Beauty Tips

Oil Based Cleansers

Olive Oil

Oil based cleansers have a very long history.  In fact the first cleansers were oil based cleansers. When a Roman citizen came home from a busy day building aqueducts and conquering barbarians, the evening started with a bath.  The Roman would cover him or herself with olive oil, which was then removed by a slave using a strigil, a blunt bladed knife.  He would then go into a steam room  to open up the pores, before finishing off the process by plunging into a pool of water.

The Romans obviously enjoyed the process immensely.  One Roman emperor was asked by a foreigner from one of the smellier ancient nations why he bathed once a day.  The reply was, he didn’t have time to bathe twice a day.  Soap was not used until much later in the history of the Empire when things were beginning to go badly for the Romans.  This was taught to me as a young chemist as an example of technological progress, but I can’t help wondering if in reality the Romans were settling for soap because as their empire began to decline they could no longer afford the bath, the slaves or even the olive oil.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

But there is no doubt that olive oil was, and is, an excellent way of cleansing the skin.  But as the Romans would tell you, it isn’t all that convenient if you don’t have a slave handy to do the hard work.  Nonetheless I think it remains a viable option if you can get used to the idea of using stuff from your kitchen as part of your body care regime.

Someone has formalised this centuries old practice of cleansing the skin into what they call the Oil Cleansing Method.  You can read about it on their website (see below for link).   I don’t disagree with anything that it says and if you want some instructions to follow they are a good place to start.  I would say though that it is very prescriptive and I think that there are plenty of other ways to use oils to clean the skin and keep it in good condition if you don’t mind spending the time experimenting.  I am always struck by the wide variation in people’s skin and what works very well for one person can be useless for someone else.  The suggestion of the Oil Cleansing Method is to use castor oil as a base and thin it down with either sunflower oil or olive oil.  I would suggest that not everyone needs the castor oil.  And there are plenty of oils to try.  For example grapeseed oil is very light and might suit someone who doesn’t have too much in the way of  excess sebum.

Just about any oil will give you the cleansing effect, though heavier oils like castor oil will be more effective against oily makeup like mascara. The trick is to leave behind a residue that the skin’s sensors interpret as sebum.  What you want to achieve is skin that stays in the state you left it for as long as possible after your cleansing process. The more natural the oil the better for this purpose.  Virgin pressed organic grades will contain more impurities and a wider range of different chemicals, and so resemble the complex nature of sebum more closely.  These are more likely to fool your skin into thinking it is sebum than more highly processed oils or mineral oil.

Safety is always something you have to think about with skin products.  Intrinsically oils are quite safe. We all eat them every day, and the quantities you might use on your skin wouldn’t be much more than a mouthful.  In any case, the main components of oils are not likely to penetrate the skin.  I am however suggesting relatively unpurified and organic grades are best for cleansing purposes.  This won’t be a problem for the vast majority of skin types.  But do bear in mind that natural grades are better because they are less pure.  The phrase ‘pure and natural’ doesn’t apply in the case of oils.  In fact it should be unpure and natural.  If you have particularly sensitive skin or are prone to allergies there is more chance that some random component might trigger a reaction. Even so, I wouldn’t particularly advise people with sensitive skin to avoid organic oils, just be a bit more careful.

The oil that has the worst reputation for skin reactions is peanut oil – often called arachis oil. Allergy to peanuts can in a mercifully small number of people provoke a very strong allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.  This is an extremely strong allergic reaction with severe symptoms that can sometimes  be fatal.  The name anaphylaxis is a description of the symptoms regardless of what triggers it off, but it seems to have become associated with peanuts in many people’s minds.

Quite why peanuts should be so prone to causing allergies isn’t at all clear.  When the story first started to become well known someone suggested to me that it was in fact a fungus growing on the peanuts rather than the peanuts themselves that was the true causative agent.  I have not heard anyone talking about this since, but I have to say that producing highly potent allergens does sound rather more like the kind of thing a fungus would do than a peanut. Fungi have form in this area.  But whatever the ultimate origin peanuts have been singled out as one of the main risks of allergic reactions.  Peanut allergies became a headline story around the world in 1996 when a report was published highlighting the risk posed to children with eczema by allergens in peanut related products.  This made the headline news in the UK with a backdrop of some of the products that contained peanuts.  One of the products was one that the company I worked for made. It was a cream for dry skin that was promoted for use on children with eczema.  It contained 20% peanut oil.  Whoops.

Interestingly the product had been on the market for twenty years and had attracted very few complaints from users about skin reactions of any kind.  In fact a very low level considering the target market, because if anyone is going to get a skin reaction it is a child with eczema.  This was rather at odds with the story about peanuts being such potent allergens. But nonetheless we switched from peanut oil to mineral oil.  This had no effect on the number of complaints one way or the other. It wasn’t until a paper came out in the British Medical Journal a few years later that things became clear.  This showed that a group of peanut sensitive people only reacted to unrefined peanut oil.  Whatever it is in the peanuts that causes the allergic reaction it can only be present at very low levels which are removed by purifying the oil.

