What is a customer´s ultimate goal when purchasing skincare formulas? The answer is easy: achieving a healthy and radiant complexion. This is what has been popularized in K-beauty routines as “glass skin”. You don´t really need to invest hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars to attain this glowy look. Believe it or not, one of the simplest strategies “to get there” is by adding a facial oil to your skincare regime. Yep, the dreaded oil.
Here we go again with all the claims about facial oils: they clog the skin, they leave a greasy and tacky after-feel, they make your skin look so shiny that you blind everyone, and on and on. It is really difficult to understand all the bad press that oils have received when you come from a skin anatomy and physiology background. Honestly, none of the negative comments are based on current science and the only thing that they do is to guide people into making poor skincare choices.
Let us give you a hint of where all this misinformation came from: acne cosmetica. Does that term ring a bell? Well, this is the term used to describe acne caused by the topical application of cosmetic products and ingredients that are classified as comedogenic —tendency to clog pores and promote the formation of breakouts—. The term was coined —and based on the homonymous clinical study—by dermatologists Albert Kligman and Otto Mills back in 1972. They developed a rabbit ear assay (REA) which consisted in spreading different substances to the inner surface of the ear during a couple of weeks to assess if they clogged or not the follicles. The resulting comedogenic scale is as follows:
- 0 – Non-comedogenic
- 1 – Slightly comedogenic
- 2-3 – Moderately comedogenic
- 4-5 – Highly comedogenic
The downside of that test, as you can expect, is that rabbit´s skin shows marked differences when compared to its human counterpart. For example, it is much more sensitive, it has no bacterial colonization, and it is not highly keratinized. It is not surprising to find out that ingredients like lanolin, petrolatum and oleic acid-rich oils were classified as comedogenic —false positives, of course— according to REA. In 1989, Fulton produced its own version of this test based on the irritancy and comedogenicity potential of skincare products. The results of this study were similar to the one carried out by Albert Kligman and Otto Mills, this contributing even more to the oil-phobia that still reigns today.
*Table taken from 
A human model was put in place by dermatologists Parham Mirshahpanah and Howard I. Marbach evaluated the acnegenesis —causation of acne lesions— of different cosmetic ingredients. This option was supposed to avoid the flaws of the previous models, but it had its own share of problems. The substances were tested on the back skin of human guinea pigs with large pores, and then they were occluded with a bandage. You do not have to be a genius to understand that this model completely failed to replicate real life application of skincare formulas.
The “bucket of cold water” came in 2006 when doctors DiNardo and Draelos re-evaluated the concept of comedogenicity. Guess what?! Most of the ingredients that were originally labelled as comedogenic turned out not to be so. The explanation of this phenomenon is very simple. There are many other aspects that contribute to the clogging potential of an ingredient and/or finished product such as:
- Pore size
- Hormonal changes
- Sebum composition
- Amount of sebum secreted
- Weather conditions
- Level of keratinization of the skin
- The health of the microbiota (friendly flora)
- Concentration at which an ingredient is used
- Combination of ingredients
The million-dollar question is, should we apply facial oils or not? The answer is a definite YES! Visualize yourself being born 1,000 years ago, with no access to technology and transportation systems that would have allowed you to use state-of-the-art skincare formulas. Even though the environment was a lot cleaner back then, you would still have had to layer some sort of concoction in order to protect the skin from environmental aggressors —dust, sun, wind, etc.— as well as prevent the ravages caused by aging and stress. How did our ancestors manage to keep their skin healthy and youthful? You guessed it: by applying oils, butters waxes and even animal fat. If you do a little bit of research you will find out that every single culture has its own timeless beauty rituals that involve the usage of precious lipids. These substances are the closest in composition to our own “natural cream”: human sebum.
What is human sebum made of? Fatty acids, triglycerides, waxy esters, squalane and Vitamin E. If we closely analyze the composition of vegetable oils and butters we will realize that it is extremely similar to that of human sebum. An interesting fact is that acne sufferers present lower concentrations of linoleic acid —an omega-6 fatty acid—, vitamin E as well as an unbalanced ratio of triglycerides and wax esters. When this happens, squalane becomes oxidized —turns yellow solidifies— and loses its antibacterial properties. Oxidation of squalane causes other lipids present in human sebum to crystallize, thus promoting the formulation of comedones. Furthermore, the barrier function of the skin is compromised giving way to the penetration of pro-inflammatory substances that promote acne.
Based on this data, it is really difficult to understand where this oil phobia is coming from. We can compare it to the phobia against dietary fat that once ran rampant (not anymore thanks to the popularity of the ketogenic diet). Oils should be an essential part of every single skincare routine, regardless of the skin type. Middle and Far Eastern cultures have known this for ages, hence they´ve made oils a staple of their beauty rituals. It comes as no surprise why people in those parts of the world have been able to maintain a youthful and radiant look throughout their lives. If you are still wary of oils, we have listed below a few tips to safely incorporate them into your skincare regime:
- Avoid washing the skin with formulas that strip your skin of its natural oils. These will further deprive your skin of its linoleic acid.
- If you are going through a rough acne or oiliness patch, avoid oils that rank high in the comedogenic scale (4-5 due to their oleic acid concentration), and focus on those with a low ranking (rich in linoleic acid).
- If your acne or oiliness problem is not severe —or once things have normalized a little bit— you can apply the oils that are rich in oleic acid provided they are not the main ingredients of the formula (should be listed at the end of the inkey list).
- Save your face oils for the nighttime routine, unless you will stay indoors during the day and won´t apply any makeup on top.
- Make sure the rest of your skincare products are not comedogenic.
- Support your new beauty regimen from the inside-out by avoiding refined sugar, hydrogenated fats, heavily processed foods, and gluten. If possible, eliminate dairy products and try to maintain your blood sugar levels stable by eating foods rich in fiber.
We hope that this article has helped set the record straight about facial oils and also inspired you to jump into the beauty oils bandwagon.
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels