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If you have oily skin, acne, or both, you may have heard of something called “The Oil Cleansing Method” either from a friend or from browsing the Internet. In that case, you're probably wondering whether it’s (finally) the solution to your shiny face, or perhaps an end to constant breakouts.
The truth is that there is a lot of misleading information out there about The Oil Cleansing Method that can make deciding whether it’s worth trying a challenge. We’ll take a closer look and share the facts you should know—then you can decide whether this skincare method is right for you!
Using oils as part of a beauty routine is certainly not a new concept. Various forms of oils have a long history in use as makeup removers, or for moisturizing skin or hair and can be especially helpful additions if you have dry skin or dry, frizzy hair that’s coarse.
However, the recent resurgence of what is known as “The Oil Cleansing Method”, popularized by the natural beauty site TheOilCleansingMethod.com is a different take on oil cleansing—as the best solution for treating issues like acne and oily skin. So far as we can tell, TheOilCleansingMethod.com started (or restarted) this new take on oil cleansing, but unfortunately they make recommendations that are not just problematic—more on that in a moment—but they’re also going to put your skin at risk for damage, breakouts and, in all likelihood, disappointing results.
TheOilCleansingMethod.com generalizes with claims that all skincare products are irritating, drying and only worsens breakouts, and that if you suffer from acne, their oil cleansing recommendations will finally be the cure you’ve been looking for. If you weren’t already skeptical, these types of statements should raise concerns (they did for us).
Whether you’re a fan of oils in your skincare routine or not, no one could reasonably argue that all skincare products are drying and damaging—we’ve seen hundreds (if not thousands) of excellent, mild and effective formulas from both drugstore and high-end brands.
TheOilCleansingMethod.com recommends you clean skin with a blend of castor and other plant oils that you mix yourself, rub on your face, and then wipe off using steam, hot water and a washcloth.
This cleansing method is based on the chemistry rule of “like dissolves like” which means that one substance can dissolve or break down substances similar to it. That's the rationale they use to explain how the oil-cleansing method mixture will dissolve the oils on your skin and stop more oil from being produced.
But the devil is in the details, and the concept that oils dissolve oils in your skin doesn’t hold here. Plant oils aren’t actually that similar to the oil produced by your skin (which actually isn’t an oil at all, rather it is a mix of waxes and other substances).
Using non-fragrant oils as an alternative to cleansers generally works best if you have dry to very dry skin. While it can be a little messy, if you can’t find a cleanser that works for you, or if you just want to experiment with any non-fragrant oil in this fashion this may be a solution (not to mention saving you a few extra beauty budget dollars).
However, as a solution for oily skin and acne, there are a few flaws in the logic that you should be aware of—primarily the assumption that oily, breakout-prone skin can be solved by removing the oil on the surface, when in reality it is far more complicated than that.
Your skin produces oil in response to certain hormones (known as androgens) your body produces. For those with oily skin, the excess oil being generated all the time leads to frequent use of blotting papers and powder in an effort to keep all the shine under control. Oil cleansing and wiping the mixture away with water and a washcloth (a common recommendation) can remove substances from the surface of skin, but this alone isn’t affecting what is happening below the surface, inside the pore, or in your body, where these hormones that control how much oil your skin produces are generated.
What is often misunderstood about the effect this method has on oily skin is the “drying” result that some experience, as pointed out on TheOilCleansingMethod.com. This seems counterintuitive—how can non-fragrant plant oils dry skin when they’re supposed to be moisturizing? This actually has to do with one oil in particular—castor oil—and when using castor oil in higher amounts, it actually can dry skin out, But, this actually doesn’t have anything to do with removing oil from skin, rather it’s your skin’s water that castor oil is after!
Castor oil is a humectant, like glycerin, and like glycerin when used in its pure form (and in high amounts) can begin to absorb water from the surface layer of skin—resulting in the dry, dehydrated sensation that some report when using oil cleansing. This experience is often interpreted as evidence that oil is dissolved from skin (or described as such)—but as we explained, it doesn’t have anything to do with the oil in your skin.
