What You Need to Know About Natural Oils in Skincare

What You Need to Know About Natural Oils in Skincare

Natural oils, like coconut, olive, shea butter, argan, jojoba, sunflower, and others, have long been revered for their moisturizing, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory benefits. They have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years due to the growing interest in natural living and desire to eliminate toxins from modern life.

But does applying pure oil to your skin have proven benefits? What do oils actually do for our skin? In this post we’ll go over how oils work on the skin, when they might be helpful, and when you might want to consider alternatives. 

What do oils do on the skin? 

While some labels may claim that certain oils are “hydrating”, this is technically untrue. Hydrating means attracting water, but oils are actually hydrophobic—meaning they repel water. So unfortunately, applying oil to the skin doesn’t actually hydrate your skin. Instead, oils work by sealing the skin barrier and holding water to the skin.  If you have dry, itchy, inflamed skin, using products with certain oils might be helpful. But if you have oily or acne-prone skin, oils will probably not be your best option.

Some oils can also act as cleansers by emulsifying, or mixing with, oily residues from makeup or other products, gently lifting them from the skin. In contrast, water-based cleansers usually rely on surfactants, or detergents, to break down oily residues, which are then rinsed away. For those with very dry skin, certain surfactant-based cleansers can sometimes remove too much moisture and result in over-drying, so oils may be helpful here. Oils are also great at lifting away heavier products, like waterproof mascara. 

What benefits can oils offer when used on the skin? 

Many products containing oils tout their anti-inflammatory properties, and oils are often packed with phytonutrients, free fatty acids, and squalene, all of which offer potential antioxidant and anti-aging effects. While there is good evidence for these claims when oils are incorporated into the diet, unfortunately evidence is more limited when it comes to topical use. As noted above, most oils are excellent at holding moisture in and some, like sunflower oil, have been shown to help repair and maintain the all-important skin barrier (though interestingly olive oil actually disrupts the skin barrier because it contains higher levels of oleic acid).  There is good evidence that certain oils, like olive oil and avocado oil, may accelerate wound healing by promoting faster regeneration of underlying collagen fibers and regrowth of the overlying skin cells. And there is evidence for some benefit in medical conditions like eczema: Coconut oil, which has been used in ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, has been shown to help reduce risk of skin infection in patients with atopic dermatitis as its breakdown products, like lauric acid, have antimicrobial effects. 

However, there is controversy over whether oils actually penetrate past the top layer of skin to deliver effects other than moisturization. Since oils are hydrophobic, oils will typically sit on top of healthy skin once applied (that’s why they’re so good at keeping water in!). But if the oil is sitting on the skin surface, then you may not actually be getting as many of those antioxidant or anti-aging benefits as you hope. If you’re after anti-aging and the protective benefits of antioxidants, you might not want to rely only on oils. You will want to also use products formulated with clinical actives that are better able to penetrate that top layer of skin.

What problems can oils cause on the skin? 

While oils may be great at sealing the skin barrier and reducing water loss and dryness, that occlusive effect may have an unwanted effect: causing breakouts. Many oils are comedogenic - meaning they can block pores, and lead to development of blackheads or whiteheads. Even the vaunted coconut oil is considered comedogenic. So if you are particularly acne prone, it’s probably worth looking for other skincare products that are oil-free. If you have dandruff on the scalp or face (where it can show up as red, itchy, flaky patches, often near the eyebrows or around the nose and mouth) you may also want to be cautious about using oils on the affected skin. Dandruff, also called seborrheic dermatitis, is thought to arise from a complex interplay of skin microbes (yes, microbes live on your skin), oil on the skin, and the immune system’s reaction to the microbes, and adding more oil to this mix can either help - or hurt - the condition. If you're going to try a product, consider using a small amount first as a test spot to see how you react before slathering it on a large area. 

Oils, like any other natural product, may also cause irritation in certain cases. Fixed oils, like olive, coconut, sunflower, etc are usually less irritating, but oils with higher oleic acid content like olive oil can disrupt the skin barrier and cause irritation. Lanolin, an animal-derived oil, can cause allergic reactions. And when it comes to essential oils like tea tree oil or lavender oil, we have an entire blog post on this—these are known for potentially causing allergic or irritant reactions that lead to itching and redness. In general, dermatologists recommend avoiding use of essential oils if you have sensitive skin, or are prone to allergies and irritation.  

When should you consider alternatives? 

While applying oils to your skin can be helpful to keep skin moisturized, acne-prone or extra-sensitive skin benefit more from alternatives, like water-based serums, which are products that can absorb into the skin and don’t clog pores. With this increased absorption also comes the potential increased benefits if the product contains proven antioxidants like vitamin C and ferulic acid,  in addition to ingredients that maintain the skin barrier, like ceramides and squalene.  We always suggest that you consider products formulated without fragrance and essential oils. Remember to try any new product on a small area first before applying all over the face to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions.   


As with all our posts, this article is meant to be for informational and educational purposes only, and is not medical advice. When in doubt, please ask your physician.  


Teresa Fu, M.D.

Dr. Teresa Fu is a board certified dermatologist and mother of two. She graduated from Stanford Medical School and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area.