What to Look for (and Run Away From) When Shopping for Face Oils

Unlike many of my peers, my skin didn’t react well after test-driving a facial oil. Actually, it flipped out (think persistent itching, peeling, red pumps, the whole gamut). It was hardly the first time my complexion didn’t jibe with oil. Whether it was a simple coconut oil or the next big plant-based blend, my skin never fared well. Despite them being hailed as the holiest of holy in the world of natural beauty, bestowing so many others with radiant skin, they just weren't meshing well with me.

Even though face oils tend to have ingredients that look like they were plucked from the pantry, that doesn't necessarily translate to "skin-friendly." “I was surprised by how many face oils on the market do not take into account the skin’s natural lipid ratio of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids,” says Mary Allan, a skin-care formulator and founder of her eponymous skin-care line. “Many plant oils are comedogenic, AKA pore clogging, and need to be formulated by skin type to avoid problems.” Some comedogenic oils include coconut, wheat germ oil, avocado, and olive, while many dermatitis and irritation cases happen from essential oils.

How to know the difference between carrier and essential oils

All facial oils fall into two categories: carrier oils and essential oils. Carriers (like argan, hemp seed, and blueberry seed oil) have a large molecular structure, which helps them “carry” smaller molecules like essential oils. Hence the name.

Essentials, on the other hand, are what Allan refers to as the “aromatic portions” of a botanical, “a highly concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing the volatile chemical compounds from the plant.” These aren’t to be confused with plant extracts, though, which contain more than the aroma parts of a plant, and are produced from part of or a whole plant.

So a facial oil needs a carrier within it to dilute the essential oils, because the EOs are extremely potent and can cause irritation if they are not applied within another oil. They're necessary, however: Essential oils are in there to function as the "active" ingredient (or the one that helps fix skin issues)—for example, tea tree oil for antibacterial, anti-acne purposes.

What to know about essential oils

“Just because they’re natural doesn’t mean you’re exempt from an allergic reaction,” reminds Francesca Fusco, MD a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology. So if you’re experiencing itching, bumps, swelling, or redness, stop using them immediately. Fusco references this medical study from 2016 done on essential oils, which concludes that 80—not a typo—of them “were demonstrated to cause a contact allergy.”) About 10 percent of the general population experiences hypersensitivity or allergy-related irritation from cosmetic ingredients, which goes to show that having plant-based ingredients doesn't always mean your skin's in the clear.

That being said, “not all essential oils are sensitizing,” according Allan. Again, it goes back to formulation and the percentages being used. The general rule is that you should look for carrier oils first on a skin-care label and essential oils behind them, since ingredients are listed (like food labels) from highest to lowest concentration.

“Most reactions are caused by the high concentration of essential oils," says Dr. Fusco. Allan agrees, adding that “many face-care products on the market are using very high percentages of multiple essential oils in one formulation,” she ays. At the end of the day, it comes down to reading labels and doing your research. And remember: While plant-based oils serve a purpose, not every one should be used in the name of beauty and wellness.

Below are five facial oils recommended by Dr. Fusco and Allan for being effective and uncomplicated.

face oils
Photo: Beauty Counter

Beautycounter No. 1 Brightening Facial Oil ($69)

Dr. Fusco is a fan of Beautycounter oils, because “they are clean, contain no harsh chemicals, and are labeled specifically for specific skin needs.” This one uses vitamin C and marula oil, which is rich in omegas, to replenish your skin.

Photo: Indie Lee

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil ($34)

Allan recommends this product for its sheer simplicity. "I like that it is a pure oil with nothing else other than olive-derived squalane, which is perfectly lipid balanced to our skin."

Photo: Supernal

Supernal Cosmic Glow Oil, $108

This oil is a radiance-boosting blend of vitamin C, healthy omega fats, and Roman chamomile (plus other plant-based skin-enhancing extracts) that swirl together for a more even complexion.

face oils
Photo: Kahina Giving Beauty

Kahina Giving Beauty Argan Oil ($82)

Argan is one of the most widely used and readily available carrier oils, thanks to its lightweight texture, which doesn’t clog pores—but Allan considers this “the best one on the market.” Plus, the company donates one percent of its annual revenue to organizations that assist the women in the South of Morocco.

face oils
Photo: Mary Allan

Mary Allan Infusion of Youth Beautifying Oil ($140)

This golden elixir packs a three-way punch by helping boost collagen, restore radiance, and protect against oxidative free radical damage. Plus, it’s loaded with tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (a fat-soluble form of vitamin C), which works at a deep level to minimize hyperpigmentation.

BTW, these are the "Big Four" most important skin-care products to have in your routine, according to derms. And here's what to know about genderless skin care, which is the future of beauty. 

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