Face Oils: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Using the Right One
Looking for a face oil? Worried about greasy skin and breakouts? Think again! The reason face oils are taking the skincare world by storm is because of their versatility.
This comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know to get started choosing and using a face oil for your skin type. Don't start shopping until you have read this face oil guide!
What is Sebum?
The sebaceous glands in our skin produce natural oil called sebum. How much (or how little) you produce is decided by genetics and hormones.
Sebum moisturizes, waterproofs, and protects your skin.
Sebum is composed of 57% fatty acids, 26% natural waxes, 12% squalene, and 4.5% cholesterol. Clogged pores come from a buildup of sebum and dead cells, which results in a blackhead or whitehead. If it becomes inflamed or infected, you develop a pimple.
While cleansing and exfoliating the skin removes excess sebum and cells, it is important to know that over-washing, over-scrubbing, or using harsh cleansers can strip and dry out your skin enough that it starts producing even more sebum. A damaged skin barrier will make breakouts worse.
What is a Face Oil?
A face oil is an anhydrous (contains no water) mixture of oils that may also contain oil-soluble, active ingredients, such as herbal extracts.
By not adding water or water-soluble ingredients, there is no need to add emulsifiers, solubilizers, surfactants, or preservatives. This helps give your skin a radiant glow with the fewest ingredients.
What is a Carrier Oil?
A carrier oil is a mild oil that doesn’t have many of its own outstanding properties such as color or scent. Carrier oils high in antioxidants are especially healthy for skin use.
The term carrier oil originates from the aromatherapy world where the purpose is to dilute essential oils so they can be used for the aroma while doing massage.
When developing our facial oils, we consider anything that could be used at 100% concentration on your face as a carrier oil and anything else as a specialized oil.
Examples of specialized oils not used at 100% concentration are: broccoli seed oil (which is really stinky), tamanu oil (which is thick and almost black), and sea buckthorn seed oil (which will stain your skin and clothes if used >1% concentration).They each have a specialized purpose and are effective in lower concentrations.
How Do Oils All Differ From One Another?
Oils are extracted from various seeds, nuts, kernels, and vegetables. Each is unique and contains different types and percentages of fatty acids, anti-oxidants, vitamins, phytochemicals, and minerals.
Cold pressing is the best method to extract phytonutrients from seeds. It's the least destructive extraction method that protects the delicate phytochemicals. Generally, the best face oils are cold pressed.
Can Carrier Oils Each Target Different Skin Types and Concerns?
Do they all possess such different compositions that they are each uniquely able to target individual skin concerns?
Yes and no.
This is a big question that took me down the rabbit hole learning about the difference between carrier oils and oil serums.
The short answer is yes, carrier oils are all unique. For example, pomegranate is one of the only sources of punicic acid, meadowfoam oil is high in eicosenoic acid, while borage and evening primrose oil are highest in GLA. Each unique carrier oil can be the star player in different products for different skin types and concerns.
However (big however), carrier oils are passive on the quest for dramatic, results-based skincare. They are nourishing, protective, soothing, and lovely, but if you're looking for an active approach you need to look at oil serums and other products with bioactivity.
Benefits of Using Oils on Your Face
The skin health benefits from using face oils are numerous. Phytochemicals are involved in fighting free radicals and possess potent anti-inflammatory properties. Many also have antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Fatty acids (oleic acid, linoleic acid, stearic), tocopherols, vitamins (i.e., Vitamin A and E), and active substances, such as bakuchiol, ellagic acid, and anthocyanins work to produce visible benefits to your appearance. This makes them essential in your skin care routine.
These are only a few of the many skin benefits of facial oils:
- Locks in moisture and prevents water loss
- Strengthens and repairs the skin barrier (which improves hydration)
- Antioxidants protect from free radicals and environmental damage
- Evens out skin tone and reduces discoloration
- Brightens for a radiant glow
- Enhances collagen production and improves elasticity which reduces the look of fine lines
- Creates a dewy finish when used before foundation
- Regulates your natural sebum production
- Reduces acne breakouts and blemishes (anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties)
- Soothes sensitive skin
Do Facial Oils Clog Pores?
