Long gone are the days of us viewing natural oils in skin care as mere carriers for essential oils in a massage treat. Today, we’re really beginning to appreciate the unique skin health benefits they bring. Natural oils play an excellent 3-in-1 skin care role: as cleaners, toners and moisturizers. They are also put to work to alleviate many common skin problems such as acne, rosacea, eczema, dry skin, oily skin, broken capillaries, lightening hyper-pigmentation spots and more. Some also have natural SPF (sun protection factor) properties.
Using natural oils for skin care can at face value seem as if you’re layering oil on oil. Isn’t the ideal moisturizer one that doesn’t sit like an oily layer? Isn’t the point of cleansing your skin, especially if you’re prone to acne or breakouts, to remove that greasy feeling and stop the shine? And how can face oils actually ‘wash’ since they are water-repellent – hydrophobic?
Here, we dispel the myths about using natural oils for skin care and give the essentials on using them in your daily beauty routine. As each oil has unique characteristics, we stick to the top-level story to get you started on using beauty oils: why use them; what to look out for; how to store; and how best to use them to boost your skin health, both face and body; and a whole lot more.
What is a natural oil?
Natural oils are pure plant oils extracted from the seeds, nuts, kernels or the flesh of vegetables and fruits. Examples are borage seed oil (from myriad tiny seeds), sweet almond oil (from the nuts) and olive oil (flesh of the olive) and avocado oil (flesh, not the stone).
They are also known as fixed oils and carrier oils. Fixed oils leave an oily residue on kitchen or blotting paper. It’s a term used to differentiate vegetable oils from essential oils which are volatile and won’t leave a stain behind unless they have residual colour in them. Natural botanical oils act as a lubricant to apply essential oils in massage. Aromatherapists often use the term carrier oil for this reason.
How natural beauty oils work on the skin
We won’t get too heavy on the chemistry but there are a few things to know about the make-up of natural oils so you understand how they work their magic in your skin care.
Botanical oils are lipids; that is, they come from a wide classification of oils, fats and waxes that all animals and plants contain in varying degrees. Fixed oils are made up fatty acids plus glycerols, to be precise. You will probably have heard of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) as being important in healthy eating (and also of so-called ‘bad fats’ or saturated fatty acids which are ‘bad’ cholesterol building).
Well, the body can’t produce EFAs so needs to ingest them (think of the advice on eating oily fish or taking cod liver oil capsules). Natural vegetable oils contain various fatty acids, including EFAs, in varying amounts depending on the oil concerned. These can penetrate the epidermis when we massage certain plant-based oils onto our skin care.
When we apply natural oils in skin care, they are easily and directly absorbed and boost our own lipid barrier to improve our skin’s appearance and hydration. Plant oils help immensely in anti-aging skin care by replenishing our skin’s lipids which deplete with age and which are crucial in holding together the epidermis – the very top dead skin layer or stratum corneum. As most of us know, we have far oilier skin when young and as we age, our skin tends to ‘dry’ and reduce in firmness. Lipids and collagen (a protein) depletion are to blame.
The reason plant oils are so effective at replenishing our skin is their similarity to our skin’s own lipids. Jojoba is actually a liquid wax but it is one natural ‘oil’ that is closest to the make-up of our skin’s own oil – sebum. For this reason, it is a popular carrier oil. It’s also light and barely scented so extremely useful as a carrier oil for essential oils and as a main base oil in blended natural oils for skin care.
In contrast, mineral oil based skin care created from petroleum industry by-products is of a different molecular structure to botanical lipids and not broken down by our bodies. It merely creates an occlusive layer on our skin at best, and can clog our pores and upset our skin’s natural functioning. At first, we may see some improvement as our skin won’t dehydrate but longer term, it won’t aid and abet our body’s mechanisms. All in all, a pure, natural plant oil does a whole lot more for your skin than a jar of cheaper mineral oils disguised in synthetic perfumes!
We came across this useful list of EFAs in carrier oils, if you’d like to read more.
Why Natural Oils and not Moisturizers?
