TOUCH OF VANITY: BEAUTY
What you need to know about (not the cooking) oils
Made from coconut, rosehip, almond and many other plants and trees, facial oils seem to be the perfect skin care product, especially for dry skin. But are they?
The Journal of Experimental Botany – which publishes “papers that advance our understanding of plant biology” – released a fascinating paper back in 2013 that highlights a less familiar part of archeology called palaeobotany: palaeobotanists or archaeobotanists recover, study and preserve “ancient botanical material”. Not only does palaeobotany help us understand the diet of some of our ancestors, it also shines a light on other ancient practices like medicine and psychotropic plants as well as “perfumes, cosmetics, and dyes” used at a certain time in humanity’s history. Thus, we learn how oils were enjoyed already centuries ago, to hydrate and restore the skin, but also as a basis for fragrances and other concoctions.
Lise Manniche in her book Sacred luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt says that, “skin was moisturized with oils – from the olive in Greece, while sesame (Sesamum indicum) was popular in Egypt”.
The difference between natural and essential oils
Today, natural and essential oils – according to a paper by the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, “essential oils are sourced from over 3,000 plants of which approximately 300 are of commercial importance” – are available at the pharmacy, wellness and organic shops, even at the supermarket, and they are often, depending on which oil you chose, more cost-effective than most beauty products from regular cosmetic brands.
Oils from plants or fruits, such as olive oil, sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, or shea butter to name but a few, have for years been considered as ideal to treat the skin, mainly because they’ve been so engraved in the history of beauty throughout the ages and across the world that we assume their positive physiological effects on the skin, but also because they are believed to not often cause allergic reactions. Yet, not all oils are the same.
Cape Town-based specialist dermatologist Dr Vanessa Lapiner explains that, “Essential oils are organic compounds extracted from plants that have therapeutic properties. They can be found in the plant’s flower, stem, leaves, bark or fruit. The chemistry is extremely complex and may consist of hundreds of different and unique chemical compounds.”
Lapiner adds that essential oils are volatile, which is why they have such a powerful smell:
“Their aromatic compounds can move through the air quickly and interact with our olfactory sensors in the nose which allow us to smell. The ‘best’ essential oils are extracted through steam distillation, meaning that they are pure.
“Essential oils are the most concentrated and potent of all botanical extracts. Because of the extraction process, essential oils can be 70 to 100 times more powerful than the actual plant.”
By contrast, “natural oils used in cosmetics come from the nut or seed of the plant which is pressed to extract the oil. Natural oils are chemically triglycerides, [which means] one glycerin and three fatty acids attached to it,” she notes.
“Natural oils are not volatile, have a higher molecular weight than essential oils and are not used to provide fragrance. Their moisturising properties make them nourishing to the skin and useful to use as emollients. Jojoba is slightly different because it is actually a wax ester which sits on the outer surface of the plant’s leaves to provide environmental protection for it.
“If you think that around 30% of our own sebum consists of wax esters that form our barrier, you can understand why jojoba does a fantastic job of being semi-occlusive and strengthening our skin barrier while also getting absorbed into the skin to nourish it and keep it soft and supple,” she says.
A drop or two of oil on the skin can leave it moisturised as well as rich and smooth – but how often should you be using facial and body oils and are all oils good for your skin?
Are all oils good for the skin?
As with most beauty products, the impact and effect of what we put on our skin widely depends on our individual needs and skin type, also known as “the pathophysiological context of the skin” – whether your skin is oily, acne-prone, dry, sensitive, or a combination thereof should point to which product to use.
Lapiner explains that, “On the face, there are mixed experiences using certain natural oils. For example, both lauric acid (which makes up 50% of coconut oil’s fatty acid profile) and coconut oil have a very high comedogenic rating (four out of five). Though comedogenic ratings are not very reliable, they are a measure of the risk of triggering blackheads and breakouts, so some of my patients will find their skin is not happy using coconut oil.
“Other of my patients swear by it (there is also research that lauric acid is effective against Cutibacterium acnes – the bacteria involved in triggering acne). I also find that for my patients with impaired skin barriers (eczema for example), that more sophisticated emollients with ceramides and cholesterol etc are more effective at hydrating and maintaining that barrier. In my experience, natural oils alone aren’t sufficient in these cases.”
A 2017 paper published on the US National Library of Medicine, titled “Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils”, dives a little deeper into the different effects of oils on the skin based on current evidence.
Which oils to use?
Coconut oil and jojoba oil seem to have the most positive effects of all “topically applied oils on skin pathology”, say the researchers in the paper. Coconut oil has proven to be effective as a moisturiser, “improving barrier function”, as well as protecting the skin from UV radiation. Jojoba oil, which is already “widely used in cosmetic formulas such as sunscreens and moisturizers”, also has an anti-inflammatory effect.
But Lapiner warns that oils alone should never be used as sunscreens: “Natural oils are not sufficient to provide an adequate SPF. Researchers in the 2016 Gause & Chauhan found that natural oils are not suitable UV-blocking ingredients. They measured the UV absorptivity of aloe vera, canola oil, citronella oil, coconut oil, olive oil and soya bean oil and found that all of them did virtually nothing when it came to blocking UV. They concluded that their SPF would be very close to 1. This effectively means that these ingredients will do nothing to prevent reddening,” she says.
Should you have breakouts, Dr Maureen Allem, founder and medical director at Skin Renewal recommends essential oils like tee tree “as it is very anti-bacterial”; she adds, “chamomile has been used for years for its anti-inflammatory effect. Natural oils such as ceramide’s and other lipids are very beneficial for dry skin, especially skin with a disrupted barrier causing sensitivity”.
Lapiner recommends jojoba oil for normal skin: “There is also some evidence that jojoba might be able to ‘trick’ the skin into thinking it has already produced enough sebum, so it might have ‘skin balancing’ properties for oily skin.”
She recommends grape seed oil, apricot kernel oil or sweet almond oil for oily skin and for dry and more mature skin, avocado oil, pomegranate seed oil or rosehip oil.
“Rosehip oil is also high in trans-retinoic acid, a natural form of Vitamin A that converts to retinol, making it a natural choice for brightening and evening out the appearance of skin tone. This also makes it a good choice for acne patients.”
In addition, oils might react differently depending on their composition – in an interview with The New York Times, Kirsten King, the founder of Oille, a skin and hair care brand that mainly uses pure essential oils, explains that:
“At least 95 percent of essential oils are adulterated with cheaper, oxidized oils or mixed with alcohol or turpentine to increase volume for profit.” As with every product – be they cosmetic or food – paying attention to the ingredients listed on the bottle is important; the more transparent the list is, the better.
Lapiner adds, “Just be careful about where you are getting your essential oils from and make sure that they are 100% pure with no synthetics and that they have been steam distilled. Look at the back of the bottle and check out the ingredients. Investigate the company you are getting your products from.
“When it comes to essential oils – timing is everything: an oil distilled improperly will not give you the benefits you need.” DM/ML