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I have recently switched from using skin lotion to using oils for my after-shower moisturizer. Here’s why: Read the unedited version here.

Oil or Lotion? Is There a Magic Potion?

By Cecily Whiteside

I have a friend who has used olive oil as her body-lotion-of-choice for years. She has the softest, smoothest, most blemish-free skin I have ever seen on a fifty-year-old. Other women swear by designer lotions claiming to rebuild collagen, repair sun damage or reverse aging. In fact, women spend more than $4 billion on beauty creams and lotions in the US alone each year. So, apart from apocryphal stories and advertiser’s claims, how do we know which is better? Oil or lotion? What kinds of each? What should you look for? What should you avoid? Is there anywhere to find answers?

First, we need to make a few assumptions. Just as every body and personality is unique, so too with skin. Each face has its own history and underlying issues. Have you been a sunbather or outdoor enthusiast? Then you probably have issues with sun damage. Are you fair-skinned? Then you probably need to pay attention to the SPF in your skin-care regimen. Sensitive skin? If you don’t test a new product on a small patch of skin, you may spend days recovering from a break-out or allergic reaction. Dermatological issues? You should check with your doctor before changing your routine in any dramatic way. We will consider “normal” skin in this article for the sake of simplicity, but even though your face is one-of-a-kind, you may finish with some new ideas and information that can enhance your skin’s ability to glow.

Lotions fall into various categories, and price is not the only criteria to be considered. Cheap lotions, however, tend to be mostly water and wax, with oil as the some of the active ingredients. The ratio of these three is what makes the lotion thicker or more liquid. While these cheap lotions will feel good going onto your skin, then may not give long-term benefits. Once the water evaporates, you will feel parched and chapped. The wax can block your pores, leading to breakouts, and as wax builds up on your skin the other ingredients may be prevented from penetrating, which negates any benefit from them.

So is the answer to spend more money? Not necessarily. Better to educate yourself and read labels. If you like the feel of lotion, do not despair. But be ready to make some compromises. In order for lotions to be creamy, oil and water are mixed into an emollient to keep them from separating. There also needs to be some sort of preservative to keep the mixture from developing mold or fungus. We don’t want rub that onto our face! Be prepared to see something like BHT or BHA in the ingredient list. Studies have shown that these two ingredients are possible human carcinogens, but they are prevalent in many beauty products from lotions to eyeliner to lipstick. To avoid these ingredients, you will have to buy products in smaller amounts – which can be more expensive – and use them within three to six months, or look for products that do not contain water.  Natural preservatives include rosemary oil, grapefruit seed oil and green tea extract. Seeing these in the ingredient list instead of BHT would be reassuring, but rest assured that all water-containing ingredients must have some sort of preservative to keep it safe for use.

If you are looking for a simpler approach to your beauty regimen, then oil may be your answer. Although some protest that oil makes for a greasy, not glowing, sheen, in fact if you use the correct oil for your skin’s needs it will absorb quickly, nourish and protect your skin, and strengthen your skin’s natural ability to replenish itself.

Before we get too far, we need to recognize that not all oils are created equal.

Petroleum and petroleum byproducts are a common oil used in beauty products. While it will provide a barrier between your skin and the environment, it can also clog pores and increase acne. Best to avoid any products with this oil listed as one of the first several ingredients.

Coconut oil has been touted by alternative healthcare journals as a miracle worker in skincare, solving everything from age spots to baldness to eczema. Be careful though; if you have nut allergies, you could end up in trouble. According to the Dermatology Review coconut oil has some specific benefits. It has antimicrobial and antibiotic properties which makes it a great choice for acne-prone skin. Be aware that over time it can dry out normal skin, so it may not be the best option unless you struggle with acne.

Shea butter is non-allergenic, and is rich in anti-oxidants and fatty acids. Rebecca Cordova, licensed aesthetician, swears by this rich and creamy oil. It increases firmness and elasticity in the skin, which makes it a great product for tightening aging skin on the face and neck. Both coconut oil and shea nut butter are solid at room temperature, which helps prevent over-use. Just a little goes a long way, as it warms and liquefies on the skin with application. Something to note: Shea butter loses much of its medicinal value when bleached and refined, so look for unrefined, organic sources.

Avocado oil is one of the most moisturizing oils on the market. It has sterolin, which has been shown to reduce age spots, and significant amounts of anti-oxidants which combat sun damage. When used as the base for your own personal mix of oils, it needs no preservatives, since it lasts longer on the shelf than other oils without going rancid.

Jojoba “oil” is a misnomer. It is actually a wax! Remember from up above that lotions need wax to hold the oils and water together? This is a wax that is found in the seeds of the jojoba plant but it acts like an oil. It is absorbed into the skin like an oil, and has many of the beneficial properties of oil. If you are mixing your own skincare products, this may be one of your most effective secret weapons. Jojoba oil dissolves clogged pores as well as mimicking collagen, so it not only helps clear up blemishes, but can tighten skin for a more youthful appearance. Apply just a few drops, and blot the excess before applying makeup or other products.

While there are many opinions on ingredients to avoid, most sources agree on a few:

Mineral oil (also listed as liquid paraffin, liquid petroleum and paraffin oil), Bisphenol-A BPA (a hormone disruptor), formaldehyde (a preservative. Think dead bodies), parabens (methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, preservatives that act like estrogen and alter hormone mechanisms in our bodies), alcohol (very drying and irritating to the skin), artificial fragrances (fragrances are considered a trade secret so the ingredients do not need to be disclosed. Look for the smells to come from essential oils ideally), and artificial coloring.

Skincare expert, Sianna McKinley, consultant at Beautycounter, says, “We are so concerned about what we eat, what we put in our bodies. We eat only organic veggies and drink our kale smoothie, but we think nothing of putting some of these things on our skin — our largest organ. We need to pause and rethink what we put on, knowing that we are breathing it in as we apply it, that it absorbs into our body through our skin, and that it can affect both our health and appearance.”