Oils are awfully, well, oily aren’t they? So why use them if you’re not keen on a slippery layer and prefer a light touch of moisturizer? To answer this, we need once more to look under the lid at the ingredients. Above, we said that oils pretty much mirror our own skin’s make-up – those lipids – and that’s the clue to why they make more sense than moisturizers.
While an oil may at first seem greasy to apply it absorbs fast into the epidermis going to work immediately. That said, different oils absorb at different rates depending on their molecular make-up and viscosity. Some oils like castor oil are actually quite heavy and are not used in large percentages in beauty oil blends. Watermelon seed is a lighter, drier oil more suited to oilier skins or summer skin care. The beauty of natural oils is their variety and the uses we can put them to. There is literally an oil for everyone’s preference and skin type or condition!
What of moisturizers then, which do of course in many cases contain natural oils?
Moisturizers tend to have water as their main ingredient, which means preservatives (see below for more on those) are needed to keep them from going off. So, you’re paying for water! The next ingredients on the labels are usually waxes with a few oils, preservatives and that catch-all ‘parfum’ trailing behind.
Water does penetrate skin to some degree but not enough to be effective; our skin can only take so much otherwise we’d swell every time we had a bath otherwise! Drinking water is a better way to hydrate your skin from within.
Waxes meanwhile can clog pores and when used longer term can be detrimental to the skin which needs to ‘breathe’ to expel toxins. Its prime role is to create an occlusive layer to stop skin dehydrating. The few oils sometimes included are the most important ingredients, but as we can see, they are pretty watered down in the average moisturizer.
With 100% natural oils in skin care you get all the positives and few negatives*. With many moisturizers you’re paying largely for water, some anti-dehydration and a few active botanicals. Added to that, some moisturizers use mineral oils and synthetic fragrances. Not an ideal cocktail to help skin health.
*Always do a test patch with any new natural oil skin care to ensure you are not allergic or have a reaction to it. All natural oils are of course chemicals too; just not synthetic ones! Read natural skin care usage instructions and apply as stated.
How are natural oils produced?
There are three main ways of extracting natural oils: cold-pressing; CO2 extraction; and maceration. All three methods are used in producing beauty oils. Knowing a little about the extraction methods is useful in judging which oil to buy and also to understand the prices of beauty oils you’ll come across.
Cold Pressing of Natural Oils: You will be familiar with the cold pressing if you’ve ever bought olive oil for cooking. First cold-pressed oils are the highest grade as the source plant matter is at its freshest from tree to press at that stage and will still have its beneficial nutrients (active plant matter or phenol constituents) in tact. First cold-pressed olive oil is a deep almost murky green as the botanical extracts are still present in high amounts. Later pressings often use heat to extract the final drops of precious vegetable oil but heat also damages the fragile botanical elements and speeds the oil’s degradation through oxidization.
CO2 Botanical Extraction is one of the gentlest and purest ways to extract natural oils. The process is like traditional steam distillation of essential oils as it puts the botanical matter under pressure to extract a really pure and natural oil. CO2 is inert and completely natural – we expel it when we breathe. It turns into liquid under certain pressure enabling it to act as a solvent removing essential oils and some natural vegetable oils. Then, the C02 is removed leaving a pure and natural oil. Common C02 extracted oils include rose hip, rosemary antioxidant, calendula and sea buckthorn. Sometimes, you find C02 extracts suspended in carrier oils like jojoba to aid their use as some as almost solid at average room temperature. C02 extracts are mostly fat-loving (not water-loving) and therefore dissolve well in other natural oils.
Maceration is something many of us did as kids! It’s the process of taking cut up botanical matter and steeping it in a carrier oil in direct sunlight or with a little heat, and then straining it to remove residual particles. Sunflower oil is often used as a carrier oil in maceration on account of its fairly neutral scent and high Vitamin E content which helps stop the oil oxidizing. Calendula and carrot oils are the most common macerated oils in skincare. It is used for very fragile essential oils and those that yield little per tonne of raw botanical material; such as rose and jasmine. Delicate flowers oils like these were once extracted using an ancient method of enfleurage which took root in the town of Grasse in Provence, the seat of perfumery. For more, see how to make your own macerated oils.
