This is an important piece to read for everyone who enjoys using natural carrier oils in their skincare. Carrier oils are not created equal. Despite a common belief that all natural carrier oils are great for our skin, in this post I will show you why this is simply not true.
More and more research is being done on topical carrier oil applications showing that some oils are better for the skin than others. And some shouldn’t even be used on the skin on their own. It is not easy to find a good explanation online. I could find some skincare bloggers who transformed their skin and got rid of acne by learning to choose correct oils. But unless you are actively researching a skin condition or enjoy reading research papers, you will most likely stumble only upon very generic articles, saying that all oils are good for your skin. So I decided to write this educational post about carrier oils for skin and how to choose the best ones. I hope that this information will help you make better decisions when choosing oils.
A note about buying commercial body and facial oils
It is always a good idea to learn more about oils yourself instead of trusting the companies and their recipes. You would think that companies do their research and provide you with the best natural oil blend, especially since some of them cost above $50, even $100 for 1oz? Unfortunately, many companies concentrate on the marketing side of things rather than quality. For example, if macadamia oil is trending this year, companies will create a range with macadamia, although there are probably better oils that could be used. Another thing is that oils that have high omega-6 (stuff that you need) are less stable and thus it is a lot more complicated to use them in commercial products. This doesn’t mean that all commercially sold oils are not good. There are many companies that do an amazing job at formulating their oils. But KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. You should be educated enough to be able to read the label and judge if the oil blend will be good for your skin or not.
I also believe that if you like using oils on your skin, you should at least consider making your own blends. It is very simple and so much cheaper.
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Choosing best oils for skin
All carrier oils (except very few exceptions, such as emu oil) are made from plants. Each plant produces oils unique to its species, thus each type of carrier oil has a unique composition. Oils from the same botanical families or geographical regions can be similar but never the same.
Yet, all oils are similar in structure, making it easier for us to analyze the oils and group them. All oils are made up of two parts: 85-99% lipids (combinations of fatty acids) and 1-15% plant compounds (vitamins and other actives that give oils their individuality, scent and color).
Carrier oil composition
Lipids (combinations of fatty acids) 85%-99%
Lipids are composed of a mixture of various fatty acids. So, when talking about a lipid composition of the oils, we in fact talk about their fatty acid composition. There are many types of fatty acids that can be found in carrier oils. Each fatty acid has a name and brings different characteristics to the oil. Understanding fatty acid composition of the oil is a key to choosing best oil for your skin.
Here is an example of two carrier oils: Rosehip seed oil and Marula oil.
As you can see these two oils have a completely different fatty acid composition. This difference in composition means that they will work differently on your skin.
There are quite a few types of fatty acids that can be found in oils: linoleic acid, oleic acid, stearic acid, punicic acid, etc.
Some fatty acids, such as oleic acid, are common and can be found in every oil. Some are rare and can be found only in a very few oils (for example, punicic acid). In this post, I will focus only on the fatty acids that, in my opinion, are worth paying attention to. For example, stearic acid, though present in our skin and useful, will not transform our skin, while linoleic acid might.
If you want to learn about oils in more detail, I recommend this book. The book explains oil composition well and provides summaries for each oil. It also gives a breakdown of the fatty acid composition of about 90 oils. I use it as a reference all the time.
Linoleic acid (Omega-6)
Omega-6 is the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acid present in the epidermis and therefore, plays a very important role in our skins health. It is an important building block required to make ceramides. Ceramides are essential for the structure of the epidermal barrier. Low levels of linoleic acid causes low levels of ceramides, which lead to skin barrier permeability problems (1).
Skin barrier permeability problems is what causes skin issues such as psoriasis, dermatitis and increased trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL).
An interesting study was performed on mice to test the importance of linoleic acid in skin barrier function. Mice were fed a hydrogenated coconut oil diet that made them deficient in essential fatty acids (omega-6 and omega-3). Half of the mice were then fed safflower and primrose oil (high in omega-6) and this helped to reverse the damage and improve skins barrier function. The other half was fed fish oil had no skin improvement.
