It seems logical — when oily t-zones and acne make their debut, we wash our faces raw in a desperate effort to clear our pimples and rid our skin of that pesky oil.
For decades, people turned (and are still turning to!) drugstore brands with words like “clear,” “clean” and “fresh” in their names. They just have to work, right? After all, they smell so medicinal and come in transparent plastic containers that project an image of purity we hope will translate to our troubled skin.
If only we had known about oil cleansers! Instead of scrubbing our faces too often in that fruitless quest for clear, squeaky-clean skin, we should have considered fighting oil with… more oil?
Nope, that’s not a contradiction. A longtime beauty practice in many Asian countries, using oil as a facial cleanser began gaining popularity in the United States over the last decade.
“A lot of times, people with oily skin shy away from using an oil cleanser, but like attracts like,” says Rebecca Long, a licensed medical esthetician at Etage Laser & Skin Care Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. In other words: “The oil in the cleanser binds more easily to oil in your skin and surface impurities.”
Long says she often dispels myths with her patients when it comes to the best way to care for their oil-prone, acneic skin. One common myth is the idea that a cleansing agent must get their skin “squeaky-clean” to fully remove oil. The truth is, too many soaps and traditional cleansers actually leave behind an alkaline film that makes our skin overly dry, pushing our bodies into overdrive to produce more oil to counteract the dryness.
When you use an overly drying cleanser, “you’re not getting the deep clean you think you are,” Long said. “It’s just changing the PH balance of your skin.”
The same thing happens with dry skin, which can remain parched even with special cleansers geared toward dry skin. When our skin’s PH balance is thrown off and it’s attempting to rebalance itself, all that cleansing just creates a vicious cycle that prevents our skin from ever finding its proper balance.
Oil cleansers have binding properties, meaning the good oils within them neutralize the “bad” oils on your face. This way, oil removal is much easier and gentler on the skin.
If you’re ready to give oil a try, here are a few basics to get started.
Where can I purchase an oil cleanser?
Any place from your local drug store to Sephora to a high-end beauty boutique will have an array of options to meet your needs. Long said her clients rave about cleansing oils by Shu Uemura and Bobbi Brown at department stores and Burt’s Bees in the aisles of Target or Ulta. Some brands contain proprietary formulas that include vitamins and amino acids. Medical spas often offer their own lines, too. In other words, just about anywhere!
What about an oil from the grocery store? Surprisingly, you can use food-grade oils to clean your face. Look for cold-pressed options, since those will have minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins still intact (oils that are heated lose these nutrients). Make sure you don’t pick up processed oils (i.e. canola or vegetable oil). Also be aware that the application and cleansing method for using a straight oil versus a specifically formulated cosmetic version is different. If you’re going to use a cooking oil (Chloë Grace Moretz opts for olive oil!) soak a washcloth in warm water and apply it to your face for about 20 seconds. Gently rub the oil across your face for another 20-30 seconds, then use the back of the same washcloth to gently remove the leftover oil.
Can I just use a botanical oil? Certainly! Grapeseed oil is one of the most popular, Long says, and olive, sunflower, safflower and almond are also among many people’s favorites.
Do all oils work the same? While they’ll all get your skin clean, you might find that certain oils work better for your specific skin type. Safflower is a popular choice for combination skin, Long said, because of its ability to cleanse and hydrate, while a heavier oil like olive oil seems to be a favorite among those with dry and sensitive skin. Normal and dry skin do well with argan and shea oils, whereas oily skin types can benefit from castor oil mixed with a bit of peppermint or tea tree.
Could any oil work well as a cleanser? Should I raid my kitchen right now and put whatever I find on my face? Not so fast! The coconut oil in your cabinet might work fine (you want a virgin, or unrefined coconut oil for skincare), but avoid products like baby oil or any anything with lanolin or mineral oil. While those oils can provide a moisturized feeling and be great for makeup removal, their consistency can prevent skin from “breathing” and actually clog pores, ultimately preventing the binding ingredients from removing the actual impurities.
NOTE: If you’re not willing to purchase a cleansing oil from the drugstore, make sure the homemade concoction you’re creating is safe for your skin. Plenty of trusted sites and bloggers, like Wellness Mama and Bustle, have suggested recipes.