How to Get the Maximum Benefit from Skin Oils

Argan oil is one of the oils that are acceptable for dry skin.

Oils are extremely popular on the market right now.  From cult favorite mixtures like Rodin Olio Lusso Skin Oil to 100% pure argan oil, large-scale and boutique beauty companies alike are each premiering their own natural or organic oil concoctions.

However, as with synthetic beauty products, not all natural oils are created equal.  Keep the following in mind:

1.)  Avoid Almond, Avocado, Olive, Sesame, Castor, and Apricot Oils if You Have Dry Skin.

A 1-liter glass bottle and bowl Bertolli brand...
If you have dry skin, keep the olive oil on your plate – not on your face. Olive oil will trap moisture into your skin as an occlusive agent, but if you don’t have much skin moisture to begin with, this doesn’t help. Of course, olive oil makes a great moisturizer for normal skin types.

There are two kinds of oils:  Occlusive agents and emollients.

It may sound counterintuitive, but some skin oils will not help dry skin.  This is because certain oils act as occlusive agents, which trap existing moisture into the skin, not adding moisture.  Dr. David E. Bank, M.D., the Director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York, explains it best:

“Dry skin is actually low in water, not in oil.  That’s why most moisturizers list water as the first ingredient in the label.  You need to realize that water, not oil, is the first ingredient you need to add moisture back into the skin.”

Oils that are occlusive agents and not great for dry skin include almond, apricot, avocado, sesame, and olive.  So if you’ve been using these alone on your dry skin, expecting hydrated skin, think again.

2.)  Use Argan, Coconut, Palm, and Pequi Instead for Dry Skin.

Emollients help to hold onto moisture as well, but they go one step further, increasing skin’s permeability (and therefore the amount of water skin can hold) (Skin Therapy Letters, 2001).

However, not all emollients are created equal.  For the really scientifically-minded, the best emollients have medium-to-long-chain hydrocarbons (Dermatitis, 1992), which include linoleic, linolenic, oleic, and lauric, which can be found in palm oil, coconut oil (Skin Therapy Letters, 2001), argan oil, and pequi oil.

Keep in mind that many oils have emollient and occlusive properties.  In fact, most emollients will have occlusive properties if you apply too much (Skin Therapy Letters, 2001).  However, when we analyze which are emollient and which are occlusive, we decide on the basis of a typical dose.

3.)  Don’t Try Mixing Oils at Home.

Oil tasting, BAIA October 2006 Wine Tasting, C...
Mixing oils at home can lead to comedogenicity (clogged pores) and irritation.

Over recent years, the oil cleansing method has become very popular on the internet.  Those with oily skin are advised to use 60-75% castor oil mixed with 25-40% extra virgin olive oil, but those with very dry skin are suggested to use 25-40% castor oil to 60-75% extra virgin olive oil.  [Read more:  Does the Oil Cleansing Method Work?]

There is admittedly some valid science here.  Castor oil has been shown to alleviate acne (Phytotherapy Research, 2002), while olive oil has protective antioxidant properties (Toxicology, 2003).  But you should NOT mix these oils yourself.

Just like doctors go through rigorous training to treat your body, cosmetic chemists undergo years of schooling to concoct formulas for your skin.  Many hold Ph.D’s and are doctors in their own right, while others learn the ropes through years of laboratory training.  But the point here is, just like you wouldn’t mix your own drugs, you should not mix your own skin care at home.  There are numerous reports of contact dermatitis and chelitis from castor oil exposure (Archives of Dermatology, 1961; Contact Dermatitis2000, to cite a few), as well as olive oil (Contact Dermatitis, 2006).

What’s more, a 2007 article in The New Yorker reported less than 40% of olive oil sold in U.S. stores contained the proper constituents.  So do yourself (and your skin) a favor, and trust the chemists/professionals.  For oil-based cleansers formulated by experts, I like Olivella Cleansing Wipes, the Amore Pacific Cleansing System, Eve Lom Cleanser, and the cleansing formulas from Love Renaissance.

4.)  Unless You Have Oily/Acne-Prone Skin, Apply Immediately After Showering.

To get the maximum benefit from skin oils, apply right after showering. This can also help all types of oils work better for those with dry skin.

As I said before, even emollient oils can become occlusive when you apply too much, so dry skin isn’t really benefiting very much.  (Trapping zero moisture under the skin leaves you with, well, zero moisture!)  On the other hand, applying oils after showering helps to seal the moisture into the skin.  It may be annoying if you shower in the morning – putting clothes on a still-wet self is not a vision you see in Vogue – but if you bathe in the evening, it is wonderful to apply oils after, especially if you put on a 100% cotton robe afterwards.

