The Truth About Oil Cleansing


Updated: 04.13.2023

I get it. The concept of putting oil on your face sounds terrifying. It goes against everything we were taught to do as pre-teens, and the word ‘oil’ in and of itself brings to mind T-zone nightmares from our youth.

We were trained to seek cleansers that stripped our skin, leaving it tight and dry, then follow up with super acidic toners to throw off our pH levels, then pack on moisturizers to undo the damage of the latter products.

For the longest time, skincare routines have been designed with a series of products to fix a problem the prior product created. The reality is, you don’t need to double cleanse, tone, and exfoliate your skin daily. In fact, many dermatologists suggest anyone under the age of 40 hold off on exfoliation altogether.

Now, I’m not saying all non-oil cleansers, toners, and exfoliators are bad, but the truth is most traditional cleansers contain ingredients that damage your skin barrier and skin microbiome by stripping it of its natural oils and good bacteria.

The reality is that ‘squeaky clean’ feeling we all sought out is actually a sign that your skin has been compromised, rather than cleansed.

Dr. Stacy Chimento, a Miami-based dermatologist, describes this contrast:

“Cleansing oils balance the skin's natural oils, keeping skin well-nourished and clean while protecting the skin's supply of lipids. This is one of its main contrasts from foam-cleansers, which can strip the skin of its natural moisture and leave it dry.”

Our skin has something called the "Acid Mantle" which, you can think of as your own natural protection from bad bacteria, dryness, and irritation. Using a foaming or sudsing cleanser can end up stripping your acid mantle, which can lead to breakouts and a host of other skin issues, including transepidermal water loss, aka TEWL.

TEWL occurs when the skin's barrier or acid mantle is damaged, allowing water to evaporate from your skin, which causes dehydration and irritation. This is one of many reasons our oil cleansers contain ingredients such as grape seed, raspberry seed, and sacha inchi, which help prevent TEWL, while repairing your skin’s moisture barrier.

Okay, but what about those of us who have oily or acne prone skin?

Many chemical-based cleansers and cleansers that contain harsh ingredients, have the potential to exacerbate acne by irritating the skin’s surface and creating inflammation. The ultra drying effect many of these cleansers offer can throw your skin’s oil production into overdrive and can end up clogging your pores, creating blackheads and whiteheads.

Oil cleansers, especially those formulated with non-comedogenic oils, work on the ‘like dissolves like’ premise. This simply means that the plant-based oils will dissolve excess oil from your skin, without drying, which can result in a balance of your skin’s natural oils.

In other words, oil cleansers aim to lift excess sebum (the oily substance produced by glands on your skin), clean out and detox clogged pores, remove dead skin, pollutants, and makeup. All without clogging your pores or driving your skin to produce excess oil.

"Cleansing oils contain hydrating and soothing ingredients that may actually be more effective and less irritating than some traditional cleansers," Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said in an interview with SELF magazine. “Plus the natural emollient properties of the oils have hydrating benefits, so they can be used even in people with sensitive skin.”

Fair enough, but just because it’s plant-based doesn’t mean it’s safe or non-irritating. Wouldn’t a gentle cleanser be better for those of us with sensitive skin?

It’s very true that plant-based doesn’t automatically equal safe. There are a lot of plant-based ingredients that can cause problems, especially for those with sensitive skin. That’s why it’s so important to seek out products like Halo and Prism, that are non-irritating and microbiome friendly.

Some traditional "gentle cleansers" may still contain surfactants and other ingredients that can be harsh on your skin and may be harmful to your skin barrier and microbiome. On the other hand, oil cleansers can help protect the natural lipid layer of your skin and your skin microbiome, so the “good” bacteria that live there can thrive.

There’s another component of oil cleansing that is as enjoyable as it is beneficial: the facial massage.

The massage action of oil cleansing softens hardened plugs of sebum lodged in pores, which make them easier to remove and helps thoroughly detoxify congested pores to keep skin clear and healthy. The massage action also increases circulation and helps with lymphatic drainage, which can reduce puffiness and help keep inflammation at bay.

Alright, so oil cleansing seems to be the literal best thing for almost every skin type. Great, so should you just grab some oil from your pantry and use it?

Probably not. Again, just because something is natural and plant-based, doesn’t automatically mean it will be compatible with your skin. Many cooking oils such as coconut, sesame, and avocado oil rate high on the comedogenic scale, meaning that they are more likely to clog your pores and lead to breakouts.

Additionally, by using an expertly formulated oil cleanser, you will ensure you are using the optimal oils to balance the cleansing action with nourishing and moisturizing effects, while also ensuring you are using the right amount of astringent oils, such as castor oil, lemongrass and peppermint oil, to ensure a well rounded cleanse is achieved.

New to oil cleansing? Let Ash show you her tips and tricks in the how to video library.

Okay, okay, you get. Oil cleansing is the end-all-be-all for detoxifying pores, preventing TEWL, staving off breakouts, and removing makeup. You’re sold. I can stop writing this blog and you can start oil cleansing.

But before I go, remember this: the skin you’re in is the only one you get and it’s also the largest organ in your body. So, be mindful of the ingredients you’re putting on it. Look for cause and effect with different products, and maybe, just maybe take a minute to question your tried and trues… Is your toner drying your skin out? Is your moisturizer even necessary? Does your body wash contain questionable ingredients?

Finally, remember that perfection is relative, you can’t erase your pores, and hormones tend to rule the roost. So do your best, be kind to yourself, and don’t forget to mix a little self-care into every day.

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