The same experiment was then repeated and half of the mice were given purified linoleic acid preparations, which improved their skin. The other half was given omega-3-rich preparations and again experienced no improvement. This study confirms the specific role of omega 6 on skin barrier function.
I wanted to mention the above experiment, because many of us think Omega-3 is the best fatty acid. And though this is true when supplementing orally, our skin benefits way more from omega-6. This is because linoleic acid (omega-6) is an important part of our sebum and skin while omega-3 is only found in tiny amounts.
Linoleic acid and acne
Apart from skins barrier related issues, low levels of linoleic acid are also known to contribute to acne.
Study showed that acne sufferers have abnormally low levels of linoleic acid in their skin.
There are couple things that happen when our skin lacks linoleic acid:
First, the skin tries to overcompensate by producing more oleic acid which increases sebum, makes it more sticky and causes inflammation. This happens because our skin cannot produce linoleic acid on its own, but can freely produce oleic acid (omega-9).
Second, low linoleic acid in the skin affects our follicles and it is hypothesized to cause follicular hyperkeratosis, which leads to comedone formation. Moreover, low levels of linoleic acid also lead to impairment of the epidermal barrier function and more inflammation (2).
I was first surprised to read that many people have a low level of linoleic acid in their skin. Most of us know that the western diet provides us with way too much Omega-9 and a lot of Omega-6 too. So can someone be omega-6 deficient? Well, apparently, you don’t need to be systemically deficient for your skin to lack omega-6. You can have high systemic levels of omega-6 and still lack it in the skin (follicles, sebum, etc). It all depends on how our bodies process it. This means that you may not fix your skin by consuming more Omega-6, instead you need to apply omega-6 (linoleic acid) to your skin.
Topically applying oils rich in linoleic acid will help balance sebum composition. The skin will get more linoleic acid and won’t need to produce that much of oleic acid (omega-9). This will make sebum thinner, less oily, less sticky and will reduce inflammation.
Here is one study that shows a 25% improvement in mild-to-moderate acne after a one-month period following topical linoleic acid application.
As you can see from the study, it is not a quick fix. It took the test subjects a full month to see a 25% improvement. But this is something that may completely transform your skin in the long term. When treating acne we usually focus on treating symptoms. But if skin’s fatty acid composition is unbalanced, it will continue contributing to acne. Help your skin to balance itself by providing it with fatty acids it needs the most. The best thing is that you can use oils high in linoleic acid alongside your other acne treatments.
Most of the oils high in linoleic acid are very pleasant to use. They feel runny, light and absorb fast. The downside is that linoleic acid is less stable than, for example, oleic acid. This means that many oils high in this fatty acid will have a short shelf life. You can increase oil’s shelf life by adding vitamin E that works as a powerful antioxidant. Some oils that are high in linolenic acid are: evening primrose, grapeseed, hemp, passion fruit seed , pumpkin seed, red raspberry, safflower, sunflower and more.
To summarize, linoleic acid is absolutely essential for our skin. Our skin cannot produce it on its own, so it is important to help it by applying the oil topically. The best oils for skin will be the ones that are high in linoleic acid and low in oleic acid.
Oleic acid (omega-9)
Oleic acid is the most common fatty acid. At least a small amount can be found in all oils. Omega-9 fatty acid is not considered essential because it is produced by our own sebum. In skin, it helps maintain suppleness, elasticity and softness. About 30% of our skins fatty acids is oleic acid. This makes oils high in omega-9 highly compatible with our sebum and able to carry nutrients deeply into the skin. Because of that, oleic acid is sometimes considered to be a skin penetration enhancer.
Sounds great so far? Well, it’s not that simple…
Oleic acid is beneficial for our skin BUT we need to remember that our skin can produce it itself. So does it need our help in this area? The answer is no. In fact, it often overproduces it.
