It seems counterintuitive to put oil on your face when most of us don’t want to look oily—especially if we already happen to have oily, acne-prone, or combination skin. But that hasn’t stopped companies from making new face oils seemingly every week.
But there are also other lipids (fats and oils) produced by cells in the stratum corneum, the protective outer layer of skin that functions as the skin’s primary protection against water loss. Together, the oils produced by your skin keep the layers of your skin soft, seal hydration in, and protect against allergens and pathogens by keeping the stratum corneum in tact.
“Skin oils [that your face naturally produces] are critical to maintaining the barrier and minimizing water loss, which is essential for healthy, hydrated skin—and for preventing outside chemicals and irritants from entering the skin.”
Remember how your skin cells are like bricks and the oil is like mortar? Well, without the oils that your skin makes, the bricks can separate, allowing water to escape from your skin (a process referred to as transepidermal water loss) and causing dryness and flakiness. Many people have dry skin because their skin does not naturally produce enough oil to keep that outer layer of skin—which keeps hydration in—functional.
But, of course, it’s not always that simple.
Using harsh skin-care products (like some acne products) can either dry out your skin or even cause the skin to produce more oil in response to dryness, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains. “People with oily skin tend to think that a moisturizer will make the problem worse,” Joel Schlessinger, M.
D., board-certified dermatologist from Omaha, Nebraska, tells SELF.
What do facial oils do, exactly?
The basic idea is that putting an oil on your face will help supplement the natural oils your skin is (or isn’t) producing in an effort to add moisture to your skin and help repair the barrier that keeps that moisture in. Depending on the type of oil—jojoba, maracuja, coconut, argan, tea tree, etc.
—the oil may naturally have other purported benefits, like anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties, but those are bonuses. The biggest benefit that comes with an oil is the moisturizing benefit.
Interestingly, oils don’t typically fall into this category.
The other types of moisturizers are emollients (which are used to soften and strengthen the outer layer of skin by filling in the spaces between skin cells) and occlusives (which act like sealants to keep water in).
In general, oils fall into the occlusive and emollient categories, Jeremy A. Brauer, M.
The crucial factor here is the size of the fatty acid molecules that make up the oil.
If they’re too big to get through the skin barrier, they sit on top and act as occlusives. If they’re small enough to get through, they may be able to penetrate to deeper layers and strengthen the stratum corneum.
Whether or not an oil is the best choice for that issue is another question.
There are some oils that we know more about than others, he says.
Tea tree oil, for instance, has been shown to have some antibacterial and antifungal properties that can be useful for acne and seborrheic dermatitis, SELF explained previously. And rose hip oil is often touted as having antioxidant benefits.
So, even though the biggest benefit you might get from using an oil would be moisturizing, some oils are marketed as having other benefits. But every single oil product hasn’t been researched—and your derm probably isn’t going to recommend tea tree oil or rose hip as a first-line treatment over something like, say, a salicylic acne medication or topical retinoid that’s been in clinical trials and proven to work in a specific formula.
Oils may be appealing to some consumers because they’re touted as being “natural” or because they may be more accessible than whatever a dermatologist recommended. And, of course, those are valid reasons to use a product.
“Why would you [use] an oil that has an unknown concentration of something in it when you could [use] something that has a known concentration of that?” Dr.
“This is particularly important with oils, where [certain products] have been shown to cause allergic skin reactions in a certain portion of the population.” (After all, it’s the oil in poison ivy that causes its characteristic rash, Dr.
As a reminder: Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s inherently safe.
“Dry skin often results from the loss or disruption of its barrier function, which when intact, effectively traps water,” Dr. Brauer says, which could be a product of overwashing, overexfoliating, or just not producing enough oils naturally.
“So the application of oils, acting as an occlusive agent aids in the prevention of water loss,” he says.
D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF.
But you’ll have to choose one with care. We know that certain oils, like tea tree oil, can help reduce acne and inflammation, Dr.
“Not only do we not have clinical trials [for every single product on the market], but everybody’s skin is a little bit different,” he says. But it’s worth talking to your derm about your options beforehand to make sure you’re using something that won’t cause more issues and that you’re not overlooking another option that might be better for you.
Whether you’re using an oil or not, making sure your skin is hydrated (with a face oil or other type of moisturizer) is just as important for oily skin as it is for dry skin and can actually help reduce oiliness. It’s also especially important if you’re using harsh, drying acne products, as we mentioned above.
As usual, the best place to get your questions answered is your derm.
Not all oils are created equally. And because most oils haven’t been heavily studied, we don’t know much about what each oil is doing or the best way to use it.
That’s why it’s important to do as much of your own research as possible before using a new oil—or any new product, really—and consult a board-certified dermatologist who can help make recommendations about how to best care for your skin.