Our skin plays an important role in keeping our body in a state of homeostasis. It protects us from the elements, acts as a barrier against pathogens including bacteria and viruses, and is a messenger for our internal organs when an imbalance occurs. Chronic skin conditions are often a result of a deeper pathologies within the body. For example, acne is often a result of a hormonal imbalance or reproductive disorder; eczema is commonly linked to allergies or food sensitivities; and psoriasis is actually an autoimmune condition. Some skin conditions, however, like contact dermatitis, can be a reaction to our environment – airborne pollutants, synthetic fragrances in detergents, and harsh skin cleansers are common culprits.
While our topical skincare products are not the only determining factor in the health of our skin, they do play an important role in our holistic health routine. Many conventional skincare products contain ingredients that act as topical irritants. Alcohols, parabens, sodium laureate sulphate (SLS), salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are only a few. Many of these products strip the skin of its natural oils, dissolve both good and bad bacteria, and irritate the skin, leaving you with a sensitive, reddened or inflamed face. The issue with dissolving all of the oils on our skin is that our sebaceous glands secrete these oils to provide a protective, moisturizing barrier on the skin. By removing these delicate oils, our sebaceous glands start to overcompensate, producing excess oils which results in an oily complexion. While these oils in the right balance have a protective function, excessive oiliness can contribute to acne, blackheads and clogged pores. Oil dissolving products include any type of detergent-based cleanser including foaming washes, Castile soap, oil free cleansers, and gel cleansers. Even products targeted towards sensitive skin or dry skin will often contain oil stripping ingredients, but with the addition of plant based oils and herbs to soothe your (now extra) irritated skin. This, however, is still counterproductive. Using these products often requires additional steps of replenishing the moisture barrier by applying rich creams or serums to replace the oils that are stripped away from cleansing. Unfortunately, not all plant based oils are a good replacement for our skin’s natural oils. (More on this below). For individuals with normal, dry, aging, or sensitive skin, or those with eczema or psoriasis, stripping the natural oils from their skin may contribute to dryness, sensitivity, and inflammation.
The surface of our skin hosts beneficial bacteria to help fight pathogenic bacteria that promote acne, eczema, and psoriasis, and can lead to topical or systemic infection. The standard first line of defence for acne is topical and/or oral antibiotics – however, this type of treatment poses a threat to the beneficial bacteria that live on the surface of our skin and in our gut alike. Beneficial bacteria on our skin actually protect us from the harmful, acne-causing bacteria that we’re trying to eradicate. By killing both good and bad, our skin microbiome is depleted, opening an opportunity for pathogenic bacteria and yeast to overpopulate. This further exasperates the condition. Many cleansers, whether targeted towards blemish prone skin or not, will contain some degree of antibacterial agent. This includes natural cleansers, which often contain tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract, both natural antibiotics and antifungals. For short-term use on an isolated area during for an acute fungal or bacterial infection, these ingredients can be beneficial. However, like oral antibiotics, they are harmful to use regularly.
pH of the Skin
The pH balance of our skin also plays a role in keeping our skin microbiome healthy and balanced. Our skin prefers an acidic environment, as this protects against pathogenic bacteria and infections. Skin care products that alter the pH of your skin may be doing more harm than good, and also contributes to excess dryness and irritation. With the pseudoscientific “alkalinizing” diet demonizing the idea of being acidic, there have been many natural health products profiting off the trend, using “alkaline” or “alkalinizing” as marketing terms. This is unfortunate (and potentially damaging) on all fronts, and skincare is no exemption. Baking soda is a commonly recommended ingredient for oily, acne prone skin, and is promoted as a blackhead scrub. As baking soda is extremely alkaline, this creates an environment perfect for pathogenic bacterial overgrowth or infection, and has the potential to increase redness and irritation, enhancing inflammation.
Oil cleansing is a gentle alternative to using soap as a skin cleanser. By using appropriate plant based oils, we gently remove dirty oils and makeup from the surface of the skin, replacing it with clean, moisturizing oils. The variety of oils and exact protocol may vary from person to person, as skin conditions and complexion type will be the determining factor on which oils to use. The general guideline is to use a non-comedogenic oil, such as sunflower oil, castor oil, hempseed oil, and pumpkin seed oil. Other common oils such as coconut oil, avocado oil, wheat germ oil, and sesame oil, are higher on the comedogenic scale, meaning they are likely to clog pores. All butters, including shea butter and cocoa butter, are extremely comedogenic and should only be used on hands, feet, and body.
