Understanding Oils: Everything You Need To Know To Make Them Part Of Your Beauty Routine

Thinking about which oils can be used for which applications is a very broad topic, and knowing which ones to stock and when to use them can be tricky.

I have tried so many different oils for so many different purposes, and trial, error and research have confirmed which uses will remain in rotation in the long run.

Currently, I oil-pull at least five times per week; use the oil cleansing method four times per week; moisturize my face, body and hair with oil; and apply oil to my eye and eyebrow area twice daily. That doesn't include the oral supplements as well as cooking and salad oils. I also have a collection of topical oils for DIY purposes.

I am not a millionairess, so I try to put a lot of thought into my oil purchases and have tried to narrow down the collection for efficiency and environmental reasons. Thinking about which oils can be used for which applications is a very broad topic, and knowing which ones to stock and when to use them can be tricky.

Chemical Composition

Oils are lipids, or fats, and don’t sit with water at lunch. Think about salad dressing or lotion: you can create an "emulsion" of water and oil, but they will never be chemically combined by mixing alone. Oils are slippery collections of fatty acids that can contain other substances. They are chemicals, just like every other compound on earth.

Oils are usually derived from pressing organic material to release all of the lipids. The oils that we use in health and beauty are generally derived from seeds, nuts, fruits and grains from all over the world. Essential oils are completely different, as they are usually distillates of a plant, resulting in an oleoresin, which is a concentrated form of the chemicals present in a plant.

Oils can be obtained by other chemical processes, such as solvent extraction, but I tend to steer away from these items and opt for pressed oils and virgin pressing where I can. Refining or processing an oil with heat or chemicals changes its composition and can be useful in cosmetics, but not always for direct application.

Fatty acids are molecules which are created by the cells of plants and animals. The most important acids to hair and skincare are oleic acid and linoleic acid. Balancing the two is often the key to your individual needs. Some oils are higher in oleic acid, which is an omega-9 fatty acid. We make this fatty acid naturally and consume it readily from animal and plant sources, so it is not considered an essential fatty acid (EFA).

Other oils are higher in linoleic acid, which is an EFA. The body does not naturally make linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, without help from food sources. This also goes for omega-3 fatty acid.

Choosing The Best Oils For You

Topically speaking, you need to determine your needs before selecting an oil for moisturizing. It is advisable to stay away from too much oleic acid in hair and skin products of you're acne-prone. It's advisable to reach for a more oleic-leaning oil for dry or mature skin. You'll also need to know when to use which oils and why--it won’t be the same every time.

Application of oil directly to the skin as a moisturizer is one of the easiest ways to impart softness where applied. Oils contain multiple fatty acids, and some are very beneficial for skin conditions; knowing which oils contain which acids is as simple as Wikipedia-ing the oil you want to buy. These days, I use either jojoba oil, which is balanced in both oleic and linoleic acids, for a dry day or evening primrose oil and its 70% linoleic acid for a breakout day.

For hair, different rules apply. You don’t have to worry about comedogenic oils on your hair, until they migrate onto your skin or scalp and ruin your day (week). Comedogenic oils can be powerful moisturizers, but you must consider the risk of clogged pores. You can still use these oils internally, to cook, or to do a pre-shower or pre-shampoo treatment, but it isn’t really recommended to slather yourself in potentially zit-causing oils.

Coconut oil is the superstar hair oil. Though pretty comedogenic, if used as a pre-shampoo treatment, its benefits remain in the hair even after washing. If you are using oil for added shine and moisture, use as little as possible to prevent it turning up later where it isn’t wanted.

Oils are solvents, which is what makes oil cleansing such a promising method, even for acne sufferers. Some get away with coconut and olive, but between coconut’s comedogenic nature and olive oil’s high oleic acid content, I was left with mayyyyjah breakouts. This led me to seek oils that were more balanced in oleic to linoleic acid content.

Castor is good for some, but ricinoleic acid is still a bit too much for some skin types, so reach for jojoba oil for combination skin. Oils high in linoleic acid can be pricier and harder to find in less urban areas, so you really want to buy smart. (My next experiment will be with hemp seed oil, which has a whopping 55% linoleic acid content, and it is also priced nicely for use in DIY applications as well as daily cleansing.)

Vitamin content as well as the presence of other healing substances such as squalane, polyphenols and phytosterols are another factor in choosing an oil. Most oils have at least some vitamin E present, but some can contain vitamin K, vitamin A, or even B vitamins.

Squalene is present in olive oil and can help deliver other substances into the skin. Phytosterols and polyphenols are another exciting component of some oils. Phytosterols are plant derived moisturizers that can penetrate the skin and help repair sun damage; when combined with polyphenols like those present in argan and olive oil, you have some serious antioxidant content.

Internal Use

Internal use is another story altogether, but worth mentioning since most of us want to get as much mileage out of these products as we can.

The mouth and, in particular, sublingual and buccal glands are some of the fastest and most direct routes into your blood stream. This is the basis of one theory on why oil pulling helps with skin conditions: EFAs present in some oils get an express ticket into your system.

EFA deficiency manifests itself with skin conditions, and those who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acid can experience dermatitis and eczema. Topical application of certain oils can help, but an addition of flaxseed, hempseed, or chia seeds to the diet can really help those who can’t stand to eat the fishies.

I mostly use coconut oil for oil pulling, mainly because of taste, but you can choose based on your diet and needs if you really want to see a difference. Some other common oils used are sesame and sunflower.

"Special" Oils

Special oils are those that can be diluted into the more common oils for further application. Things like tamanu oil, sea buckthorn oil, rosehip seed oil, carrot seed oil, and black seed oil are all exciting "special" oils that are almost too precious to apply in massive quantities.

You can dilute these with the complementary oil of your choice, remembering to take the balance of EFAs into account. You can also add a few drops of essential oils to your blends, either to preserve the blend or enhance its healing properties. Rosemary, lavender, frankincense, and tea tree are common ones here. You need smaller amounts of the pricier items that you might want to use on your face or as an internal supplement.

Now that I have run that info down, know that just like food, choosing organic and fair-trade ingredients can really up the quality of the product as well as the effects of your purchase. Oils can come from some pretty remote and exotic places, and you should want to protect those who harvested it for you a well as their product is helping your beauty regimen. Organic and fair-trade oils are also more reliable in terms of avoiding adulteration or rancid products.

Experimentation is your next move from here; you can create blends if you wish, just always use sterile and dry containers, and store the main bottle in the fridge and decant into a smaller bottle for daily use. Always make small blends and test them for sensitivity.

Happy oiling!

Photo by Maria Penaloza.