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

By Petra Guglielmetti
Updated June 17, 2010
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.

Hormones, too, can evoke an oil response. For example, when levels of the hormone cortisol spike due to stress, so does oil production, so skin is greasier and blemishes pop up more readily. The monthly surge of estrogen before your period can also prompt glands to produce excess oil. Interestingly, “only certain parts of the skin have receptors to hormones like cortisol and estrogen, so you might get oily on your nose but remain dry elsewhere,” says David Goldberg, a clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. And pores and oil glands on the nose and the chin tend to be large, so those areas are the most oily.

Oil-Based Products for Dry Skin

When your face feels parched, apply a serum or lotion containing humectant ingredients, such as sodium PCA, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin, which bind moisture to the surface of the skin. Then lock in that hydration by topping with an oil-based lotion for day or cream for night. “Oils also provide linoleic acid, which is needed to make ceramides, a natural substance within the skin that helps hold in moisture,” says Baumann. Safflower oil is an excellent source of linoleic acid. Dermatologists also like jojoba oil and grapeseed oil, which is lightweight yet rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that help combat the effects of aging. If your skin is very dry, swap your face wash for a cleansing oil. This will dissolve makeup so you don’t have to scrub, and it will leave behind a softening, protective layer.

Oils for Combination and Acne-Prone Skin

It’s a myth that any product containing oil will make you break out. Even cosmetic mineral oil, one of the greasiest-feeling oils used in skin-care products, has been shown not to clog pores. In fact, a facial moisturizer that contains a small amount of lightweight oil can have a balancing effect on combination skin, hydrating dry patches. Acne-prone skin may benefit from oils, too, especially flaxseed, grapeseed, and sunflower. These contain omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation associated with mild acne. And tea-tree oil can be used as a spot blemish treatment, thanks to its antibacterial properties, says Goldberg.

There are a few oils that may cause acne on the face—namely coconut and wheat-germ oils. On the body, however, they are typically fine to use; the pores there are less likely to become clogged.

Meanwhile, the term oil-free is no guarantee that a formula won’t cause breakouts. Sometimes products with this on the label contain waxes that can clog pores. Instead, look for packages labeled noncomedogenic, even if the product contains oil. “This word indicates that the formula should not clog pores for most people,” says New York City dermatologist Neal Schultz.

Oil for (Yes) Oily Skin

It’s best to avoid using an oil-based moisturizer on this skin type—you will get a grease-slick effect. However, cleansers with oil may actually help keep oily skin clearer. It sounds counterintuitive, but “oils can act as a solvent for other waxy, oily ingredients, as well as sebum, and help to remove them,” says Jim Hammer, a cosmetic chemist in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. “They can also help prevent detergents in a cleanser from overstripping skin.” When you overstrip, oil glands may temporarily overcompensate by producing extra oil—an effect that can last for up to two weeks, says Goldberg. Oil-based cleansers designed for oily skin contain surfactants to help them wash without leaving behind residue. (You massage the oil into pores, add water to create bubbles, then rinse.) You will also find cleansers for oily skin that contain citrus oils. Some have been shown to help inhibit excess sebum production, proving that, yes, there is an oil for everyone.