The degree to which a carrier oil causes clogged pores can be classified according to a scale ranging from 0 (extremely unlikely) to 5 (likely).
Oils with a rating of 0-1 are best for all skin types and should be the oils of choice if you have oily skin or are prone to acne. They are often referred to as “dry oils” because they are light and penetrate quickly. The chance of clogging pores is extremely low.
Oils in the 2-3 range are best for people with normal, dry, or mature skin. They feel a bit heavier at first but will still absorb without leaving a greasy feel. Clogged pores are still unlikely for most people.
Anything rated 4 and 5 should usually be avoided in face products. An example is coconut oil, which is great for your hands and body, but best avoided for your face.
Just because something is listed as a comedogenic oil, it doesn't guarantee you clogged pores. Still, there are so many other options, why risk it?
Linoleic acid (an Omega 6) is a lightweight, thin, and easily absorbed essential fatty acid. Oleic acid (an Omega 9) is a bit thicker and feels richer. The ratio between the two is a major factor in determining the skin-feel, absorption rate, and whether it is suitable for oily or acne prone skin.
Do Oils Moisturize or Hydrate Your Skin?
Hydration and moisturization are different.
Hydration is determined by how much water stays within your cells. Dehydration is due to water loss and is caused by low humidity, aging, UV exposure, low water intake, hot showers, air-conditioned environments, etc. Humectants, such as hyaluronic acid, work by pulling moisture from the air and bringing it to your skin. Even oily skin can become dehydrated.
Skin dryness is determined by the amount of oil present. Dry skin may feel rough and look flaky. Moisturization traps and seals moisture while building the skin’s protective barrier to prevent water loss. Skin that is damaged and irritated will lose water. Dry skin needs emollients to help re-establish the broken barrier.
Face oils work as emollients and moisturize your skin. However, they still improve your overall hydration because they lock it in and prevent water loss (transepidermal water loss - TEWL).
This is why face oils are so beneficial for all skin types.
Can Face Oils Replace Moisturizer?
Yes, for some people, using face oils alone without other products is enough to keep the skin hydrated and moisturized.
However, even with the simplest skinimalism routines, you will often find that you need to add a product with humectants. When layering products with face oils, use the oil last, so you seal in all the water-containing products.
How to Use Facial Oil
If you’re trying to simplify your routine and get down to a single product or two, facial oils are essential to your routine.
Routines often change based on skin type, condition, and the season of the year. Hormones contribute to skin needs and people who menstruate have cyclic changes. You may find you need a more occlusive or heavier oil at certain times of the year. However, even in the summer months, light facial oils are important to help prevent water loss from your tissues.
The single-carrier-oil approach is as simple as you can get. If your entire daily routine includes only cleansing and a single carrier facial oil, your skin will be healthy, soft and glowing.
If you want just a single oil for your face, try squalane as your first choice.
If you use only carrier oils, the effects on your skin will be less noticeable than if you buy specialized face oils with more active botanicals. So if you're looking for specific results like skin brightening or anti-aging, you may want to look into oil serums for a boost in results.
While we love the idea of oils being a single product solution for everyone, most people need a humectant and some treatments beyond just a carrier oil alone.
This means layering is important. When you add a face oil to your routine, be sure to put it on after your water-based serums. Face oils are often the last step in your regimen.
Do You Put on Oil Before or After Moisturizer?
As we discussed above, for some people face oils can replace a traditional moisturizer.
However, for most people, you'll want to use a more traditional serum, cream, or lotion that contains humectants as part of the moisturizing process. In this case, putting on your face oil last gives the most benefit.
This is true whether you're using an oil-based moisturizer or not.
Are Carrier Oils Safe?
Yes! Carrier oils are safe. Some, like sunflower, are extremely unlikely to cause issues and even recommended for newborn babies.
