If you’re eating Paleo, you’re already picky about the oils you put in your mouth. Yes on olive, coconut, and avocado; nix on corn, soybean, and “vegetable.” But what about the oils you put on your skin?
There are lots of Paleo-friendly oils and fats that you can use as no-fuss, all-natural moisturizers and even cleansers. But there's not a huge amount of research-backed information about which ones to choose. So here’s a look at how different oils affect your skin - which to choose, which to skip, and which to test thoroughly before you put them on your face.
A Paleo approach to skincare
This is a post about putting oil on your face, but it’s worth noting that the first step to great skin is to eat well - massive blood sugar spikes are a major factor in acne and other skin issues, and some specific foods (especially dairy) can also precipitate skin flare-ups. But even with a great diet, topical treatments can still be helpful. Of course, nobody really knows what actual cavemen used on their faces, but if you think about what Paleo skincare might look like, try a few ideas taken from the Paleo approach to food:
- Don’t take strong medications with serious side effects (e.g., skin-irritating acne treatments) to fix a problem if you could prevent the whole issue by eating better in the first place (this is where the diet paragraph above comes in).
- Without being unreasonably fanatical about it, prioritize things with few ingredients that haven’t been stripped of their natural properties or nutrients.
- Don’t spend a ridiculous amount of money on fads and “super” products - they’re mostly scams. Consistently doing what works is key, not constantly jumping from trend to trend
With that in mind, using plain plant oils on your skin is one super Paleo-friendly approach to moisturizing and protecting your face and body. Oils like jojoba oil, coconut oil, and sesame oil are cheap compared to most commercial skincare products, don’t have any dyes or emulsifiers that might irritate sensitive skin, and do have a bunch of natural antioxidants and other good stuff straight from the plants. Here’s a look at some plain Paleo-friendly fats and oils that might be helpful for your skincare routine.
What oils can do for you: moisturize and reduce oxidative stress
Provide antioxidants/reduce oxidative stress
The antioxidant activity of your skin is critical to preventing sun damage and premature age-related changes (with the caveat that nothing can completely prevent aging, which is fine because aging is a normal part of human life and not a disease).
This paper stressed that all oils affect the antioxidant activity in the skin differently, but that applying the right types of fatty acids to your skin can actually have an antioxidant effect, not to mention the antioxidants naturally in the oil itself.
Oil can be a powerful moisturizer. For one thing, just rubbing the oil on your skin works as an occlusive moisturizer - it physically prevents water loss through the skin. The fatty acids in oil also act as an emollient - they help make skin softer by smoothing out tiny gaps between the skin flakes in the top layer.
Other compounds in plant oils can also help protect or heal the skin barrier, so that it can keep water in more effectively. In this case, as weird as it might sound to Paleo ears, Omega-6 oils aren’t actually the bad guys. There’s actually some evidence that linoleic acid (Omega-6 fat) improves skin barrier function when it’s applied to the skin. For example, O-6-rich sunflower oil improves skin barrier function in newborn babies, some of the people with the most vulnerable skin barriers around.
Are plant oils comedogenic?
If something is comedogenic, it means it clogs up your pores and makes you more prone to acne. We’ve all seen “non-comedogenic” labels on skincare products, but did you ever wonder exactly what that means?
Unfortunately, there’s no super great animal model of human comedogenicity. This study also found that a lot of products classified as comedogenic didn’t actually cause acne when applied to real people’s bodies. Also, considering the different reactions that different people have to skincare products, it’s almost impossible to say with certainty that something is or isn’t comedogenic for everyone.
This is a very frustrating conclusion, but the only real way to find out what works for your skin is to take different things for a test drive. If you’re really acne-prone, try a small patch test first somewhere generally hidden by your clothes.
Plant oils for skincare: Paleo suggestions
Probably the most common oil used in “natural” cosmetics, coconut oil is known not just for its moisturizing properties but also for its mild antimicrobial action. Read up more on the benefits of coconut oil
here: the short version is that it’s a decent moisturizer, even for skin conditions that go beyond the standard “the central heating in this office sucks every drop of water out of my pores” type issues.
In studies, coconut oil was as good as mineral oil for xerosis (itchy, cracking, or dry skin, often at the knuckles or elbows), better than mineral oil for dermatitis in children, and more powerful than olive oil as an antimicrobial and all-purpose skin quality improver. Coconut oil has mild antimicrobial properties thanks to monolaurin, a fatty acid that makes up almost half its fat. For people with skin conditions that make them more prone to skin infections, this could be helpful as a preventative.
Shea butter comes from the shea nut, which is grown in western Africa. It’s mostly used for cosmetics in the US, but it’s actually also edible, which is nice for safety purposes.
Shea butter is notable not just for its moisturizing qualities but because it contains compounds called triterpenes, which have anti-inflammatory effects. One study found that the triterpenes from shea butter strengthened the skin barrier and protected collagen - that’s the protein that makes skin elastic and smooth. On the other hand, that article was written by employees of a cosmetics company, so a giant grain of salt is definitely warranted. But other papers from different groups have also found that the triterpenes in shea butter reduce inflammation.
Shea butter also has a lot of unsaponifiable lipids, which make it even more anti-inflammatory.
Runners up: sesame oil, Argan oil, almond oil, and pomegranate seed oil
These are oils where there isn’t a huge amount of human research in their favor, but just anecdotally a lot of people use them and like them and there’s a little bit of research in their favor. For example, a couple studies have shown that applying argan oil every day increases skin softness and elasticity. Another study found that massage with bitter almond oil reduced stretch marks, but just rubbing almond oil on the stomach itself did nothing. It had to be with massage. This study also showed that a moisturizer containing sweet almond oil was helpful for hand dermatitis (when your hands get all irritated from washing them too much), but the moisturizer also had other ingredients.
Since everyone’s skin is so different, one of them might absolutely be your holy grail for skincare!
Just say no to...olive and avocado oil
Olive oil is chock full of antioxidants, which is very healthy when you eat it, but oleic acid, the main fat found in olive oil, disrupts the skin barrier function. That’s a big deal because the skin barrier is how your skin prevents moisture loss and keeps itself hydrated. Oleic acid increases total water loss from the skin, causing a dehydrating effect. This study even found that “topical treatment with olive oil significantly damages the skin barrier.” Ouch!
Avocado oil is also very high in oleic acid, making it another bad choice for skincare. Olives, avocados, and the oils made from them are perfectly fine foods and totally Paleo-friendly, but research suggests that you should leave them in the kitchen and use something else on your skin.
How to use oils for skincare
You don’t actually need to buy special body butters made with all these things - especially for people with chemical sensitivities, all the fragrances and ingredients in commercial moisturizing products can be a minefield.
The simplest way to use oils or shea butter as a moisturizer is to just rub a little bit (a very little bit! You don’t need a huge glob, so start with less than you think you’ll need) into your skin after a shower. For your body, you can also use a favorite oil as a massage oil (with or without a drop of essential oil to make it smell nice)
There are also techniques like the oil cleansing method (rub oil into your skin thoroughly, then wipe it off with a damp washcloth) that use the oil as more of a soap substitute.