If you decide to try oil cleansing, we can’t stress enough that this is generally best for dry to very dry skin. However, regardless of your skin type or concerns, just keep your expectations realistic (don’t look to it to take the place of proven anti-acne treatments), avoid fragrant plant oils and experiment with any non-fragrant oils you like. Olive oil, grapeseed, jojoba, mineral oil and on and on are all options to consider—there isn’t a best form of oil to use for skin (or hair, for that matter), and it’s largely about personal and aesthetic preference.
You’ll need to remove whatever mixture you choose with a washcloth and warm water. Avoid hot water, steam or pulling too hard on skin, as all of these can damage, irritate and breakdown skin’s collagen over time. We should also mention that irritation can trigger more oil production and breakouts.
Aside from presenting the idea that oil cleansing is the best one-size-fits-all acne treatment, chances are you will run across statements like those below (shown in bold face) when searching online for information about this technique. Not only are the below statements misleading, they can result in damage to your skin (to say the least). Whether or not you decide to experiment with non-fragrant oils as a cleanser alternative, you should absolutely ignore these recommendations.
Myth: Cleansers strip skin of oils, leaving it tight and irritated.
Fact: Not all “traditional” water-soluble cleansers leave skin tight and irritated. Using the term “stripping” makes it sound like all water-soluble cleansers are damaging, when in reality gentle water-soluble cleansers are simply dissolving surface oil and other substances. There are a lot of excellent and mild cleansers in all price ranges to consider, so don’t let unsubstantiated generalizations turn you away from the possibilities if oil cleansing isn’t your thing
Myth: Cleansers are highly-fragranced, further irritating skin.
Fact: There are many fragrance free cleansers on the market. While we can certainly agree that fragrance doesn’t have a place in skincare, it’s simply not true to make the statement that all cleansers contain such ingredients. This makes no more sense than lumping together non-fragrant oils with fragrant essential oils. Just like the claim that all cleansers are drying, this statement is totally inaccurate.
Myth: Drinking water will “flush toxins” from the body, improving oily and acne-prone skin.
Fact: There are no toxins in your body that your body can't flush out on its own through its natural biological processes. It isn't bad to drink lots of water, but it won't change how much oil your pores produce or whether you breakout less. Not to mention the fact that your skin's oil is not a toxin—it actually has some amazing benefits in regulating and protecting skin health. Ditto for the myth that acne is caused by unidentified toxins—as we’ve mentioned before, hormones are the primary culprit, and water cannot affect these oil-regulating hormones.
Myth: The combination of oils and hot steam used by the oil-cleansing method will “deep-clean” skin in a way that no other product can.
Fact: Hot steam is irritating in every way possible. Irritation stimulates oil production directly in the pore and makes pimples look even redder. Using hot steam on a regular basis also can cause small blood vessels in your skin to rupture, over time creating a network of surfaced red capillaries.
Myth: Dissolving oil on the surface of skin will change how your pores produce oil, which will lead to clear skin.
Fact: How such a process could be possible is never explained. Real research shows that applying potent irritants to the skin's surface can trigger more oil to be produced at the base of the pore, but simply removing the surface oil with a gentle cleanser (oil-based or not) isn't going to alter how oil is produced.
Oil cleansing with non-fragrant oils isn’t harmful of course, but it’s not ideal for oily skin. However, if you’d still like to give oil cleansing a try, do so with realistic expectations and don’t buy into the misleading information discussed above.
If you like the idea of oil cleansing but the potential mess or feel doesn’t appeal to you, consider one of the newer cleansing oils or balm products that emulsify upon contact with water. They’ll leave skin moisturized, but not oily or greasy—and they rinse easily! Three we like are Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Oil, Garnier Nutritioniste Clean + Nourishing Cleansing Oil and Dior Instant Cleansing Oil
Remember that a cleanser is just a cleanser (no matter if it’s a non-fragrant oil, cleansing balm or a traditional water-based formula). Cleansers can remove substances like excess oil, dirt, and makeup from the surface of skin, but you shouldn’t expect them to be the solutions for complicated issues like acne, nor look to them to take the place of proven treatments. If in the end you find oil cleansing isn’t for you, consider the recommendations published research has shown can effectively treat oily, breakout-prone skin.
The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Products for Acne Breakouts.
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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 busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.
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