As I mentioned before, dry acne prone and psoriasis prone skin is often deficient in linoleic acid. When skin is lacking linoleic acid, it tries to compensate by producing even more of the oleic acid (since it cannot produce linoleic acid). This leads to more sebum being produced and that sebum being more sticky and clogging.
The last thing we want to do is to keep applying oils high in OA contributing to the imbalance even more. The same goes for those with a healthy skin. You shouldn’t use oils high in OA. It is not good for your skin.
Recent studies have shown that oils high in oleic acid and low in linoleic acid can significantly damage the skin barrier and promote the development and exacerbate existing atopic dermatitis. The same study concluded that oils high in oleic acid should not be used as a treatment of dry skin and should not be applied on the skin of infants.
This brings me to a big myth that is very prevalent. It is that those with dry skin should use oils high in oleic acid because they are richer and absorb deeper. It is true that oils high OA absorb deeper, making skin look supple and moisturized. But this provides only a temporary relief. Oleic acid will not benefit your skin long term and as the study above suggested, it may make your skin worse.
What you need is high linoleic acid content. Linoleic acid helps our skin to build ceramides and ceramides are required to have a healthy skin barrier. Compromised skin barrier cannot keep moisture inside the skin, hence the dry skin.
Another study showed that applications of lauric and oleic acids to the skin of rabbits resulted in follicular keratosis and/or formation of cornedones.
Even the National Eczema Association suggests using oils that have a low amount of oleic, and high amount of linoleic acid.
It all makes sense when you think about it. So to sum up, our skin can produce oleic acid but cannot produce linoleic acid. Applying more oleic acid will create a situation where our skin has too much oleic acid, leading to a fatty acid imbalance and skin disorders. Instead, we should help our skin by applying oils high in fatty acids that it needs but cannot produce on its own – linoleic acid.
Oleic acid is present in all the oils. You should only avoid the ones that have a high ratio of it.
This doesn’t mean that you should bin all the oils that are high in OA. These oils have their own benefits, such as long shelf life, penetration enhancement and thicker texture that is desirable for some types of skin care products. It is okay to incorporate oleic acid rich olis into your oil mix, as long as you add plenty of oils high in linoleic acid.
Oils very high in oleic acid (over 60%): Sweet almond, apricot, avocado, buriti, camellia, carrot seed, hazelnut, macadamia, marula, moringa, olive, plum.
Alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3)
Just like linoleic acid (omega-6), Alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3) is an essential fatty acid that our bodies cannot synthesize and we have to get it from our food. But, while linoleic acid is part of our skin composition, the alpha-linolenic acid is not. It seems that the effects of Alpha-linolenic acid, when used topically, are less direct than those of the linoleic acid. In skin, LNA plays a supporting role.
“It works together with linoleic acid and allows increased accumulation of linoleic acid in ceramide fractions of the skin. Another function of ALA is that it gets synthesised into EPA and DHA, which are important for skins health and support the immune response of the epidermis.”(source)
Just like with linoleic acid, ALA abundant oils absorb quickly and easily. High percentages of ALA are found in red raspberry, blackberry, chia, walnut and flaxseed oils.
To conclude, ALA is important for the skin and you should try to choose oils that have at least a little bit of it. However, you should not prioritize it over linoleic acid as it is way more beneficial for skin when applied topically than ALA.
Gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA)
GLA is an omega-6 type fatty acid that can be made by our bodies from linoleic acid. It has anti-inflammatory properties and soothes redness, itching and irritation. It also takes part in skin’s physiologic processes by improving blood flow, reducing inflammation, and reducing water loss.
Because our bodies can convert linoleic acid into GLA, it is not considered essential. However, many skin disorders may be due to our bodies not processing essential fatty acids well (reference). Our skin lacks two critical enzymes, delta-6-desaturase (D6D) enzyme and delta-5-desaturase (D5D) enzyme. These enzymes convert ALA and LA into GLA. Our bodies keep these enzymes elsewhere, for example, in the liver. Linoleic acid is converted to GLA in the body and then transported to our skin. This may lead to insufficient GLA reaching the skin. This is especially true if you have a poor glucose-rich diet, are smoking, consuming lots of alcohol, are deficient in B6 or zinc, etc.
There are some studies, which show that oral and topical applications of GLA can help with skin conditions such as eczema. Here are couple links:
I would like to add that from everything I’ve read it would make sense to help our skin to get more GLA by applying it topically. However, I could not find any large-scale studies covering this topic. The studies I found are pretty small, meaning they are less reliable.
If you have dry or inflammatory skin condition, I would recommend including oils high in GLA. But, I would still focus on LA more and treat GLA more as a supportive fatty acid. For example, you could use Evening primrose oil that has approx. 70% of LA and 10% GLA. Or you could mix in 10-25% of Borage oil (25% GLA) to your mix of oils.
As an omega-6 fatty acid, the oils high in GLA, absorb quickly, deeply and don’t feel greasy. Examples of oils high in GLA: borage oil, evening primrose, black currant.
Erucic acid (also called docosenoic acid)
It is a form of omega-9 fatty acid. Erucic acid doesn’t have any spectacular health benefits, but it serves as protective lipid layer for the skin. A more interesting part is how erucic acid affects the feel of the oil. Oils high in erucic acid feel wet but not oily. Similarly to how silicones feel.
Erucic fatty acid can be found in many oils, but only in small amounts. Only the oils high in this fatty acid, will have this wet feel. Such oils are broccoli, abyssisian oil, daikon radish seed oil. This brings me back to when I first discovered that broccoli seed oil is called nature’s silicone and I used it my hair oil formulation.
Punicic acid is an omega-5 conjugated fatty acid – it is rare and valuable. It can only be found in high concentration in pomegranate seed oil (70-80%). Punicic acid strengthens skin’s natural functions, helps skin maintain its moisture barrier and protect itself from environmental damage. The strongest properties of punicic acid is that it is anti-inflammatory and regenerates tissues (improves tissue repair and wound healing).
Pomegranate oil (very high in punicic acid) might even be effective at protecting skin from cancer. A study with mice was conducted and topical applications of pomegranate oil “significantly decreased the incidence of skin tumor development and skin tumor multiplicity”.
Palmitoleic acid (omega-7)
An omega-7 fatty acid. Palmitoleic acid is present in all our tissues and forms about 20% of our sebum. The role of palmitoleic acid is to stimulate the healing process and guard the skin from infections and damage (both physical and environmental).
Just like oleic acid, it is not considered essential as our sebaceous glands produce it on their own. However, unlike oleic acid, our skin does not tend to overproduce it. The opposite can be true in fact as the production of palmitoleic acid in the skin decreases with age, making skin weaker. It is a good idea to include oils with palmitoleic acid when caring for mature skin.
You might be familiar with stearic acid as it is often added to soaps and skin care products as an emulsifier and hardening ingredient. Stearic acid, on its own, is solid, waxy and has a high melting point. This is what gives butters their stiffness and makes some oils thick.
Our sebum also has some stearic acid in its composition (about 10%). Its role is to support and protect the barrier function of the skin.
Active Plant compounds 1-15%
The active plant compounds (phytochemicals) are what make each oil unique and give oils their specific color and scent. These are antioxidants, vitamins, tannins, polyphenols, terpenes, etc. Some of these compounds, especially vitamins, can bring some really sought-after properties to the oil. For example, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, skin lightener and anti-aging ingredient, while vitamin A is anti-aging.
It is difficult, however, to calculate the exact quantities of these compounds in each oil. These compounds are sensitive to processing and are mostly found in unrefined oils. Also, it is important to note that oil composition, especially the phytochemical part, can vary highly from one producer to another. It is always the best solution to double check with the provider you are shopping with.
Some oils known to have a high amount of vitamin C: black currant, blackberry, blueberry, marula, passion fruit, sea buckthorn.
