When you mention oils in conversation, people tend to have opinions. “They’re the best thing ever!” “They’ll clog your pores!” “No, wait, you’ll die of cancer!” To say the least, they’re a bit confusing. To parse exactly how oils affect your hair, face, and body, the Cut picked the brains of dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi and celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas. Together they laid the ins and outs of oils. Find out whether or not they’ll make you break out, if mineral oil will send you to an early grave, if coconut oil is truly worth the hype, and our favorite beauty oils picks.
1. You cannot moisturize your skin with an oil. Moisturizing with an oil is like sitting in a car while it’s raining and expecting to get wet: It will never happen. Moisturizers are made up of three factors: humectants, occlusives, and emollients. Only humectants, like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, draw water into skin and moisturize. Oils, on the other hand, fall into the occlusive and emollient categories. As Dr. Tanzi explains, “They put a sealant on your skin by coating the top layer. This is different from pulling in water and hydrating skin.”
2. There’s only one way to really benefit from an oil. Save it for last. If you apply oil first, any moisturizing or treatment product that follows won’t be able to penetrate, leaving your hair or skin to wither in a dry coffin of despair. Remember, oils are only the gatekeepers, not producers, of hydration, so begin with loading up on humectants, and then pile on the oil afterward to keep moisture from escaping.
3. Yes, oils will clog your pores. But not all oils. Vargas warns that mineral oil is a chronic offender, while Dr. Tanzi explains that olive oil and the oil du jour, coconut, tend to easily clog pores as well. Other than those, it’s tough to predict how reactive your skin will be to oils, since brands and concentrations vary. Finding what works for you benefits most from trial and error.
4. Oils are filled with good-for-your-skin antioxidants. One reason beauty insiders lean on oils is that they are loaded with vitamins that repair and protect. Dr. Tanzi and Vargas both agree that argan, though pricey, leads the pack in antioxidants, with an especially high concentration of wrinkle-delaying vitamins A and E. There’s up to four times more vitamin C in marula oil, an antioxidant that counters hyperpigmentation, than in an orange, while the completely unsexy sunflower oil also boasts the benefits of vitamin E. Another great option: rosehip oil, which is padded with vitamin C. It’s “amazing for protection against environmental damage,” says Vargas. “I have it in my Rejuvenating Serum.”
5. There’s an oil that specifically treats acne-prone skin. Dr. Tanzi recommends tea-tree oil for acne-prone skin, and for good reason. Plenty of scientific evidence proves its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties — it stomps acne bacteria and reduces the size of pimples. But proceed with caution. Tea-tree oil may irritate skin, so it’s better to test an inconspicuous area first.
6. For the driest skin, reach for the heaviest, most occlusive oils. Vargas says to look out for avocado and sweet-almond oils, which are notably fatty and rich. “Sunflower-seed oil is a potential as well,” says Dr. Tanzi, “though that can be a little greasy.”
7. Facial oils should be lighter than the robust ones used on your body. Look out for quick-drying ones like grapeseed, apricot kernel, argan, and marula, which are ideal for most skin types. Really dry? Again, consider sweet-almond oil. And on the other end of the scale, “Jojoba tells the body to stop overproducing sebum, thus controlling oily skin,” explains Vargas.
8. It doesn’t really matter what kind of oil you use on your hair. But Vargas says that avocado, jojoba, argan, and almond are all great. The main issue lies in quantity and placement. Start with a small amount — only a drop or two — and work it through your ends to seal in moisture and shine as the last step in your routine. Even if your hair is fine and thin, a tiny amount of oil can dramatically boost its luster. If your hair is thick and helplessly dry, consider this: Coat your hair from mid-shaft to ends before stepping into the shower. Shampoo and condition like you normally would. The oil will protect your hair from the drying effects of shampoo.
9. Mineral oil may not kill you, but it’s still pretty much crap (sorry, Baby Oil). Yes, it’s a derivative of the same oil used to make gasoline; and yes, it’s the cheap McDonald’s of skin care, but you should stay away because it’s useless, not because it’s dangerous. “You’re not using that much of it for it to be harmful to your health,” says Dr. Tanzi. “The main issue is that it’s just not doing anything for you.”
Vargas agrees. “Fifty years ago, it was a common ingredient in products because we just didn’t know any better. However, now, with so many wonderful oils available to us, it is outdated.”
10. Oils are good for cleaning, too. It’s strange to imagine that the same ingredient that seals in moisture can also clean, but it’s true. Vargas explains that “oil cleansers break up makeup on the face in a gentle way instead of stripping the skin, so skin won’t feel irritated after.” They work because the molecules in oil specifically react with makeup and your own natural oil, which is similar in chemical composition. A few swirls around your face, and presto!