When formulating an appropriate oil blend for your skin type, consider choosing an oil based on how moisturizing it is, and other properties it may have. For example, grapeseed oil is very rich and protective for extremely dry skin. Sunflower seed oil is light and nourishing, with mild antibacterial properties. Rosehip oil is more expensive, but can be added to a carrier oil for it’s vitamin C content, which is beneficial for aging skin as it aids in the production of collagen. Jojoba oil is actually a liquid wax which is considered chemically comparable to our skin’s sebum – although it is missing the saturated fat and cholesterol molecules. This oil is appropriate for normal, sensitive and dry skin types, but not acne prone skin.
High Linoleic Oils for Acne Prone Skin
I’ve heard many horror stories of those with acne prone skin seeking a natural alternative to harsh salicylic-acid infused, anti bacterial cleansers to help their skin, and using oil cleansing with little success. In fact, the traditional oil cleansing recommendation of using 1 part olive oil to 1 part castor oil can clog pores, increase oiliness, and increase acne in sensitive individuals. The reason behind this is the olive oil. The first time I tried oil cleansing about 5 years back, I didn’t even make it 2 weeks on this recipe before I was tired of the excess greasiness and a flare up of my already severe acne.
Although a suitable choice for those with normal to dry skin, olive oil is very high in oleic acid and very low in linoleic acid. The role of these fatty acids in managing acne is very important. Acne prone skin tends to be higher in oleic acid, which is responsible for thickening of the sebum, contributing to clogged pores. Conversely, acne prone skin is often deficient in linoleic acid, which helps thin the sebum and normalize oil production in the sebaceous glands. For this reason, those with chronic acne or enlarged pores should only use oils low on the comedogenic scale that are high in linoleic acid.
The absolute best oils in this category are pumpkin seed oil and hemp seed oil. Both of these oils are low on the comedogenic scale, high in linoleic acid, low in oleic acid, high in essential fatty acids, and rich in skin-supportive minerals, particularly zinc. I have been loving pumpkin seed oil for cleansing, and have seen a dramatic improvement in my skin since I switched from sunflower. Be aware that both of these oils require refrigeration due to their high essential fatty acid content, which is a delicate type of oil that spoils quickly. I store my big bottle of pumpkin seed oil in the fridge, and keep about a week’s worth of oil in a small glass jar in my bathroom.
Another acne-supportive option is castor oil, which is low on the comedogenic scale and is balanced in linoleic acid and oleic acid, but has additional redeeming properties. Castor oil is a purgative oil, meaning it helps draw toxins out through the skin, and improves circulation and lymphatic drainage. This can be very beneficial for those with blackhead and whitehead prone skin, but can cause an initial breakout as the skin adjusts to the upregulation of detoxification. Castor oil also balances sebum production in oily skin, and it generally considered a drying oil. This is actually one of my favourite oils to use as a finishing oil, as it is very thick and sticky, and absorbs quickly and effectively. It is also particularly effective for cleansing, as it binds well to other oils such as on the surface of our skin.
Where to begin?
My best recommendation is to play around with different oils and see which your skin responds best to. Choosing oils that are suited to your skin type is a good starting point, but we are all so different on a biochemical level. The climate and season where you live (think temperature, humidity, wind), your body temperature, allergies or sensitivities, and existing skin conditions are only a handful of variables that will determine how certain oils will react on your skin. Below is a list of oils I would recommend starting with based on your skin type, and you can experiment from there.
For extremely dry, chapped skin, try organic grapeseed oil with jojoba oil at a 2:1 ratio. Jojoba oil is actually a liquid wax, but has a similar chemical structure to our skin’s natural sebum, meaning it is absorbed well and is beneficial for dry skin.
For eczema or psoriasis prone skin, use raw, unrefined sunflower seed oil, which is nourishing and has mild antibacterial properties. Try infusing your oil with calendula for it’s anti inflammatory, skin healing properties.
For normal, combination, and aging skin, try raw, unrefined sunflower seed oil with rosehip oil at a 3:1 ratio. Rosehip oil is high in vitamin C, which stimulates the production of collagen – great for improving skin elasticity, firmness, and wrinkle reduction.
For oily or acne-prone skin, try pumpkin seed oil with castor oil, at a 2:1 ratio. Pumpkin seed oil is rich in linoleic acid, zinc, and essential fatty acids, all of which are beneficial for acne. Castor oil is a purgative oil, helping detoxify the pores and reduce oiliness.
Using about a teaspoon at a time, massage oil thoroughly into the skin. With a warm, damp, washcloth made of natural fibres, gently wipe away the oil. Rinse the cloth, and repeat. This can be done both morning and evening, although after your skin adjusts, you may find you only need to do it in the evening.
An extra benefit to oil cleansing is that it eliminates the need for toners, moisturizing creams and serums – because we are not stripping away the moisture barrier of the skin, it naturally remains more hydrated and nourished, and the visual appearance and health of the skin improves.
Have you ever tried oil cleansing? Share your experiences and favourite skin oils below!
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.