I now know what it feels like to be an olive. I’m lying on my stomach at Pratima Ayurvedic Skin Care Clinic and Spa, in New York’s SoHo, having what feels like a tanker of oil slathered onto every square inch of my body. There is warm, herb-scented oil on my calves, hands, elbows, back, neck and nearly every strand of hair. The masseuse works silently, but she seems to be sending me a telepathic message: “I’m loading you up for the winter. You will never have to moisturize again.” All the methodical movements do feel relaxing, practically lulling me to sleep—that is, until the oil hits my face. As my temples, forehead and cheeks get the full oil treatment, I’m suddenly tense. Visions of clogged pores and blackheads fill my mind. Clearasil worked when I was a teenager; maybe I can pick up a tube on my way home?
In India, teens apply neem oil, a bitter, brown substance from the evergreen neem tree, to combat acne. In Japan, women smooth on camellia oil to keep lines and wrinkles at bay. But in this country, most women would sooner rub their faces with sandpaper than dab them with oil. Oil is equated with greasy fast food and Jiffy Lube, not flawless complexions. I, myself, have long been a proponent of the oil-free school of skincare. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that several of the cultish beauty companies have been pushing facial oils. Erno Laszlo and Tracie Martyn use seemingly magical oils from exotic locales like India and Brazil. Fresh sells an oil called Elixir Ancien, which the company claims is blended by central European monks. Darphin, ar457, Liz Earle, This Works and Elemis are also selling skin oils and oil-based serums said to nourish and purify skin. Why, I wondered, are Americans so oil-phobic—and is this fear sensible or irrational?
In this country, most women would sooner rub their faces with sandpaper than dab them with oil.
“In the U.S., maybe because of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, you always have to be superclean, always trying to purify yourself,” says Anne Supplisson, vice president of global spa development at the Paris-based skincare company Darphin. “In France, we don’t have the feeling that oil is necessarily dirty.”
Unlike mineral oils, which can clog facial pores, these newer products contain plant-based oils, which are more easily absorbed. “Oil is back, there’s no doubt about it,” says Noella Gabriel, director of product and treatment development at British spa brand Elemis, which has made oil a key ingredient in its recent launches. Gabriel says that the plant oils themselves are lighter these days, thanks to new techniques for extracting them.
Many of these products also contain essential oils, the most prized of plant oils. Essential oils are highly concentrated and expensive (costing up to $10,000 a pound), containing antioxidants and a medicine cabinet’s worth of vitamins and minerals. (These oils are often diluted because of their potency—some can actually burn the skin if used in their purest form.) In general, beauty companies recommend applying facial oils after cleansing and toning and before moisturizing. “Even a little bit keeps your skin soft and smooth,” says Pratima Raichur, owner of the Pratima Ayurvedic spa, who has been mixing her own oil blends for more than 30 years.