What does this mean for skin care then?
To get the full benefits of those active botanical elements of natural botanical oils, you should aim to buy those that state they are from a first cold pressing. CO2 extraction does not result in the same chemical make-up of the plant being retained and there are schools of thought that the level of beneficial biological activity and therapeutic effects of CO2 extracts does not equal those of cold-pressed oils. They are still excellent extracts but if, like us at AlchemyduCorps, you’re a purist, then go for cold-pressed oils or macerated ones using the finest carrier oils. First cold-pressed oils cosmetic quality oils do come with a heftier price tag than lower grade and therefore less useful oils from a beauty perspective. We want all those phenols, vitamins and other active botanical ingredients put to work in our skin care after all!
Bear in mind that some oils of great value to skin care may be diluted in cheaper oils such as sunflower. Check the percentage of each oil in any blend by reading the labels carefully. Ingredients listed first are those present in higher volumes in the natural oil. Also, check the use by or best before dates. See below for more on the shelf life of natural oils.
Can I use cooking oils for skin care?
Yes, you can, but we don’t recommend it. First, natural vegetable oils sold for cooking are usually lower grade oils. You will find some natural, organic, first cold-press oils such as olive oil in supermarkets. But we wouldn’t advise using, say, pure olive oil anyway, for the reasons we give here. Also, the label first cold-pressed can be misleading; brand name producers sometimes collect olives over a week before pressing, thereby losing some of the fruit’s natural benefits before production even started.
Second, professionally-blended natural oils created specially for skin care and beauty are tested to ensure they are not harmful when used for the purpose intended. Cooking oils are not intended for skin care and so we advise caution in applying them without expert advice from a health practitioner, professional beautician or aromatherapist or your physician.
Thirdly, supermarket oils like sunflower won’t generally be 100% pure, natural oils. They often refined to remove residues or strong scents in a process that removes also their botanical benefits. They may contain non-natural preservatives to extend their shelf life and can come in plastic containers which leach undesirable chemicals into the oil. Light and heat will degrade these oils quicker than those stored correctly for cosmetic use (see below for shelf life and storage).
Are Organic Natural Oils best?
In an ideal world, all our food and skin care raw materials would be organically farmed or wild harvested, sustainably, well away from chemicals. If you can find organic natural oils at a price you can afford, then go for it. True 100% organic oils are not only grown and harvested by organic means but also undergo production methods that are certified organic. Some oils are virtually impossible to find in organic form for a variety of reasons. First, the country or region might not have a verified body able to authenticate and verify the organic status and second, what constitutes ‘organic’ is rather vague, and varies from country to country.
Lastly, as is the case in Malta, Alchemy’s home base, no farm can be certified organic as the country is too small and there is likelihood of cross-contamination from a non-organic farm. We use organic oils wherever possible in our products, but do source some oils from farms and producers we know don’t use chemicals but that can’t be certified as organic. There is always a trade off and we like to support Fair Trade and local producers in the Mediterranean region.
Therefore, your choice of all-organic, part-organic or just natural and not certified organic oils is up to you. Clearly, we believe that organic oils are a better option as the fewer synthetic chemicals and non-natural production processes the plant and its oil come across, the fewer undesirable elements enter the final cold-pressed oil. Check any labels that say ‘organic’ as the term can legally be used in many jurisdictions even if only a modicum of the total ingredients are from certified organic sources.
How best to Use Carrier Oils
Natural face oils can be used alone, as a single oil, depending on your needs, or in blends. Sometimes, you’ll find them with added, active botanicals like essential oils that are chosen to work on specific skin issues such as anti aging, to lighten hyper-pigmentation or sooth sensitive skin.
It best to blend oils for maximum affect in your skin care and beauty routine. Evaluating which oils are right for your skin type or skin complaint, and whether to use them alone or in a blend, takes some research. Always do a test patch before using any oil in your skin care. You might find you have an allergic reaction to it. Natural doesn’t mean it won’t affect your skin adversely.