But there is a message here even if you aren’t allergic to peanuts.  If you have sensitive skin you probably need to be a bit more careful about the kinds of oils you use.  Unpurified and organic grades will have more things in that you can potentially react to.  You might do better to stick to mineral oil which is very unlikely to provoke a reaction and doesn’t contain any impurities.  But I hope you don’t have to take such a drastic step. Natural oils do have more interesting skin feels, and as I have said I think they may be more efficient sebum suppressors as well.

But much as I advocate using oils as cleansing agents, all of them whether pure, natural, refined or whatever have one big disadvantage.  Oil is, well, oily.  It is not easy to clean off. Getting hold of a slave to handle the mess is a nightmare nowadays, if only for legal reasons. There isn’t much you can do about this in your kitchen, but most commercial products incorporate a surfactant into the oil to help you wash it off.

For example, have a look at this oil based cleanser formulation from Dermalogica.

Caprylic/capric Triglyceride, Prunus Armeniaca (apricot) Kernel Oil, PEG-40 Sorbitan Peroleate, Helianthus Annuus (sunflower) Seed Oil, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Oils Of: Borago Officinalis Seed, Aleurites Moluccana Seed, Oryza Sativa (rice) Bran, Carthamus Tinctorius (safflower) Seed, Citrus Grandis (grapefruit) Peel, Lavandula Hybrida, Cymbopogon Schoenanthus, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (orange), Lavandula Angustifolia (lavender), Citrus Nobilis (mandarin Orange) Peel; Solanum Lycopersicum (tomato) Extract, Tocopheryl Acetate, Decyl Olive Esters, Tocopherol, Dicaprylyl Carbonate, Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Butylparaben, Citral, Limonene, Linalool

Most of the things on that list are oils, some of them quite familiar ones despite the long latin names.  The first one on the list, the caprylic/capric triglyceride is much less scary than it sounds.  It is a highly purified grade of coconut oil.  This is quite a light oil so they have balanced it with some apricot oil.  Sounds like a good start.

The next ingredient, PEG-40 Sorbitan Peroleate, is the interesting one.  This is the surfactant and it is this that allows this product to be easily washed off the skin, and indeed anything else you might spill it on.  It is a relatively poor solubiliser as it happens.  The other kind of formulation you see it in is dispersing bath oils, the ones that turn milky when you pour them into the bath.  The oil is only being partially solubilised so it forms a cloud rather than vanishing completely.

Including a surfactant in a cleansing oil does have a drawback. You are putting them in to help remove the oil that is being applied in the product and to reduce the excess oil the skin is producing. But there is a risk that it will penetrate into the skin and disrupt the skin’s barrier.  If you get some kind of reaction to a cleansing oil the chances are that is what is happening.  So with this in mind, I quite like the approach Dermalogica have taken of including just one quite mild surfactant.  But some products go for a more spectacular effect and include enough to create an emulsion on the skin when washed off with water.

When I mentioned cleansing oils on Twitter a lot of my friends on there pricked their ears up and had some interesting points to make.  Bom dia to my Brazlian friend skepticsoap who told me his favourite cleanser oil is Shiseido Ultimate Cleansing Oil which removes even stubborn sunscreens. Skepticsoap is quite knowledgeable and asks a perceptive question.  ‘It also contains water and a bit of alcohol… So, I don’t know why it’s transparent. Do you know?’  The point he is making is that if it is an emulsion shouldn’t it be opaque like all the other emulsions we are familiar with?    Lets have a look at the ingredients.

mineral oil, cetyl octanoate, PEG-10 isostearate, cyclomethicone, PEG-12 diisostearate, water, PEG-8 diisostearate, phenyl trimethicone, isostearic acid, alcohol denatured, tocopherol, fragrance

This certainly does look like an emulsion, but one with a lot of silicone in it.  I think a neat trick is being played here. By fiddling around with the levels of silicone and oil they have matched the refractive index of the oil to the water to produce a clear product.  This doesn’t make it work any better but it is clever.  The high mineral oil content probably accounts for its good performance against sunscreens.

The use of mineral oil seems to be controversial for some people. ldnbeautyreview (of the London Beauty Review) says ‘I LOVE oil cleansers. And I don’t care if they have mineral oil in them either. I just love the oil’.  While CarolineHirons commented ‘Non mineral oil I hope!?’  My only objection to mineral oil generally is that it is a bit boring.  It is perfectly safe – the grades used in cosmetics are highly purified and don’t contain anything remotely harmful. But vegetable oils are closer chemically to the kind of things you normally find on the skin so, all other things being equal, they are my preference.

I have put some links to some reviews of well known cleansing oils over on an Oil Based Cleanser review page.  But I would be interested to hear of other people’s opinions and experiences of this kind of product.


Randomised, double blind, crossover challenge study of allergenicity of peanut oils in subjects allergic to peanuts BMJ 1997; 314 : 1084 Jonathan O’B Hourihane, Simon J Bedwani, Taraneh P Dean, John O Warner

Oil Cleansing Method

Thanks to Arthur40A on Flickr for the photo.

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