What’s Facial Oil? Is It Harmful or Helpful?

When I first heard about facial oil, that is, oil that you literally apply to your face, I was shocked.

Do I actually need to put oil on my face? What if my face already has too much oil as it is?

Facial oils are typically used as emollients to soften the skin; however, these oils generally only coat the surface of the skin without forming an effective barrier.

In order to be an effective moisturizer, a substance needs to form an occlusive or semi-occlusive barrier on the skin to prevent trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), which is water lost from the skin by evaporation into the surrounding environment.

Although facial oils may not be effective moisturizers when used alone, some of them can help to restore the skin barrier integrity and function, as well as possessing antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Structure and Function of the Skin Barrier

In order to understand the potentially beneficial applications of facial oils, we must first understand what is meant by the “skin barrier”.

The skin barrier (SB) is composed of corneocytes (keratinized skin cells) and the intercellular lamellar compartment (lipids/oils).

In the “brick wall” analogy, the corneocytes are the “bricks” that are surrounded by and held together by the intercellular lipid lamallae “mortar” to maintain the stratum corneum’s (outermost layer of the skin) integrity and its functional permeability barrier.

SC (Brick Wall)
Corneocytes (Bricks)
Intercellular Lipid Lamallae (Mortar)

The stratum corneum (SC) acts as both a permeability barrier and an antimicrobial barrier of the skin.

What’s Facial Oil?

So, what exactly is facial oil–what’s in it, and should I be using it?

For the purposes of this discussion, facial oils are naturally-derived plant oils; ideally, these plant oils are extracted by cold-pressing so that their bioactive components are not exposed to heat or caustic chemicals, which could alter their composition.

Plant oils can be classified as either fixed oils or essential oils; fixed plant oils are not volatile at room temperature.

Skin lipids consist of multiple compounds, including free fatty acids (FFAs), ceramide precursors, sterols, phenols, tocopherols, and triterpenes.

Lineoleic acid is the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acid in the skin and has a direct role in maintaining its integrity and permeability, while monounsaturated FFAs, such as oleic acid, are detrimental to the structure and function of the SB.

Phenolic compounds are antioxidants that are important for the oxidative stability of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Triterpenes can enhance tissue repair by inducing cell proliferation and collagen deposition.

Creme de la Mer
The Renewal Oil

Types of Facial Oils

  • Olive oil is rich in antioxidants and hydrophilic phenols, but it contains a high concentration of oleic acid. Its topical application has a detrimental effect on SC integrity and skin barrier function.
  • Coconut oil contains lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, caprylic acid, oleic acid (6%), and lineolic acid (2%).
    • Topical application of coconut oil to pediatric patients with mild/moderate atopic dermatitis decreased the severity of the disease and improved SB function.
    • Topical application is effective in promoting wound healing through faster epithelialization (skin cell growth).
    • Topical application protects skin from UV radiation.
    • Coconut oil contains monolaurin, which is a monoglyceride derivative of lauric acid.
      • Monolaurin displays antimicrobial activity by disintegration of the lipid membrane of lipid-coated bacteria (e.g., P. acnes, S. aureus, and S. epidermidis).
      • It exhibits a bactericidal activity against P. aeroginosa, E. coli, and P. vulgaris.
      • It may also possess antiviral and antifungal properties.
  • Shea butter is beneficial for people with eczema and other types of dermatitis; it contains multiple compounds:
    • Triglycerides with oleic, stearic, palmitic, and linoleic fatty acids.
    • Triterpenes, tocopherols, phenols, and sterols.
    • It exhibits potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Sunflower seed oil has been shown to preserve SC integrity and improve hydration of adult skin without erythema (redness).
    • It may prevent against damage from UV light.
    • It is thought to be noncomedogenic.
  • Grape seed oil is rich in phenolic compounds, vitamins, and antioxidants; it is thought to be beneficial in wound healing and have anti-inflammatory properties.
    • It contains resveratrol, which has been shown to inhibit bacterial growth.
  • Safflower seed oil contains about 70% linoleic acid and is rich in products thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.
    • It is an effective analgesic (reduces pain) and antipyretic (reduces fever).
  • Rose hip oil contains 36-55% linoleic acid and is rich in several compounds:
    • It is rich in lipophyllic antioxidants (e.g., tocopherols and carotenoids).
    • It contains phenolic acids (e.g., vanillin and vanillic acid).
    • It confers a high degree of protection against inflammation and oxidative stress.
    • It contains compounds that are structurally similar to sensitizing agents (e.g., fragrance molecules).
  • Jojoba oil has a high oxidative stability and resistance to degradation.
    • It has a high content of wax esters, making it beneficial for dermatoses that alter the skin barrier (e.g., eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and acne).

How to Use Facial Oil

Since facial oil isn’t a common part of everyone’s skin care routine, there really isn’t any consensus on when it should be applied.

Some people apply it twice daily while others use it either in the morning or at night; personally, if I’m going to use it, I apply it twice a day.

In the morning, I apply it after moisturizer and before sunscreen; at night, I apply it after moisturizer since it coats the surface of the skin.

I dispense 3-5 drops of facial oil onto my fingertips and then apply it to the rest of my face.

All Things Considered

Facial oils are often a combination of several natural plant fixed oils, and these products can have multiple benefits.

Facial oils that contain a high concentration of linoleic acid help to repair and maintain the integrity of the skin barrier.

Compounds like phenols are antioxidants that can help to scavenge free radicals and prevent them from damaging collagen and other tissues in the skin, while triterpenes can help with tissue repair by augmenting cellular proliferation.

Certain facial oils contain products that have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Facial oils, when used with an effective moisturizer, are good emollients that help to soften the surface of the skin, which can be especially beneficial in people with dry skin.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing; acne outbreaks occur in people whose skin produces excess oil, which combines with dead skin cells to block pores and trap acne-causing bacteria inside.

Also, fixed plant oils that contain primarily oleic acid can disrupt the SB and alter its permeability.


1. Lin, T. et al. (2019). Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int. J. Mol. Sci., 19(1), 70.


If you have experience using facial oil(s), please leave a comment below and let me know what you like or don’t like about the particular product.


2 Replies to “What’s Facial Oil? Is It Harmful or Helpful?”

  1. I’m glad I came across your article. My husband takes his shaving seriously. Actually, we both went back to double-edged razors a few years ago. The price of disposable blades is outrageous! He also uses the mug soap and brush instead of canned soap. Anyway, I think he’d like to try facial oil, so I’ll have to get him some. Thanks for explaining in such detail. I’m all about skincare and you’ve mentioned some ingredients that are very beneficial to our skin.

    1. Hey Karen,

      Thank you for the comment! I have had to take shaving seriously out of necessity due to irritation, etc. I switch between double-edged safety razors and multi-blade disposable cartridges, which are crazy-expensive…
      I also play around with the badger hair brush, which is supposed to be the best quality, but the pre-shave oil does help in a pinch. I really like the Acqua di Parma pre-shave oil (all of their products, really), but I have been using the Shave Secret oil lately, which is less expensive.


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