Slathering your face in oil — the kind you buy, not the kind that accumulates on your nose every day come lunchtime — may seem counterintuitive, but oils aren’t just for dry skin. They’re actually one of the best tools to combat a wind-ravaged complexion in the winter, even for the oily-skinned among us.
As celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas puts it, “The more modern approach to skin is to use oil to our advantage: fight oil with oil.” If this seems at odds with conventional wisdom, you’re not wrong. “Skincare for so many years was all about stripping the skin with glycolics and retinols,” Vargas says. Only in the last ten years has the idea that all skin types need hydration gained traction.
“Oils have become increasingly popular because they provide a natural way to take care of your skin,” explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research for the Department of Dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “It is a myth that you cannot use oil-based products to treat oily skin. In fact, oil dissolves oil and can be quite effective in treating oily skin,” he says, noting they also have hydrating properties that make them appropriate for dry and sensitive skin, too.
Not all oils are equal though. When choosing a product to best suit your skin type and needs, you’ll want to keep in mind the difference between essential oils and base oils (sometimes called carrier oils). Essential oils are highly-concentrated plant extracts, distilled from the leaves and flowers of a plant (think geranium or jasmine.) Base oils, like jojoba or sweet almond oil, on the other hand, are extracted from the seeds, nuts or fruit of a plant. Base oils typically comprise the bulk of a face oil formulas. Essential oils should not be applied directly to the skin in most cases and are typically diluted by a base oil.
Before I move on to specific product recommendations by skin type, a few quick tips for first-time oil users, per my own internet research:
1. If you’re totally new to oils, try one as a nighttime treatment.
Oils make great nighttime treatments, especially if you’re hesitant to put one on in the morning before leaving the house. Skin is working harder at self-repair while we sleep, making night a prime time for skin to heal and absorb an oil’s essential nutrients.
2. If you have ultra-dry skin, or want to continue using a specific cream, try layering your oil underneath the cream.
Creams are occlusive, which means they form a barrier on the skin. They “lock in” the nutrients contained in an oil.
3. Pay attention to the weight of the base oil.
The base oil is the main ingredient — the formula’s anchor ingredient. Oily and combination skin do better with lightweight oils like grape seed or jojoba oil, while drier skin types can handle heavier oils like avocado or olive oil.
Beyond those basics, there are oils tailored to every skin type and concern. A beginner’s guide below, including a tip, a specific recommendation, and a few others on the market that fit the bill.
Tip: For sensitive skin, look for products that exclude essential oils. While they are indeed “natural,” they can also be common irritants, which will only make matters worse for sensitive skin.
Try: Peet Rivko’s face oil. As Founder Joanna Peet explains: “Our Balancing Face Oil was designed with the most sensitive skin in mind and does not include any essential oils or nut oils. It’s lightweight and doesn’t leave a greasy finish like some heavier plant oils can.”
Tip: For combination skin, get yourself an oil that does both — one that is anti-inflammatory (to help treat problem areas), and hydrating.
Try: In formulating her Line F Oil for combination skin, brand founder Susanne Kaufmann paid special attention to oils that do not clog pores. She looked for oils high in unsaturated fatty acids, which she explains are “very similar to the natural lipid film of our skin and thus, easily penetrates its top layers.” In this product, vitamins E and A combine with plant extracts to send the skin the signal to regenerate.
Tip: Oily, acne-prone skin benefits from oils that are lightweight, soothing and noncomedogenic. Look for purifying ingredients like tea tree oil, coconut oil, and lavender oil.
Try: Votary’s Clarifying Oil, made with a base of oat, rice bran and peach is just that, plus the added essential oils of clary sage, bergamot and rosemary serve as natural acne-busters.
Tip: Dry skin benefits from rich, nourishing oils. “Heavier oils help coat the surface of the skin to help retain hydration,” Dr. Zeichner says. Look for rich ingredients like avocado oil, olive oil, and cocoa oil.
Try: deMamiel’s Winter Facial Oil, is a good one for dry skin. Ingredients like macadamia nut oil, arctic cranberry and arctic blackcurrant help protect skin against cold temperatures.
Tip: Mature skin, Dr. Zeichner explains, needs protective antioxidants and fatty acids like argan or marula oil. Fatty acids work to essentially fill in cracks the between skin cells, which softens the skin and keeps it supple; antioxidants help keep the skin foundation strong by promoting healthy collagen production and brightening dark spots.
Try: Ignore the word “serum” — celebrity esthetician Joanna Vargas’s Rejuvenating Serum is not only an oil, but a pretty rich one. It’s made with nourishing Argan and olive oils. Vitamin C gives the formula some brightening capabilities, too.
Are you an avid oil user? What are some of your favorites?
Sara Spruch-Feiner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Racked, Allure, Elle and New York Magazine. She is based in Manhattan.
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