5.)  If You Have Oily/Acne-Prone Skin, Use Oils Only to Cleanse – Never to Treat.

Sammy washing face
Oil dissolves oil, so oily/acne-prone skin can benefit from small amounts of oil-based cleansers occasionally. Truth be told, cleansers with salicyclic acid are better. (Photo credit: danielcraig)

Oil-based cleansers are great because like dissolves like in chemistry.  So a oil-based cleanser can dissolve oils within your skin.  Tremendous.

But oil-based treatment products are not great for those with oily/acne prone skin because they only contribute to pores that are already filled with sebum, overproducing oil.  So do yourself a favor and nix this trend altogether if you have oily/acne-prone skin.

Bottom Line

A few take-home points:

  • Those with dry skin will not benefit much, if at all, from oils like almond, apricot, avocado, castor, and olive.  These oils are occlusive agents that trap existing moisture into the skin.  But if you don’t have much moisture in your skin to begin with, these won’t help much.
  • Those with dry skin are better suited to oils like palm, coconut, pequi, and argan.  These oils contain fatty acids with more medium-to-long chain hydrocarbons.  As a result, they function as emollients, which increase the amount of moisture skin is capable of holding while binding to water and oils within the skin.  Keep in mind, however, that applying too much of these oils makes them solely occlusive – so you’re just trapping moisture in, not allowing your skin to add any, even with its increased capacity to hold moisture.
  • Never mix your own skin care oil products at home.  The risk for comedogenicity and irritation is simply too high.
  • Apply oils immediately after showering.
  • If you have oily or acne-prone skin, skip oils altogether.

Hope this helps,



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  • @Zee

    You’re absolutely right. I honestly forgot that orally-administered isotretinoin does reduce sebum outflow (by reducing the size of sebaceous glands and sebum production) because I’ve been so focused on topical treatments. Sorry! 🙂

    As for the cleanser, what you’re doing is fine: using an oil to “bind” to everything on your face, and than using a powerful face wash to remove anything. I understand how the oil can act as a “buffer” to reduce the feelings of tightness and drying. However, I would prefer if you find a cleanser that’s potent enough to remove everything without drying your skin out, so you wouldn’t need an oil “cleanser” before. Obviously, whether or not you choose to do this is not going to make a huge difference in your skin, but it does simplify your routine.

    Oh and the salicylic acid content in a cleanser won’t do much since it’s on your skin for too short of a period of time, not to mention that the pH of water (7), which is what you wash your face with, will not allow for adequate exfoliation and penetration.

    I hope that makes sense and again, you’re very welcome!

  • Zee

    @John Su

    Sorry i should say that Isotretinoin as Accutane is no longer prescribed in the USA.. I know it has generic oral/topical alternatives …

    (Oddly enough, I was prescribed Accutane while I was living in BC, Canada as well :/ )

  • Zee

    @John Su

    Wow! Thank you for de-mistifying Jojoba Oil. From what you’ve shared it doesn’t seem to have any particularly special properties. I think I find success in using it simply because “Like dissolves like” as you say above and thus it effectively removes my daily makeup. It can be harsh on the skin if i’m having to wash 2-3 times everytime i wash my face.. even for oily/acne prone skin.

    You mention that only hormones can control oil production but I read that prescription ingredient Isoretinoin also slows oil production, however I do recognize this is no longer prescribed in the US, it is still available in Canada for severe acne ( I previously used it for 3 cycles some years ago and it did wonders in minimizing my oil production to this date)

    In the method I described using the Oil to simply remove makeup then following it up with a salicylic acid cleanser, would you still advise not to use the oil in this fashion? I’m thinking if i’m not leaving the oils on the skin as a hydrator/ moisturizer ( which I agree would not make sense for an oily skin/acne prone person) does that not mean there would be minimal to no impact in exacerbating my acne/oils?

    My issue is that Neutrogena Oil free acne wash for example leaves my skin feeling tight and dry afterwards, which seems to speed up the time in which my skin produces oil

    Thanks for your informative response, really appreciate you taking the time to help the average consumer such as myself weed through all the false information out there.


  • @Zee

    Actually, jojoba oil is just like every other non-fragrant plant oil. Yes, it contains wax esters, but it also contains free fatty acids, and trigylcerides. I have no idea where you got the idea that jojoba oil is so special. And since it does have a resemblance to sebum, consider this: sebum itself is made up of wax ester, triglycerides, free fatty acids, and squalene as evidenced in this article: So if jojoba oil is in fact, similar to sebum, if it only contained wax esters, it actually wouldn’t be similar to it at all.

