Oil Spill

One writer confronts her fear of facial oils.


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 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.

While using oil to smooth skin may sound perfectly logical, the idea of using an oil as a cleanser seems counterintuitive, like eating to keep your weight down. But Shu Uemura, Nude, Laura Mercier and Kanebo all offer cleansing oils. One of the first to experiment with them was Uemura, who developed his classic version, High Performance Balancing Cleansing Oil, in 1960. (Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were devotees.) “Initially women were reluctant because they think their skin will have an oily residue,” says Uemura. “But when water is applied to the oil, it turns into a milky lather that washes away makeup and dirt without drying or harming the skin.” Today, the company makes five types of cleansing beauty oils, including a version for—yes—oily skin.

Liz Earle, owner of the eponymous British skincare brand, is a believer in using oils on top of oils. She suggests applying her Superskin Concentrate oil underneath her Superskin Moisturiser, a cream that contains cranberry seed, rosehip and borage oils, before bedtime. Earle says her products can be used on any skin type, including oily. “The best way to balance oily skin is to provide it with a featherweight layer of oil. If you strip the skin dry with oil-free products, it needs to provide more oil,” says Earle, whose celebrity clients include Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench. “When there’s a layer of oil, your sebaceous glands switch off because they think, We don’t need to make more oil because we’ve already got some.”

This last theory of Earle’s hasn’t exactly been embraced by dermatologists. “A majority of women who have acne tend to have oily skin,” says New York dermatologist Brad Katchen. “The most effective way we know to turn off the sebaceous glands is with oral Accutane. There is no evidence that I have read that sebaceous gland activity can be manipulated with topical oils at all.”

“A lot of romance is attributed to these essential oils,” agrees Scarsdale, New York, dermatologist Amy Newburger. “Plant oil—it’s green. You think it’s good for the environment, but I keep thinking there’s also a lot of molds and fungi that grow in the rainforest [where some of these oils come from].” Newburger allows that oils can be nourishing for older skin with less productive oil glands but says she prefers synthetic ingredients for their consistency and dependability, not to mention their medical track record.

Still, that hasn’t stopped believers from pouring on the gospel. Oils are “the best antiaging medicine in the world,” says Raichur, who does look remarkably youthful for a woman of 70. As for me, I’ve added a few drops of oil before bedtime to my ever expanding skincare regimen. I haven’t yet experienced any major breakouts, and one of my colleagues recently commented that my skin now has a dewier glow. I can’t say I’ve seen a dramatic difference just yet—but get back to me when I hit 70.