Using Natural Oils for Skin Health

Learn how natural oils can be used in place of harsh chemicals to cleane and moisturize the skin.

coconut oil cleanse

Saturated solids, such as coconut oil, are the most hardy and stable and are able to handle warmer conditions and light for longer periods of time. Coconut oil, with its medium chain fatty acids, is light, absorbs well, and can be washed away.

Photo by Fotolia/xuanhuongho

Content Tools

Power of the Seed (Process Media, 2015) by Susan M. Parker gathers comprehensive information on oils in one place, making it a complete reference. Beginners can start with easy-to-follow recipes, while the adept have easy access to the most in-depth information available anywhere.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Power of the Seed.

Care and Handling of Oils

Natural oils possess a life-like quality, especially when fresh. Sourced from living seeds and kernels, some are durable and stable, while others are more delicate, reacting with the air and environment. Handling oils properly insures that they remain wholesome and that their properties are preserved while you use them. Good handling practices apply to all oils: avoid heat, light, and air as much as you can, and use the oils in a timely manner.

Storage is an especially important part of good handling. We’ve learned that heat and light will transform polyunsaturated oils into new states, oxidizing them and turning them rancid. All oils should be stored at moderate temperatures, no higher than 70 degrees in a dark cupboard or room, with very polyunsaturated oils best stored under refrigeration to prolong their useful life. The best type of storage system will depend on the oil being stored and the length of time kept before use.

Saturated solid oils (coconut, shea, and the tropical butters) are the most hardy and stable, able to handle warmer conditions and light for a period of time. Refrigeration is not usually necessary to store these types of oil.

The predominately monounsaturated oils (olive, sesame, avocado, and others) hold up well in normal living temperatures (around 70 degrees) when stored in dark bottles for several months up to a year.

The poly (grape-seed, evening primrose, walnut) and super polyunsaturated oils (flax, chia, hemp, and others) need to be kept in a dark area, in closed containers, and under refrigeration if possible.

Purchase oils as you need them. Unlike most essential oils, which can last many years, fixed oils shouldn’t be hoarded. They will, however, store well for about six months, and with cold storage most will last much longer. If you purchase gallon and five-gallon quantities, smaller amounts can be drawn off for day-to-day use while the larger volume is kept cool and dark.

There are many excellent suppliers of oils, both organic and conventional, at a wide variety of prices. Choosing a supplier will depend on the quality and price of the oil desired and the shipping distance. Oils are heavy, and shipping costs are based on weight. A slightly higher-priced oil closer to home beats a great price from across the country. That is, as long as the quality is comparable.

Food-grade oils are distributed by suppliers certified to handle food products. The requirements for facilities and handling are more stringent, and more closely monitored. Distributors of cosmetic-grade oils haven’t undergone the further certification to become food approved. Both sources of oil can be used in cosmetics and for external applications.

Using Oils on the Skin

Applying oils and vegetable butters to the body has untold benefits for the skin. Liquid or solid, all oils protect the skin and body from weather and dryness. Natural properties of warmth and energy provide protection for the skin tissues. In cold climates or during cold winter months, oils help to retain natural body warmth by keeping moisture locked inside the skin and body. Using and combining oils to protect, warm, or nourish the skin is where the magic begins.

Olive oil from the kitchen cabinet makes a great suntan oil. Coconut oil is used for all manner of personal care from toothpaste and deodorant to massage and face care. The liquid oils can be used on their own for massage treatments, for moisturizing, skin protection, or to condition the skin after the bath. The solid oils and butters can be rubbed into the skin on their own for occlusive protection and for moisturizing. Salves, ointments, body butters, scrubs, balms—the list only ends when your imagination does. The following combinations and recipes will get you started. But don’t stop with our ideas— get to know the oils and make your own combinations.

Facial Care with Natural Oils

Our faces are our window to the world. We face the day, put our face forward, and about-face when necessary! Some of us even put our faces on in the morning. Facial care that enhances our native beauty need be no more exotic than gently caring for the skin with food-grade nutrients. Natural ingredients that spring from the plants and earth speak to our skin and body in a language it can understand. Synthetic chemicals are just so much junk food and a language so foreign as to not be recognizable to our tissues. They may appear to help in the short term, but over the long term the skin grays and looses vitality. Natural plant-based oils, our favorite subject, are an excellent source of great skin care.

Cleansing with Oils

Soap and running water are a recent phenomena in the evolution of human culture, improving hygiene and our standard of living. The availability of hot showers and soap led to the abandonment of the ancient practice of oil cleansing. Now we squeaky-clean our skin, then turn around and moisturize it to replace its natural oil balance.

Our skin is made up of and produces a variety of lipids; the outermost layer is well over 60% fatty acid lipids. Oil protects the cell walls, fights bacteria, heals wounds, alleviates irritation, and prevents moisture from evaporating from the skin layers. By washing all the natural oils off the skin, it must spring into action to replace what was lost. Oil cleansing is a way of both cleaning the skin and keeping it moisturized and supple. With oil cleansing, older, hardened oils in the skin are dissolved and the skin refreshed with new oils. The skin does not have to over-work to make up what was lost by soap and water washing.

