This winter, I made it my mission to integrate face oils into my cleansing routine without feeling like a greased-up baking pan. For one, the natural ingredients and luxurious feel of these concoctions are appealing to my dry winter skin. And I hate having FOMO when reading the online chatter about the miracle oils. But the results weren’t stellar.
Some left my skin broken out, while others absorbed so quickly that it’s like they were never even there. And at times, I found it difficult to wear makeup afterward without having it slide off by midafternoon.
Admittedly, my skin oil experiments have been haphazard. I opt for whatever ingredients sound good on the bottle (or online), without much thought on how it personally affects my skin. I find it impossible to read through the fine print of exotic-sounding ingredients (marula or rosehip oil anyone?) without being tempted to try them all. (Related: I Took an At-Home DNA Test to Help Customize My Skin Care)
But I’m not giving up yet on reaping the potential of clear glowing skin. I spoke to natural skin care experts and dermatologists to find out how to make sense of the madness to actually get those miracle results. Here, what they say you should know before investing in a pricey skin oil.
Sleep On It
You can tell a lot just by feeling the consistency of the face oil, says Julie Elliott, creator of natural San Francisco–based brand In Fiore. Thinner oils absorb slower into the skin, while heavier oils can be more absorbent. Some thinner oils including grapeseed, prickly pear, and evening primrose are high in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid found in plant oils, which is excellent for getting rid of inflammation or for calming acne-prone skin. Most oil blends mix both thick and thin oils for optimal absorption. “You don’t want an oil that’s going to sit on top of skin,” because it can’t absorb and do its job, she says.
When testing formulations, Elliott applies the oil after cleansing before bedtime. If her face is irritation-free and looks healthy in the morning, she’s heading in the right direction. On the other hand, if her skin feels too dry or too oily, she knows the oil is not a fit and continues to tweak the recipe. (While oils can be applied morning and night, Elliott suggests experimenting with oils in the evening.)
Don’t be fooled by the initial scent and the luxurious feeling of applying a face oil, she adds. “Most oils feel pretty incredible upon application, but the real test is in the morning,” she says. When you wake up, look for an oil that has left your skin clear and brighter without any dry patches—that way you’ll know the oil is protecting and hydrating your skin. Keep weather in mind too—warmer months can make your skin oilier, so you may want to try an oil that’s lighter to the touch.
Read the Back of the Bottle
Each skin oil is a blend of essential and carrier oils, since you can’t use essential oils directly on your skin, says Cecilia Wong, a New York–based spa owner with celebrity clients. The carrier or base oil is typically extracted from seeds or other fatty parts of a plant and purified with a milder aroma; it appears close to the top of the ingredient list. As you keep reading, look for essential oils that are distilled from non-fatty parts of a plant, including bark or roots, which are more potent and include the aromatic parts of the plant. Often, the products combine extracts, additional fragrance, and agents that help with stabilizing the ingredients or perfecting the consistency. Looking up some of the key oils online can help you get a better sense of the skin problems these oils are typically used to address—or to find red flags. (Related: What Are Essential Oils and Are They Legit?)
Some websites rate the comedogenicity of oils to show which ones are likely to cause an allergic reaction. For example, sweet almond oil is often thought of as comedogenic, while oils including safflower and argon typically won’t cause irritation. Other common oils that are non-irritating and often aimed at helping acne-prone skin include grape seed, rosehip, and apricot kernel. On the other hand, avocado and argon oils are richer and can work best for dryer skin types.
And one last note on that label: More isn’t always better, and there’s no need to pick a product with the most complex or exotic-sounding ingredient label. Even simple combinations with a handful of oils yield great results, says Wong. (Related: How to Make the Switch to a Clean, Nontoxic Beauty Regimen)
Don’t Be Tempted By “All-Natural” Claims
When it comes to skin oils, one of the common refrains is that natural is best, but any plant ingredient can cause an allergy, meaning even natural oils can irritate skin, says Lauren Ploch, M.D., a dermatologist in Augusta, GA. And, “since natural ingredients can’t be patented, research can be difficult to come by,” warns Elliott.
So when using a skin oil, look for any signs of reactions on the skin—whether it’s irritation or breakouts. Marula oil, for example, can be irritating to people with nut allergies, so it’s best to test it on a small patch of the skin. Some of Dr. Ploch’s patients don’t tolerate skin oils altogether, she adds.
The good news is, even if skin oils don’t work for you, there may be creams, lotions, and emulsions that are just as absorbent as a heavy oil, Dr. Ploch adds.
The Payoff Is Worth It
Skin oil converts attest to benefits that go far beyond moisture—brightening dull skin, clearing up breakouts, smoothing fine lines, and balancing out combination skin are just some of what oils can help with, says Wong. And with a few drops per use, a pricey bottle can last months. These days, many companies are also seeking out the purest form of the natural ingredient, which can up the skin benefits because the oils are used in their most natural state.
If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that face oils are less predictable across skin types. It takes time (and a willingness to experiment with many tiny sample bottles) to find one that’s a fit.