    Also, jojoba oil does not and cannot break down sebum. The only things that can do that are solvents like ethanol. And please don’t fall prey to the idea that sebum can trick the skin into stop producing sebum. That is a complete lie. 🙁 Only hormones can control actual oil production.

    I would also never recommend using oils on already oil and acne-prone skin. Because these skin types already have excess sebum, why would you add more to that, especially considering that jojoba oil is similar to sebum?

    Finally, I wrote an artice discussing the differences between non-fragrant plant oils and essential oils. Since jojoba oil is one of the former, I think you should read the article to have a better understanding what they actually are:

    Oh one more thing. Most if not all non-fragrant plant oils are both emollients and occlusive agents. I don’t agree with this post in that different types of non-fragrant plant oils are separated so absolutely in this either-or fashion. They’re just oils with different ratios of the various components seen in non-fragrant plant oils. And they most certainly can and should be used for drier skin types. Yes, dry skin is characterized by a lack of water content in the SC, but occlusive agents help reduce excess water loss. And in order to bring in additional water, something containing humectants AND excess water should be applied before the occlusive oil is applied on type. These ingredients, humectants, emollients, and occlusive agents work together to help dry skin. Ironically, I also discussed this issue in the post I wrote a week ago:

    I hope this all makes more sense now and thanks for reading.

  • Zee

    Hi Nikki,

    could you comment on using Jojoba Oil? – i use it now and I understand Jojoba is actually a wax ester not an oil therefore not an occlusive agent, as well it can help breakdown sebum that clogs pores.

    I’m thinking that makes it a great way to use the oil cleansing method for oily/acne prone skin. ( Particularly Comedone acne vs Cystic Acne)

    I generally only use this method to remove makeup ( including waterproof) and then i tend to follow it with a Salycylic acid cleanser anyway. By doublign it helps me to feel liek my skin is getting rid of the makeup thoroughly but also avoiding stripping away too much of my natural oils. ( which would mean i’d just get oiy again anyways :-/)

    Thoughts on Jojoba Oil?


  • Rae

    Love this article.

    And since I’m oily/ acne-prone, I’m following your advice on this one. I already currently use salicylic acid wash. I’m glad I’m doing something right-ish.

  • Hannah

    Nicki, I second the request for a post about Rose Hip oil. I just started using one because it is supposed to be chock full of antioxidants (with a bit of a retinol in it too via Vitamin A). I’m mid-twenties with sensitive skin, and the one time I did try Retin-A, my skin completely freaked out, beyond what could be a transition period… at this age I don’t think I need to start a real retinol, but it’s nice that I am getting a little bit with this Rose Hip oil.

    Anyway, my skin loves the Rose Hip oil (I am using the one by Pai). I am wondering if it is actually doing anything for my skin, besides for making it feel softer and look brighter. Thank you, as always. Your website is really a pleasure to read!

  • BooBooNinja

    Nicki, would you mind doing a piece on Rose Hip Seed oil?

  • Holly

    I enjoyed this post! I have dry/combo skin that is acne prone mainly on my chin..I have tried oils numerous times -jojoba, olive, argan and almond. And although I loved the results initially it was always short lived..I would end up with clogged pores, blackheads and just overall congested skin! And being dry I thought my skin would love oils. This article breaks it down!

  • @Karen – Well, I appreciate your input. And I do agree with you that everyone’s skin can be somewhat different. However, it would be difficult to find a group of dermatologists who recommend using oil for oily or acne-prone skin. The most recommended agents for such skin are salicyclic acid, retinoids, glycolic acid, lactic acid, benzoyl peroxide (if blemishes occur), and anti-inflammatory agents like green tea (if blemishes occur). While I’m glad hazelnut oil works for you, I certainly would not be comfortable recommending that to everyone.

  • @Erica – That’s a good point – Emu oil does have emollient properties. Excellent point, thanks.

  • @R.J. – Oil should be applied after serum. In general, thinner products should be applied before thicker ones. Serums are silicones, which have spaces between molecules. Occlusive oils do not.

  • Karen Stauss

    Couldn’t disagree more. I have oily skin and have zero issues using oils, especially Hazelnut oil. My skin loves this and I find I’m LESS oily each day when I use it as a nighttime moisturizer.

    One-Size-Fits-All simply doesn’t.

  • Erica

    You can add emu oil to the list that include argan and other oils with linoleic fats. Its my new fave and I use all over my skin, especially feet, before going to bed at night and it makes a huge difference.

  • RJ

    Should an oil be applied before or after serum?

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