Natural Oils for Every Skin Type
It might take a trial to convince you, but yes, there are oils for each skin type – even acne-prone skin! Let’s take that skin type as an example. We’re so used to hearing that we have to reduce oil production, stop the shine and cleanse our skin squeaky clean that it’s hard to believe oil can alleviate excess sebum production. But think about how washing-up liquid acts on oily plates. It’s not watery; it’s made of various synthetic oils and gels. It lifts the grease off the plates while the water we use merely rinses them.
Natural oils do an even better job than that. They not only lift the bacterial-infected oil from our skin but they do so without stripping our skin of its natural oils completely. Remember, we said that plant oils have lipids similar to the make-up of our own skin and sebum?
We might need to juggle which oils we put in the blend to suit our skin type, but natural oils will have a gentler cleansing effect than say acne relief creams, washes and scrubs and AHA and micro-derm products. These will only strip your oils and cause your body to go into overdrive to create even more sebum. So they tend to cause a vicious circle of acne, strip cleanse and overproduction causing more acne, welts, redness and irritation.
We talked earlier of how natural oils beat regular moisturizers and how they plump up (tone) our skin. Each oil has unique characteristics and can act on different skin issues. AlchemyduCorps has put hours of research into natural oils in skincare, and we’ve formulated a range of facial spa skincare for each main skin type. Sign up for our Launch Exclusives enews for special offers and info on our capsule range coming end 2016.
What about Preservatives?
Skin care and cosmetics with water as an ingredient need by law (EU Cosmetics Directive) some sort of broad spectrum preservatives to stop the growth of bacteria, mould and funghi which not only destroy the product but are harmful to you. Face oils are anhydrous, which means they don’t contain water. Some bi-phase toners have oil and water parts which don’t mix so you need to shake them before use to mix to two layers temporarily; they will have preservatives. So natural oils don’t need preservatives as such though some brands may include them for extra safety. What they will contain though are antioxidants to slow down natural degradation of the oil – see the next point below.
What’s the Shelf Life of Natural Oils?
Natural oils aren’t immune to going off but their shelf life is generally longer than cosmetics and skin care with water present. The shelf life will depend on the type of oil, but in general one year is a good rule of thumb. If you’ve ever bought quality olive oil, you’ll have noticed a ‘best before’ date on the label saying use within a year. That way, the nutritional benefits of that extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil will still be present. In all-natural face oils, you’ll find naturally-derived antioxidants like Vitamin E (tocopherol) and rosemary CO2 extract. Sunflower seed oil which is rich in Vitamin E is often used in blended carrier oils to boost the levels of antioxidants.
Jojoba (a liquid wax) and coconut oil have far longer shelf lives of up to 3 years while borage and evening primrose might only last 6-8 months before going rancid. If you find the colour or consistency has changed and/or the oil is smelling strange, it is best to throw it away.
Thanks to the kind of containers oils are dispensed from there is also far less chance of bacteria entering an oil than a traditional jar moisturizer which your fingers may dip into in when you apply it. Air-lock pumps for oil facial serums and flip-top lids for body oils are there to ensure you don’t waste nor spill the precious oils, and also ensure there is less chance of air coming into contact with the oil.
Look for face and body oils and serums in dark glass bottles with those air-lock caps or pumps and store them in a dark, cool place. To prolong shelf-life, we recommend refrigeration if you live in a hot climate. Light and air oxidizes oils and makes them rancid. Take a leaf from top quality olive oil producers who actually store their oil in steel or dark glass. If your oil comes with herbs infused, these should be removed immediately. Herbs introduce moisture, however dry they were when infused, that will decompose in your beauty oil.
We came across this very useful guide to the shelf life of carrier and essential oils.
Further Reading on Natural Oils in Skin Care
If this guide has whetted your appetite to learn more about natural oils in skin care, we recommend this book to dive into:
Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage by Len Price
There are so many online resources on natural oils but this one on Aromaweb has details on a long list of individual oils and an overview of Essential Fatty Acids: