Why natural oils are better for your skin

natural-oils-better-for-skinDespite what a lot of marketing suggests, there is no particular reason to suppose that natural ingredients are safer or superior to synthetic ones.  It depends on what you are doing with them.  It’s horses for courses.  You pick the material that has the properties you need for whatever it is you are trying to achieve.  But on the whole most of the time I prefer natural oils over mineral oil for skin creams.   

I think I have tried enough combinations to be reasonably sure of what I am saying. Vegetable oils like for example capric caprylic triglycerides absorb better and leave the skin feeling better. Natural oils do have some drawbacks of course. They don’t have quite the moisturising power of mineral oil, so for really dry skin they don’t quite cut it. And there is always the greater risk of allergic reactions to be expected from natural ingredients. This isn’t a huge problem but it is not entirely mythical. And you might well end up having to put a ‘may contain nuts’ label on your pack.

But as with a lot of things, it isn’t always easy finding actual evidence of what you believe to be true.  So I was very pleased to stumble across a paper in the Lancet the other day while looking for something else.   Some doctors at Dhaka Shishu Hospital in Bangladesh had taken the trouble to check out what works best for protecting the skin of premature babies in a maternity ward.  Hospitals are very unnatural places and despite the best efforts of the staff when you are in them it is extremely easy to pick up an infection, and this is especially true of premature babies.  One of their problems is that their skins have a very poor barrier function, so emollients are used to give them an extra bit of protection.  What they looked at was whether a branded product would work better than simple sunflower seed oil.  It turned out that the sunflower oil did better than the brand, which was a mineral oil based cream.  The infants got fewer skin infections.

I think I should just take a moment to praise the doctors involved.  Big headline medical breakthroughs are fine things, but when you tot it all up it is the day to day efforts of people on the ground making steady incremental improvements that really make the difference to our health. Well done for adding a bit to that effort.

But back to cosmetic skin creams.  I think I can speculate as to why the sunflower oil did better.  The basic structure of all seed oils is triglycerides.  These have a pretty reasonable affinity with the kinds of oils that the skin itself produces.  So when you apply them to skin they incorporate themselves into the upper layers of the skin, the area known as the stratum corneum, and beef up its barrier properties.  Mineral oil on the other hand doesn’t penetrate so well and instead stays on or near the surface.  This is pretty good too, and in fact may work better from the point of view of simply holding moisture in.  But the skin is a bit more complicated than a simple sponge and has other functions than simply holding your insides in.  So the mineral oil treated skin might have been as well moisturised, or perhaps even better moisturised.  But the overall protective function of the skin was served better by the sunflower oil.

I don’t say that this study proves anything very profound.  It doesn’t mean that natural is automatically good or even that my ideas about the way skin creams work are correct.  But it is a good reminder that it always pays to look at the evidence.


Lancet. 2005 Mar 19-25;365(9464):1039-45. Effect of topical treatment with skin barrier-enhancing emollients on nosocomial infections in preterm infants in Bangladesh: a randomised controlled trial. Darmstadt GL, Saha SK, Ahmed AS, Chowdhury MA, Law PA, Ahmed S, Alam MA, Black RE, Santosham M.


7 thoughts on “Why natural oils are better for your skin”

  1. Hi Colin! I am absolutely fascinated by this subject! Having had an awful case of perioral dermatitis last year I found that the only products my skin would not only tolerate, but actually seemed to benefit from, were the ones made up of natural plant oils and waxes. So after doing some amateur research I binned all my petroleum based lip balms and any moisturisers containing mineral oil, and replaced them with Burt’s Bees lip balm and more natural oil based face (and body) products, with fantastic results. Speaking as a cosmetics junkie of 20+ years, it has done me a huge favour as I now look for products made up of natural oils and waxes as opposed to the hot new product of the moment. Every cloud and all that!

  2. Dennis@ hair removal cream

    These days natural became a marketing term. Someone wants to use natural oil for his skin cream but does he know what kind of pesticide and fertilizers were used to grow that plant, if any, of course. Going in the forest to harvest plants isn’t a very good idea either, if you take one wrong plant by mistake the all thing can become a disaster since some plants contain some of the most powerful toxic substances.

    One way to go it will be to buy ready made oils, use them in small quantities for a short time. If the results are good pay for an analysis looking for chemicals used for growing plants. If they are clear you found a winner.

    I think this might be a way to go.

  3. Very interested in what Nicky has to say, I myself suffer with peri-oral dermatitis and have not found anything my skin will tolerate with regards to a moisturiser or anything else for that matter. Any advise or tips would be gratefully recieved.

  4. Hi Jen, oh gosh I feel your pain, it’s agony isn’t it. What I found through the research I did is that most of the products you think will help i.e. E45, Oilatum etc. contain many of the supposed triggers for perioral dermatitis. Great! So after reading countless reviews on MakeUp Alley I plumped for Jurlique Calendula Cream as lots of other people with this condition commented that it was the only moisturiser they could use. Based on my experience I’d have to agree, my skin is very happy with it (Calendula products in general seem to be well tolerated from the reviews I’ve read). I also use Decleor face oils and balms but they’re quite pricey so I’m gradually switching over to Balm Balm products which are also made of natural oils and waxes but are significantly cheaper, and so far so good. My new rule of thumb is the less ingredients the better, and I’ve also cut out any steps in my skincare routine that are not completely necessary i.e. toner, just to keep the number of products I inflict on my skin to a minimum. Hope this helps a bit!

  5. Thanks so much for your advise, I shall certainly be looking into the Calendula Cream you have mentioned. I would be luxury to be able to use anything on my skin. Thanks once again.

  6. Hi Colin,
    not sure if my question completely meets the subject here, but I want to ask you about the grape seed oil: I heard it is a good moisturizer , but being an unsaturated oil it goes rancid quickly, so it has a shelf life about 3 months. I wonder, will adding antioxidants fix the problem?

    Thanks in advance.

    1. Yes grapeseed oil is a good moisturiser. I use it myself neat from time to time. I have never noticed that it goes off particularly quickly, but antioxidants do work to prolong the shelf life of oils.

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