive oil. If you go out in the sun with oils on your skin you may give yourself a pretty decent sunburn.