A few points of caution:
- Though not a carrier oil, tea tree oil helps some people with acne. However, it is a strong skin sensitizer and can increase irritation, especially with use over time. If you’re prone to allergy, eczema, or irritation - be careful with essential oils, especially on your face. They may make a product smell amazing, but they are a regular culprit for reactions.
- Cocoa, coconut, and marula oils are more likely to clog pores. They're safe to try, especially with very dry skin, but might not be the best face oil for you.
- Babchi seed carrier oil contains psoralen, a skin irritant. If you're looking to use the amazing ingredient bakuchiol, best to find products containing the pure version and skip the babchi carrier oil.
Another consideration is whether you avoid products that are animal-based and have cruelty concerns. Emu oil and lanolin are the two most common animal oils used in skincare. There are vegan alternatives to emu oil that are just as effective.
How To Choose The Right Oil for Your Face
While the amount of information can be overwhelming, there is a great deal that is known and easy to narrow down for consumers.
- There is a lot of overlap. Don’t overthink. While each oil is unique, a lot are comparable. Here is a quick face oil FAQ to review.
- Have realistic expectations. Carrier oils contain a large number of beneficial compounds and can improve your skin. However, they are not potent chemicals with drastic effects.
- Just try it! Do not spend a fortune. After researching what you would like to try, buy an organic (if available) cold-pressed version and try it.
If you have combination skin, you can experience all the benefits of using oils. Your dry areas will be moisturized and your oily areas will have sebum levels regulated - a perfect combo!
Choosing Face Oils for Your Skin Type and Skincare Goals
We are proud to be specialists in face oils. There are innumerable options out there and trying new ones is so much fun!
We’ve published an infographic below and are working to write specific, detailed articles about all the best natural oils based on your skin type.
Most of these same principles also apply to men's skin and beard care and if you're looking to pair an oil with a massage technique like guasha, or face rolling click the hyperlink to our other articles. The best hair oils are also covered separately.
Below are links to our detailed articles discussing the benefits of specific carrier and specialized oils for each different skin type and concern.
Devanesan, Arul Ananth, G. Deviram, V. Mahalakshmi, T. Sivasudha, & Z. Tietel. (2019). Phytochemical composition and antioxidant characteristics of traditional cold pressed seed oils in South India. Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology, 17, 416–421.
Downing, D.T., M.E. Stewart, P.W. Wertz, & J.S. Strauss. (1986). Essential fatty acids and acne. Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, Feb 14(2 Pt 1), 221–25.
Comlekcioglu, N., S. Karaman, & A. Holcim. (2008). Oil composition and some morphological characters of Crambe orientalis var. orientalis and Crambe tataria var. tataria from Turkey. Natural Product Research, 22(6), 525–32.
Fulton, James E. (1989). Comedogenicity and irritancy of commonly used ingredients in skin care products. Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists,40, 321–33.
Fulton, James E., S. Bradley, A. Aqundez, & T. Black. (1976). Non-comedogenic cosmetics. Cutis, 17, 344–51.
Hsouna, A.B., & N. Hamdi. (2012). Phytochemical composition and antimicrobial activities of the essential oils and organic extracts from pelargonium graveolens growing in Tunisia. Lipids Health & Disease, 11, 167.
Lin, T.K., L. Zhong, & J.L. Santiago. (2017). Anti-inflammatory and skin barrier repair effects of topical application of some plant oils. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 19(1), 70.
Makrantonaki, E., R. Ganceviciene, & C. Zouboulis. (2011). An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acne. Dermato-endocrinology, 3(1), 41–49.
Rokosik, E., D. Krzysztof & A. Siger. (2020). Nutritional quality and phytochemical contents of cold pressed oil obtained from chia, milk thistle, nigella, and white and black poppy seeds. Grasas y Aceites, 71, 368.
Vaughn, A.R., A.K. Clark, R.K. Sivamani, & V.Y. Shi. (2018). Natural oils for skin-barrier repair: ancient compounds now backed by modern science. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 19(1), 103–117.