Cosmetic Oils: What’s Good for Skin and Hair, and What’s Not

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Even though oil-centric cosmetic products are all over the place these days, many of us would rather go bare than put oil on our skin. For some of us, just the thought of oil seems enough to bring on a breakout. 

If you have super-oily or sensitive skin, your first thought is probably “I need to strip off extra grease, not add it on.” But don’t write off oil. Skin that’s overwashed or kept too dry will produce excess sebum to compensate, which can lead to breakouts. It sounds counterintuitive, but oil can help balance the skin. 

That said, not all oils are created equal. There’s a lot of misinformation flying around, so we’re here to help you cut through the grease.

Oils from High-End to Drugstore

Makeup artists have been using baby oil as makeup remover for decades, but brands like Bobbi Brown and Shu Uemura have elevated oil-based products to an art. Try Bobbi’s olive and jojoba formulaShu Uemura’s High Performance version, or MAC Cleanse-Off Oil.

Argan oil burst onto the scene in recent years, with Josie Maran leading the revolution. Use it anywhere your body needs moisture: the hair, face, body, lips. And, argan isn’t the be all, end all. Coconut, jojoba, and macadamia oils can all be used to hydrate and nourish skin and hair. All are widely available and cost-effective (scour your local natural foods store for options). Even drugstore brands are getting in on the oil craze: Garnier Fructis debuted its Triple Nutrition Miracle Dry Oil last month, a product with olive, avocado and shea oils for the face, body, and hair.

Moroccan Oil vs. Argan Oil

Moroccan Oil was touted as the new wonder product for hair when it gained popularity a few years ago, but it’s not necessarily so different from argan oil. In fact, argan is one of the main ingredients in Moroccanoil as well as certain drugstore versions like Organix Moroccan Argan Oil line. These products also contain silicone polymers, which coat, smooth, and protect the hair shaft, but can dehydrate locks over time because they aren’t water-soluble. If you love your Moroccan oil products and don’t want to switch, consider using an anti-residue shampoo once or twice a week to remove buildup.

Petroleum Jelly: Friend or Foe?

A liquid by-product distilled and refined from crude oil, mineral oil products and petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) feel moisturizing due to their viscosity, but they don’t actually hydrate or moisturize skin. Instead, they form a seal over skin to combat moisture loss. It’s not all bad—even if it doesn’t really moisturize, petroleum jelly can help protect dry patches and sensitive skin from cold and wind. All the same, some mineral oil–based products, depending on the grade, can be comedogenic (pore-clogging) and may exacerbate acne.

There’s a reason mineral oil so ubiquitous. It’s inexpensive to produce, and is a common smoothing and binding ingredient used in many beauty and skin care lines. So even if you try to avoid it in your products, it may be difficult to do so entirely (there are many synonyms for mineral oil, including “paraffin,” “paraffin oil,” and “liquid paraffin”). The consensus from leading dermatologists is that everyone’s skin is different and reacts to the ingredient differently. Experiment for yourself—if you break out, try eliminating any products that contain mineral oil for a week or two and see if your skin clears up. For Vaseline addicts looking for a non-petroleum alternative, try Alba Un-Petroleum Multi-Purpose Jelly.