For most of us, using the best face oils should be pretty straightforward: Step one, smear on your face. Step two, carry on with your day. But the reality isn’t quite so simple. Ask a handful of people what face oils actually do, and you’re likely to get a range of claims—they hydrate, they don’t hydrate, they clog your pores, they help with breakouts, they work miracles, so on and so forth. Confused? We’re here to help you find the best face oil for your skin concerns and how to use it.
What are face oils?
This seems like a silly question—oils are oils, right? But oils are also emollients, which means that unlike creams or ointments, which sink deep into your skin for intensive, long-lasting hydration, oils tend to hang out near the surface. Essentially, their moisturizing power isn’t that strong. But while you don’t get quite as much moisture, it’s not like they’re completely useless.
“Oils add skin barrier protection, silkiness, and superficial hydration,” says dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, M.D. They may sink into your skin just enough to nourish the topmost layer—but that’s still not a whole lot compared with true hydrating heavyweights like hyaluronic acid, which literally binds water to skin cells.
A good way to think of it is that oils alone are not moisturizers (and you shouldn’t use them as such). Instead they should accompany traditional moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. “A good moisturizer has to deliver both water and oil,” says aesthetician Ling Chan. “Your cells drink the water while oils stay on the outside of the cell for protection and lubrication.” An oil is actually integral to healthy skin, since it acts as the sealant that keeps moisture in. Without it, moisture just leeches out until the next time you apply cream. While this isn’t necessarily going to wreck your skin, it’s definitely not ideal—and it becomes a bigger problem in dry winter weather.
What do face oils do?
Oils give your skin an instant softness and smoothness that can be kind of addictive (seriously, try slathering one on and see if you can stop petting your face). But more than that, they’re often packed with essential nutrients, fatty acids, and antioxidants. Plus, adds Chan, they form a protective layer for your skin cells. While they’re not the end-all-be-all solution to skin issues, they do their fair share by repairing and protecting your skin barrier, which helps your skin absorb other skin care products. If you’re not seeing the dreamy skin you imagined you would from serums and moisturizers alone, an oil might be able to make that happen.
How do you use face oils?
You can always mix oils in with your moisturizer, but if you’re going to give them their own spot of honor in your skin care routine, derms say there are two ways you can do it, depending on the type of face oil you use.
“Some facial oils are designed with ingredients that hydrate, others to brighten or even to strengthen your skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. For these, Zeichner recommends applying before you moisturize but after—or even instead of–your serum. The other way you can use face oils is as the last step in your routine at night or the second-to-last before sunscreen in the morning—that way, they’re acting as a barrier to keep all the actives in your skin care products locked into your skin.