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Oils: the essential guide

Are facial oils by the gallon really a passport to a perfect complexion?
Rose Beer investigates beauty’s new love affair with oil.

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Photo credits: Christin Hume

In days gone by the thought of routinely applying oil to your face might not have appealed. Once, these were rudimental, found at the back of the health food shop somewhere between the bars of soap and split peas. More recently though, marketeers have made a convincing case that certain oil blends hold the key to blooming, supple, glowing skin. Perfectly packaged, along with the kind of inspiring claims that would rival a Swiss-laboratory skincare brand, they’ve enjoyed stratospheric success. Wrinkles? Dark spots? Severe dehydration? There’s apparently an oil for all these, and more. But what actually is the deal with skincare oils and should they loom large on your bathroom shelf? Here’s what you need to know.

A brief history of face oils

Our use of oil to nourish and restore our skin is not a modern phenomenon. Emu oil was reputedly used by Aboriginal people to treat dry skin for more than 40,000 years. The Ancient Egyptians depended upon a variety of plant-based oils, such as olive and sesame (Cleopatra’s reputed favourites), to do the same. And, the Roman philosopher Pliny praised the beautifying powers of castor oil.

Oils fell from favour for a while during The Middle Ages when waxes and creams became all the rage. Then it was the turn of mineral oils to enjoy success in the late 19th to early 20th century, with the advent of petroleum based creams, jellies and baby oils.

The recent proliferation of new generation facial oils, however, likely comes down to the rise of the organic and wellness movements and, with them, the evolution of novel extraction and blending technologies alongside the rediscovery of ancient ingredients. The artisanal movement too has spurred interest in at-home mixology, while Google is ever present with the lure of a beauty recipe or two.

Photo credits: Jakob Owens

Oil rules

Expert opinion differs vastly regarding the effectiveness of oils and their place in skincare regimes; many facialists and natural skincare enthusiasts adore them, whilst some specialist dermatologists, well… deplore them.

It is, however, generally agreed that oils most benefit extremely dry complexions and are best avoided by those with oily or acne-prone skin. “For anybody with a tendency for breakouts, I strictly advice against using facial oils of any sort, as they clog up pores and ‘congest’ the skin, aggravating breakouts,” says Dr. Stefanie Williams, Clinical Dermatologist and Medical Director at Eudelo.

Wondering when to apply your oil and how much? “The ideal time for oil care is at bedtime on cleansed, slightly damp skin,” explains skin expert Susaunne Kaufmann. “Skin cells are supported by the oil’s nutrients during nocturnal regeneration. The following morning you wake up with soft, well-groomed skin.”

Last but by no means least, never apply oils directly before heading out into the sun, since oils reflect light, making you susceptible to damage. Nor should you mix your face oil with your daily SPF, as doing so dilutes its efficacy.

What oils can (and can't) do

The marketing hype around the modern facial oil trend would have us believe that these golden liquids are your one-stop shop to a flawless face, but although some oils are effective multi-taskers, the truth is not quite so simple.

Oils are excellent cleansers, able to swoosh away dirt, grime and make-up fast. Moreover, many possess natural anti-oxidant and soothing properties that may help ease rosacea, diminish wrinkles or reduce dark spots. Still, experts generally agree that alternative skincare ingredients such as glycolic acid, retinol, niacinamide and vitamin C are even more effective when it comes to fighting the ageing process, as well as combatting other skin woes.

Where face oils do come into their own, however, is when they are use on particularly dry skin. Their ability to effectively lock in moisture is a brilliant boost to your normal skincare regime. “The fatty acids found in oils are needed when skin is dry,” explains skincare expert and founder of Paula’s Choice, Paula Begoun. “At these times, they work to rebuild and strengthen the skin’s vital protective barrier by helping to keep in skin-smoothing hydration and prevent moisture loss due to dry, cold, or arid environments.”

Dr Maryam Zamani Oculoplastic Surgeon, Aesthetic Doctor and founder of MZ Skin agrees: “Those with dehydrated skin will notice the benefits of the fatty acids (100% in oils versus only around 20% in most moisturising creams) to replenish the skin’s barrier.”

Still, experts are quick to flag that facial oils should be an additional supplement, not an alternative to the moisturisers and serums that make up your daily skincare routine. This is because while oils are a source of antioxidants and replenishing emollients, which are helpful for keeping skin’s vital hydration locked in, they are neither a good source of skin restoring ingredients (think peptides, retinol or niacinamide), nor hydration-boosting ingredients (such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides).

Photo credits: Drew Graham

Essential oils

What they are

Essential oils are made from fragrant essences found in plants and have been used in healing practises for thousands of years. “The way that essential oils are refined is key,” says says Susie Willis, founder of natural skincare brand Romilly Wilde. “Modern extraction techniques are able to ensure that they are clean, of a good grade and the correct molecular weight to be absorbed by skin.”

How they work

These oils tend to be rich in fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants allowing them to strengthen and smooth the skin’s protective barrier. Clove and tea tree are naturally antimicrobial, anti-fungal, antiseptic, antiviral and anti-bacterial. Sandalwood and lavender soothe inflammation and reduce redness. It’s worth nothing that neat essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin, as they can cause severe irritation.

Base oils

What they are

Base oils, otherwise known as carrier oils, are mostly vegetable oils including coconut, olive, chia seed, argan, castor and almond. They are at their best when organic, cold pressed and unrefined, to ensure they are clean and of a high quality. The process of chemically extracting and refining oils can destroy the phytonutrients that heal, protect, and revitalize skin.

How they work

With a strong penetrative ability these oils can be purchased as single ingredient oils from your local health food shop, but are often combined with plant oils to supercharge their effects. “In order to dilute essential oils or to produce mixtures of essential oils, carrier oils are needed. These in turn have healing properties that should be considered in the way they are used, “ explains Susanne Kaufmann.

Photo credits: KIKI Health

Cleansing oils

What they are

Cleansing oils are an excellent option for removing make-up, dirt and excess oil.

How they work

Oils don’t just moisturise skin, they also work as solvents, a group of ingredients that can dissolve similar substances. In this way cleansing oils attract sebum and oil-like ingredients in make-up and quickly melt away both, leaving skin supple and smooth. The best cleansing oils also often contain non-fragrant plant oils to soften and replenish.

Photo credits: Penny Frances Apothecary

Treatment oils

What they are

Created using modern extraction techniques to obtain clean, fine grade oils, these tend to be carefully curated blends with the bonus of added skincare ingredients, such as antioxidants or acids, to reap the best results.

How they work

“The latest oils are expressed and developed so that they are easier to use, feel less greasy, and can deliver more benefits to skin due to new extraction methods that keep vital components stable so they can directly help your skin,” explains Paula. 

Photo credits: Agent Nateur

Words: Rose Beer

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