What’s the Deal with Facial Oils?

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What’s the Deal with Facial Oils?

Oils, especially those from plants, are nothing new to the cosmetic industry—they’re commonplace in products like moisturizers, serums and even makeup. But you’ve likely noticed that more and more brands are launching pure oils like argan, jojoba, passion fruit (as in Tarte Maracuja Oil), or blends of oils with claims to treat everything from acne to rosacea and wrinkles.  Are these worth exploring or are they just a slippery slope to more skin problems?

We’ll take a look at what you can really expect from incorporating oils into your routine so you can decide whether they’re right for you! These oils aren’t right for everyone, so read on for the scoop!

What’s a Facial Oil?

First, let’s define the term “facial oil”.  Any non-fragrant plant oil or synthetic oil may be used anywhere on the body— “facial oil” was coined because it has a romantic sound to it and looks nicer on marketing copy.  For example, a $45 bottle of argan oil sold at Sephora isn’t of higher quality or somehow more special than the bottle of argan oil you can buy from your local health food store, but label it “facial oil” and it automatically seems more special.

Would Adding a Facial Oil to Your Routine Benefit Your Skin?

If you have dry skin and find that your moisturizer isn’t quite doing the job (especially during the colder months of the year), experimenting with a non-fragrant plant oil may be just the thing your skin needs—and any non-fragrant oil, plant-based or synthetic, also can be used for dry skin around the eyes. 

However, when it comes to facial oils, it’s important to keep your expectations realistic.  Concerns such as sun damage, wrinkles, rosacea, and acne are all complex issues that require a combination of products to treat.  Skin itself is a complex organ that can never have all of its needs satisfied by a single ingredient (even with anti-aging powerhouses like retinol or vitamin C) or a single product.

Plant or synthetic oils are helpful for sealing in moisture and preventing moisture loss, but they are rather “one note”; that is, they lack the complete picture of antioxidants, skin-repairing, and cell-communicating ingredients necessary to keep skin younger-looking and healthy.  Granted, all plant oils contain antioxidants and some, like safflower, contain some very good fatty acids—but skin needs more than any single oil or blend of oils can provide. Think of facial oils as supporting players rather than the centerpiece of a skin-care routine.

How Do You Add a Facial Oil to Your Routine?

Mixing a bit of non-fragrant plant oil into your non-SPF moisturizer or serum is a great way to boost the moisture and repair aspects of your routine. You can also apply a few drops straight on to skin (after cleansing, toning, and applying an exfoliant) and then follow with your moisturizer or serum.  There isn’t a single best way to apply a facial oil, and the only rule is never to mix it with your SPF product because doing so dilutes the sunscreen’s effectiveness.

Which Oils are Best (+ Which Ones Should You Avoid)?

All non-fragrant plant oils add moisture and often a wonderful smoothness to skin and will have some antioxidant benefit.  Despite what you may read in beauty magazines, on blogs or on skin care discussion boards, there is no best facial oil.  For example, many beauty “experts” herald argan oil as being loaded with fatty acids, but it’s actually low in fatty acids when compared to more common oils like hemp, corn or castor oil. 

However, castor oil just doesn’t sound very sexy, nor is there much of a story to attach—unlike Moroccan argan oil.  Actually, anything sounds better with the word “Moroccan” attached to it. “Moroccan Root Canal”, “Moroccan Kidney Stone”—see, told you!

So, whether you opt for grapeseed, coconut, jojoba, argan or olive, each is just as beneficial as the other but will have varying textures/weight.  You may find that aesthetically, certain oils work better for you than others—experiment to see what you prefer. Generally, the higher the saturated fat content of the oil’s source (like coconut) the heavier the oil is likely to feel.

Note: If you’re considering adding a plant oil to your routine, avoid essential/fragrant oils (like lavender or any type of citrus).  These fragrant oils do not have the same benefits as the non-fragrant variety, and they contain compounds that have significant potential to irritate skin. For example, most citrus oils can be phototoxic to skin when exposed to UV light (leaving skin discolored). A surprising number of facial oils contain non-fragrant and fragrant oils, so choose carefully and opt for fragrance-free.

Will Facial Oils Clog Your Pores?

Surprise: Oils of any kind are actually not very good at clogging pores (most are simply too big to fit into the pore, imagine trying to shove a tennis ball into a keyhole).

This area of skin care is often misunderstood, and with good reason—there is a lot of misinformation on the topic. The concept of ingredients or products guaranteed not to cause breakouts is fantasy. Despite the rampant myths on the internet, claims like “non-comedogenic” and “won’t clog pores” are without any approved or regulated scientific or medical standards; they’re pure marketing hype and let's face it, most of us with breakouts have gotten clogged pores from a product that wasn't supposed to do that.

Keep in mind that when it comes to clogging pores, the concentration counts. For example, oils applied in 100% concentration may be a problem for skin that is already oily, but this doesn’t mean that a tiny amount (say, a 1% concentration) used in a thin, light-textured lotion or gel would be a pore-clogger. Think of having one piece of cake rather than the whole cake; the latter likely to leave you feeling ill from all the sugar (or guilt for blowing your diet)!

The Bottom Line

A facial oil can be a great way to supplement your moisturizer or serum if you find you need a little extra moisture or have stubborn dry, flaky patches your moisturizer isn’t quite improving— just don’t rely on any facial oil to solve more significant concerns like wrinkles, rosacea or acne.  If you’re considering adding a facial oil to your routine, be sure to experiment with less expensive options you can find at the local health food store first. Those are always a better bet than the often highly fragranced oils you'll find at the cosmetics counter or shops like Sephora.

Grapeseed, jojoba, avocado, safflower, and almond oil are all excellent options to consider and are readily available at your local health food store.  If you’re not sure which oils to avoid due to their potential to irritate skin, check the Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary for help. And it's worth repeating: For the long-term health of your skin, avoid fragrant oils for the face or body.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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