Some oils known to have vitamin A: rosehip seed , red raspberry oil.
What I do:
When blending oils, I like to include oils high in vitamins, however, my priority is always a healthy fatty acid ratio. I usually want my oil blends to include higher amounts of vitamins than oils naturally provide, so I add vitamin A, C and E separately. These vitamins are oil-soluble, so you simply can add some and mix. No need for emulsifiers, preservatives or any other additives. Have a look at my face oil recipe with oil-soluble vitamin c and coQ10. If you prefer using carrier oils alone, I cannot recommend Rosehip seed oil enough (high in vitamin A).
To sum up:
The studies suggest that people with dry skin conditions, eczema, psoriasis and acne have low levels of linoleic acid and increased levels of oleic acid. Linoleic acid when applied topically improves skin for all the mentioned conditions. Oils high in oleic acid, on the other hand, were damaging to the skin barrier and contributed to worsening symptoms.
So, what are the best oils for the skin? Those are carrier oils that are high in linoleic acid and low in oleic acid. It is okay to use oils in high oleic acid as long as they are mixed with other oils that are high in linoleic acid. The key is to maintain a healthy fatty acid ratio.
There are no guidelines as to what a “healthy fatty acid” ratio should be, but it is clear that the ratio should be at least 1:1 (LA:OA) or higher (more LA). Interestingly, cranberry seed oil is considered by some as having a perfect fatty acid profile. Its ratios are as follows – 4:3:2:0.5 ( Linoleic: Alpha-linolenic : Oleic : Palmitic).
In my opinion, the best practice is to make oil blends rather than using only one oil. This will allow you to achieve a healthy fatty acid ratio and include a variety of fatty acids in your blend. For example, if you have mature skin you may want to include palmitic acid in your facial oil. Unfortunately, all oils with a significant amount of palmitic acid are also high in oleic acid. The best option here would be to to mix 30% of such oil with 60% of oils high in linoleic acid.
Other things to consider
When choosing oils for a facial oil blend, don’t forget to check the oil’s comedogenic rating. Simply speaking, comedogenic rating shows you how likely the oil is to clog your pores. The rating goes from 0 to 5, with 0 being not clogging at all and 5 being very clogging. I am working on a full list of oils and their comedogenic rating and will link to that soon. Meanwhile, you can google “XXX oil comedogenic rating” to find out if an oil you want to use may be clogging.
Unfortunately, many of the best oils (high in LA and ALA) have a short shelf life. Usually, 3 to 6 months. You can extend the shelf life of these oils by adding 0.5% of vitamin E into the bottle. I also recommend buying such oils in small amounts and repurchasing when needed.
There are always some beautiful exceptions, of course. For example, prickly pear seed oil, though very high in linoleic acid, is also very high in vitamin E, which increases its shelf life up to 2 years.
Best oils for skin
Oils high in linoleic acid
Carrier oil – approx . % LA
Blackberry seed oil – 60%
Cucumber oil – 60%
Evening primrose – 65%
Grapeseed oil – 75%
Pumpkin seed oil – 55%
Red Raspberry – 50%
Safflower – 75%
Sunflower – 72% (want to bring particular attention to this oil because we often think that sunflower oil is just a cheap filler. But this inexpensive boring oil is high in linolenic acid, while currently trending expensive marula oil is mainly oleic acid) KNOWLEDGE IS POWER 😉
Cranberry – 40%
Rosehip seed oil – 45%
Oils high in GLA
Carrier oil – approx . % GLA
Black currant oil – 15%
Borage seed oil – 25%
Evening primrose oil – 10%
My favorite standalone face oil is Rosehip seed oil. It has a good fatty acid composition on its own, is high in vitamins, absorbs fast and doesn’t clog pores.
Rosehip seed oil
Linoleic acid – 45 %
Alpha-linolenic acid – 30%
Oleic acid – 15%
Palmitic acid – 6%
Comedogenic rating – 1