One of the key differences between conventional skin care and natural or organic skin care is not the “active” ingredients such as green tea or vitamin c, which excluding water may make up to about 5% of any product, rather it lies with the base ingredients. In natural skin care, the base ingredients are often a mix of vegetable oils and butters or waxes in contrast to the synthetic ingredients often found in conventional skin care. The use of base oils has enormous benefit for the skin. Instead of being an inert (non-active) synthetic carrier for the active ingredients, base oils contain nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that support and nourish the skin. I would go so far as to count base oils as active ingredients in skin care. So, in fact, in natural products up to 95% of any product has a supportive “active” effect on the skin. In comparison, the synthetic base ingredients in conventional skin care by enlarge, lack significant therapeutic benefit.
There are many factors that affect the absorption of topical ingredients into the skin and in reality, many topical creams just sit on the surface of the skin, effectively plumping the superficial skin cells but rarely having any effect on deeper layers. The skin is designed to be selectively absorbent, being relatively permeable to fat soluble substances and relatively impermeable to water and water soluble substances. Fat soluble ingredients such as oils are absorbed more effectively and have greater effect on the cell membrane and skin matrix, supporting skin nourishment. As carriers, oils can also transport essential oils, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals into the skin where they are most effective, rather than just having a “surface” effect. In addition, oils also help prevent skin dehydration by providing an effective water loss barrier which in turn leads to plumper, more hydrated skin.
Oil absorption is influenced by the viscosity or thickness of the individual carrier oil with thicker oils tending to be absorbed more slowly through the skin. Generally fine light oils are preferable for use on the face as they absorb quickly, easily penetrating the surface layer of skin without leaving a greasy feel. Heavier oils are suitable for dry facial skin, skin on the body, as bath oils and massage oils. The degree of unsaturation will also impact on oil absorption. In general, the more polyunsaturated fat content of the oil, the better the absorption. For example Rose Hip oil is high in polyunsaturates and has quite low viscosity, making it ideal for use in face serums and creams as it absorbs quickly into the skin.
It is worth noting that cold-pressed oils tend to have a greater degree of unsaturates than heat-extracted oils and for this reason are preferable. The process of cold-pressing involves the nut or seed being placed in an “expeller” which squeezes the oil out. There is some heat created by friction however, it causes little damage to the oil or its constituents. Heat-extraction uses temperatures up to 200 degrees Celsius which dramatically increases the yield of oil, making it far more cost effective but at the same time damaging the nutrient content of the oil. Unsaturated fatty acids are easily damaged by high temperatures and so heat-extracted oils will have significantly lower levels. While these oils are commonly used as cooking oils, they should be avoided for use in skin care and aromatherapy as they lack the therapeutic benefits of the cold-pressed versions.
A common misconception when it comes to the use of oils is that applying them to the skin will only worsen oily skin and further create congestion. Heavier oils may sit on the surface of the skin longer before absorption, which is not ideal for already oily skin. However, the lighter, less viscous oils will be absorbed quite quickly and in many cases help to balance skin oiliness rather than contribute to it.
Oils are effectively absorbed into the skin rather than sitting on the surface layer and therefore they are unlikely to cause or worsen congestion. However, many natural skin care products rely on waxes and butters as base ingredients. While enormously beneficial for the skin, they are more likely to sit on the surface and therefore have a greater likelihood of contributing if congestion is already an issue. They are unlikely to cause congestion that wasn’t previously present and the skin response really does depend on individual skin type. The percentage of waxes to butters to oils will vary in different products for different skin types. If you are unsure about what product to use for your skin type, it is worth asking the manufacturer or supplier which of their particular products will be most beneficial for your skin type.
There a quite a number of nourishing carrier oils used in both skin moisturizers and serums and the range of natural products available that using nutritional base oils is ever increasing. Different oils are suitable for different skin types so knowing some basic facts about base oils will help you find the most suitable product for your skin.
Sweet Almond Oil – A common used oil in skin care, it is rich in nutrition including vitamin E, unsaturated fats and essential fatty acids. It has a softening action on the skin and is useful for lubrication in massage because while not a heavy oil, it is not absorbed rapidly.
Olive Oil – A heavier oil, rich in monounsaturates including oleic acid. Extra virgin olive oil come from the first pressing of the olives and is dark green in color indicating the presence of antioxidant polyphenol. It is suitable for use with dry skin as it helps stabilize the cell membrane increasing the skins ability to hold onto moisture. Olive oil also contains squalene, a hydrating and anti-inflammatory agent, ideal for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Tamanu Oil – Tamanu oil has powerful healing properties in its unique ability to promote the formation of new skin tissue. Traditionally used by the Polynesians as first aid for the skin and mucous membranes, the oil can assist with scars, burns, skin cracks, cuts, dry skin and wounds. Used cosmetically, Tamanu has healing, mild antibiotic and anti-inflammatory activity 2. For these reasons it is used in both protective and regenerative products aimed at restoring skin appearance.
Evening Primrose Oil – Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) is a valuable source of gamma linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid with potent anti-inflammatory effects. Useful for dry, damaged, sensitive skin EPO helps to maintain the skin’s normal barrier functions. It is also useful topically for eczema and psoriasis.
Rosehip Oil – With up to 80% essential fatty acid content, Rosehip oil is very fine and quite easily absorbed by the skin. Rosehip encourages regeneration and repair of the skin and is renowned for its skin benefits, particularly in the treatment of scars and burns. It is also known for its rehydrating effect as well as improving dry, aged and wrinkled skin.
Jojoba Oil – Actually a fine wax rather than an oil, Jojoba oil is very fine in consistency and readily absorbed by the skin. It is light and non-greasy and for this reason it is ideal in face serums and creams. Jojoba closely resembles the sebum of the skin and so is beneficial for skin and scalp problems such as psoriasis and eczema. With excellent emollient properties it is moisturizing, healing and suitable for all skin types.
Coconut Oil – One of the heaviest and most stable oils, coconut is ideal for hair and body application. With moisturizing and softening properties it is ideal for dry and rough skin. Coconut oil also has cooling properties and so is useful for after sun care products 1.
Avocado Oil – Strong in color and dour, avocado oil is not to everyone’s liking for skin care. However, in its unrefined form it is rich in lecithin, vitamin D, E and A which offer useful sun protection and skin nutrition. Avocado oil is beneficial to drier skins.
Sea Buckthorn Oil – Bright orange in color, Sea Buckthorn oil is rich in beta carotene and second only to Rose Hip in vitamin C content. It is also very rich in essential fatty acids. This rich combination of nutrients mean it is extremely beneficial as a base oil in skin care. With moisturizing, anti-inflammatory and restorative properties, it is easily absorbed and useful for all skin types.
Author: Ananda Mahony ND. Ananda is a naturopath and skin specialist. She owns Vitale Natural, an organic skin care store and beauty salon in Paddington, Brisbane.