Our ancestors can teach us a few beneficial ancient practices. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used oil to cleanse the skin. Oil was applied generously and massaged into the body, the excess scraped away with a blunt tool along with dirt and dead skin cells. Afterward, fresh oil was applied to keep the skin protected against weather and harsh climates. Olive was the oil overwhelmingly used around the Mediterranean, while people in tropical Africa or South America use native oils such as shea and palm.

The use of oils to clean the skin is being rediscovered. The first step to begin using this method of cleansing is to find an oil—used singly or in combination—suited to your own skin type.

How to Oil Cleanse

There are two possible methods. For the first method, take a good dollop of oil in the palm of the hand and rub the hands together. Apply oil to dry skin on the face and neck, and thoroughly massage into the skin. The oil will lift makeup, along with dirt and dead skin cells. When the face is fully covered with oil, place a hot (but not so hot it burns) washcloth, wrung out, over the skin. This step allows the pores of the skin to open and release oils and debris. After a minute or two wipe or rinse the excess oil from the face. Pat the skin dry, and it will feel quite dry in a few minutes, even after having used all that oil. Then apply a nourishing facial oil to maintain moisture in the tissues.

The second method involves using a little hydrosol or pure water with the oil in the palm of the hand. Rub them together vigorously to create a kind of impromptu emulsion, apply to the face, and proceed as above.

Oil Cleansing by Fatty Acid Type

Any of the wide range of fatty acid types and their oils can be used for oil cleansing. The feel and results will differ depending on your skin type, the climate you live in, and the time of year.

Unless it is extremely dry, our skin will produce more oils in the warmer months and climates than in winter’s very cold and dry temperatures. Native peoples of the polar regions use saturated animal fats for protection against cold chapping air. People of tropical regions where the sun is intense use native saturated butters as protection against excessive rays of the sun. In the temperate regions, lighter and less saturated oils are preferred. They “wash” off more easily and leave the skin ready for a cream or facial oil and make-up, if worn.

The more unsaturated an oil’s fatty acids, the greater the ability of the skin to absorb the oil into the tissues. Oils high in both essential fatty acids are absorbed the most readily. Oils high in omega-6 linoleic acid follow just behind the more unsaturated oils.

Monounsaturated oils are a bit heavier than the more unsaturated omega-6 and 3 oils and will stay on the surface of the skin longer. They are more able to really loosen makeup, dirt, and oil produced by the skin. The very-long-chain fatty acid type oils, such as meadowfoam and moringa oils, twenty carbon atoms long and above, are much heavier-feeling, and less able to penetrate quickly, but serve the skin as emollients and as protective agents. They may be wiped off to achieve a light moisturized feel when done.

Commercial blends are available as well, but you can easily make your own. See the suggestions below, or consult the fatty acid tables at the back of the book to find a combination that suits your skin type, season, and weather exposure.

Suggestions for Oils to Cleanse the Skin

Dry Skin

High monounsaturated oils such as olive, avocado, macadamia, almond, sesame, and camellia. Jojoba oil is an excellent “oil” for all skin types, although it is technically a wax.

For very dry skin, use oils high in oleic and some saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid. Try papaya seed oil, shea oil, or macadamia.

Normal Skin

Oils with balanced oleic and linoleic acid levels work well here, such as cranberry seed, apricot kernel, argan, and baobab. Jojoba oil also works well. Coconut oil, too, with its medium chain fatty acids is light, absorbs somewhat, and can be washed away.

Oily Skin

The following oils high in omega-3 and 6 fatty acids help to calm, replenish, and normalize. Use them singly or in combination: camelina, chia seed, sacha inchi, kiwi seed, blackberry, kukui, raspberry, flax, and perilla. Jojoba’s lack of triglycerides is especially helpful for skin that over-produces oil. Castor oil is also great for normal and oily skin: it penetrates easily, washes off and helps dry the skin of excess oil. Oils high in tannins are astringent and able to calm over-active oil glands; camellia and hazelnut are two examples.

Blemished Skin

Oils high in omega-6 linoleic acid are best for blemished and challenged skin, soaking into the skin layers and replenishing missing fatty acids. Grapeseed oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids and will replenish the cells of the skin with this often-missing element. Other good options include watermelon, cucumber, evening primrose, and passion fruit seed oils.

Essential Oils and Oil Cleansing

Oil cleansing can incorporate scents with essential oils or not. Oil straight from the bottle works well, but essential oils have therapeutic qualities that can help heal skin conditions or enliven a dull complexion.

  • A mild eucalyptus such as radiata, helichrysum, or chamomile can help control inflamed tissues.
  • Lavender can soothe the nervous system while toning and calming skin.
  • The very elegant and expensive rose otto or neroli essential oils are made for beautiful skin care.

Read more from Power of the Seed.

Reprinted with permission from Power of the Seed, by Susan M. Parker and published by Process Media, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Power of the Seed.