I’m always a little suspect of beauty folklore. Grinding beetle dung or adding roots and herbs to my skin care mix has never struck me as particularly effective. Essential oils are only essential in my book if they come with sound medical evidence. And anything remotely ancient, smacking of Egyptian myth or voodoo, has always been dismissed, as I cling to my Retin-A and faith in modern science to steer me toward glowy skin.
Then, last year, the never-ending winter hit. After weeks of bitter cold weather, my face was literally sore and peeling. One night after a photo shoot requiring near-Kardashian levels of makeup that usually took some intense scrubbing to remove, I broke open a sample of cleansing oil and used it to wash my face.
I started singing mystic skin healing chants about oils, and I never looked back.
Oils, as they pertain to the beauty business, burst onto the retail market more than five years ago with the introduction of Argan, or Moroccan, oils. Though new to the United States, oils have been used in other cultures for centuries as beauty tools to cleanse and protect. While your great-grandmother was slathering Pond’s cold cream on her skin, women in Morocco were using the oil from the kernel of the argan tree, women in Africa were using kukui nut oils and in Australia, emu oil was the oil of choice.
The night I had my oil epiphany, I tested the cleansing oil expecting a heavy, oily “hand” (the term beauty insiders use to describe the feel of a product), but the cleansing oil was thin and light. It broke down the makeup quickly, and rinsed off with warm water, leaving no residue. Instead of skin that felt tight post-wash, my skin felt nearly prewinter normal.
With the gateway cleansing oil in hand, I dove into the world of beauty oils, ready to learn more. The first lesson? Oils sound like mystic, crunchy, old-school beauty products, but they have a foot in modern skin care.
“Oils are not just moisturizing. Argan oil, for example, is loaded with fatty acids and vitamin E. Both of those actually improve the condition of the skin,” says Keri Engels, RN, with Elan Skin and Elan Restore in Nashville.
Oils are especially effective in winter months, when dry indoor heat and cold temperatures deplete the moisture levels in your skin. Since the natural water content in your skin gives it a supple feel, you need to hold in moisture without clogging pores. Oils work to protect your skin’s natural barrier. And they play nicely with more high-tech skin care products.
“Layering moisture and treatment products in the winter can really boost the effectiveness of both products. You always want to start with the product that is thinnest in consistency. So maybe a serum that has peptides to fight aging goes on first. Then you add a facial oil, almost like a film, to seal it in. If you are really dry, you can use a serum, then a moisturizing lotion. Wait about five minutes and let those products sink in, and then use a facial oil,” says Engels.
She also says using oil at night can help calm skin that may be irritated by retinoid (commonly referred to as Retin-A) products.
“Especially in the winter, women struggle with Retin-A. It can really improve your skin, but it can also, especially in the winter, make your skin dry and peely. If you use a Retin-A and oil combo, it can make the dryness manageable,” Engels says.
The caveat to all the layers of love for dry skin?
“If you are using a Retin-A product and a facial oil, apply the Retin-A first. The oil will block the Retin-A from penetrating the skin, so you won’t get the benefits at all,” Engels explains.
Will facial oils and cleansers work for oily skin as well as those with winter-weary dry?
“Women with oily skin can actually make oil production worse by stripping the skin. It sends a signal for your body to produce more oil. A lightweight oil cleanser will dissolve any makeup without irritating. And they are designed to be really water-soluble, so they rinse away without leaving residue,” says Engels.
As for me and my science-based-only approach to beauty? I am obsessed with Divine Oil by Caudalie, which is chock-full of hibiscus, sesame and argan oils. I feel positively Cleopatra-like using it on my skin. And it doesn’t hurt that this old-school product is loaded with grapeseed antioxidant polyphenols, which are proven to fight inflammation and keep free radicals at bay. So maybe I am Cleopatra with a touch of Madame Curie scientist. With healthy, glowing skin, of course!