Facial oils are widely popular for their ability to plump up skin while locking in hydration. Often brands will say you can skip your moisturizer. All you need is their oil to keep your skin balanced! But not so fast, are facial oils actually hurting your skin, causing damage you can’t see?
Oils are either emollient or occlusives, lacking humectant properties of many moisturizers. The bigger problem actually comes down to maintaining proper lipid balance in our skin. Plant oils are composed of fatty acids while our skin is composed of additional lipids along with fatty acids. Because of this, using a facial oil alone can cause a lipid imbalance in our skin. At the same time, heavy oil usage may cause damaging low-level inflammation over time. Whether intense or low level, inflammation causes skin issues like acne, rosacea, premature aging, and other inflammatory responses.
Personally, I’m in the camp of oils not being a sufficient source of moisturization on their own. I believe oils should be a supplemental addition to your repertoire to keep skin soft and supple. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of why I feel this way.
In order to understand how facial oils can damage our skin, we need a quick lesson on the role lipids play in our skin health.
When you think of healthy skin the adverbs like bouncy, plump, dewy, and supple likely come to mind. One vital detail in keeping our skin healthy is ensuring our skin barrier remains strong and healthy. Our skin’s ability to maintain a good balance of lipid and water levels is key.
Hydrating ingredients that maintain water balance are called Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMF), or components that mimic the structure and functions of healthy skin. Within our skin, lipids prevent water evaporation, provide lubrication, and contribute to the outer texture of the stratum corneum (SC) remaining smooth. Dry patch and flake free. When balanced, our skin is healthy. If there’s a lack of lipids we can experience sensitivity, irritation, dehydration, or dry skin. A good example of what happens when we have a compromised barrier is over-exfoliating.
Lipids account for about 15% of the stratum corneum weight. In composition, it’s an approximate mixture of 50% ceramides, 15% fatty acids, and 25% cholesterol.
Several factors impact our lipid balance within the stratum corneum, including age, genetics, seasonal and climate changes, and diet. When your skin is deficient in lipids it’s predisposed to becoming dry, as lipids aid in keeping NMF inside our skin’s cells. Lipids feed our skin cells, as they’re necessary to keep cells hydrated and aqueous enzymes stable so they function well. This is how lipids keep our barrier hydrated, allowing our skin to self-repair and function properly. The major players in retaining water in our skin barrier are ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. Maintaining a lipid balance help you achieve your goals of glowy supple skin.
When our skin barrier is healthy, skin appears smooth, soft, and plump. When our skin barrier is unhealthy, skin appears dry, rough, dull, and dehydrated.
If our lipids are out of balance, whether by facial oils or abusing our skin barrier, our skin’s ability to self-heal and recover is delayed. In other words, if your skin barrier is constantly dealing with delayed recovery, issues similar to when we over exfoliate will occur. The most worrisome symptom is the increase in inflammation.
No single lipid is more important than another. Skin lacking lipids can create a weakened skin barrier, creating the potential for redness, sensitivity, and irritation. Most facial oils do not contain each lipid, focusing on fatty acids, potentially causing damage to your skin in the long run. Long-term barrier dysfunction causes inflammation, dehydration, and premature aging because the skin barrier can no longer self-repair.
Unless you’re a skincare professional trained to analyze skin, deciphering whether your skin is experiencing inflammation is challenging.
Here’s the thing, y’all: just because you don’t see aging, inflammation, or signs of a compromised barrier it’s happening. Initial symptoms that occur before these aren’t always noticeable to the untrained eye. In its early stages, only your dermatologist or esthetician may notice something isn’t quite right. In most cases, this slow-burning damage won’t be noticeable overnight. Everyone’s skin chemistry and lifestyle habits vary, so you might not notice for months, even years.
In the treatment room, I frequently noticed inflamed skin present in new clients who favored oils. Whether it’s using a straight oil as a moisturizer or a moisturizer formulated with mostly oils, these clients showed inflammatory signs including heat in their skin, acne, reactivity, sensitized skin, irritation, or worst case, premature aging.
The beginning stages of inflammation or low-level inflammation isn’t always as apparent as severe inflammation. In dark skin tones, inflammation will appear purple, whereas fair skin tones will look pink. The change in skin tone can be incredibly subtle. Other signs include reactive skin where your complexion becomes flushed or sting from water, washcloths, or products you didn’t have an issue with prior. You might feel an unusual warmth or heat to the touch. An increase in acne, fine lines, and wrinkles can also be signs something is off within your skin.
Occlusive agents increase moisture levels in our skin by providing a physical barrier to epidermal water loss. Humectants attract water from the environment and pull it into your skin. Emollients provide some occlusivity and smooth flaky skin cells.
Another consideration is that facial oils are mostly occlusives with some being emollients. If you’re applying oil as your moisturizer your skin is missing out on other natural moisturizing factors. Doing so means your skin may never truly be hydrated, as it’s missing the benefits of humectants and emollients. Again, when our skin isn’t properly hydrated the barrier cannot function properly.
Oils should be considered supplemental hydration to balance your skin, not your sole source of moisture. I’ve been steadfast on this opinion for years now: always, always use a moisturizer. Choosing an oil over a moisturizer is fine from time to time but shouldn’t be your everyday solution. A safe rule to stand by is using oils in moderation.
If you’re afraid facials oils are hurting your skin, no need to worry. You have options!
Skincare can be confusing and complicated, and I do my best to make it simple. When developing Sarah Nicole Skincare, I wanted an easy system that combated damage we accidentally create in our skin. Whether we’re hurting our skin barrier by over-exfoliating or throwing its lipid balance off, we don’t realize it until it’s too late and we’re already experiencing unwanted symptoms.
That’s why each one of our products are formulated with soothing anti-inflammatories, humectants, and lipids to keep everyone’s skin healthy, dewy and glowing. Nourishing Cream is specifically formulated with phospholipids and sphingolipids to replenish our skin’s lipids, eliminate inflammation, and it works for all skin types. We even have a skin barrier friendly facial oil that’s perfect to supplement for an extra supple, dewy look.