The Truth About Oil

From creams to cleansers, this slick ingredient is the latest star in skin-care products. Here’s how it can work for you.


Photo by Christopher Baker

Oil’s relationship with skin is a slippery subject: Some women seem to produce too much of it (hello, shine and breakouts), while others have too little (there’s that dry patch again). That’s why so many of us—oily types, especially—worry that cleansers and creams containing the substance can lead to nowhere good. “Oils have a bad rap,” says Leslie Baumann, a dermatologist in Miami Beach. “But they’re important in skin care because they offer benefits to every skin type.” In fact, when included in product formulas, oils can be wonder ingredients: They can hydrate dry, flaky skin; balance oily skin; and even—get this—help keep breakouts at bay. Here’s how to use oil-based products to work magic, not wreak havoc.

First, Assess Your Skin

The key to incorporating oils into your routine effectively is to know your skin type and then choose oils appropriately. To determine whether your face is oily or dry, cosmetic dermatologists suggest using a simple at-home test on clean skin. “If you press a blotting paper to your face and it immediately looks greasy—like a paper bag full of French fries—you’ve probably got oily skin,” says New York City dermatologist David Colbert. If the sheet picks up oil from your nose, chin, or forehead but not your cheeks, you have combination skin. If it hardly dampens and your skin is the type that feels tight even after you apply moisturizer, you’re probably on the dry side. (You can also go to for a more in-depth test.)

Whether skin is dry or oily is mainly genetic, but environmental factors can contribute and change the way your skin behaves. For instance, indoor heating can parch even oily skin in winter. In summer, “if you perspire a lot and the sweat evaporates rapidly, dry skin can become even drier,” says Colbert. And hot weather can also kick oil production into overdrive for everyone. Do a blot test on your skin with each change of season to determine the state of your skin at that time.