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Do Oils Really Hydrate the Skin?

Do Oils Really Hydrate the Skin?

Oils for the skin

Let’s start today with some phrases I’ve seen online recently about oils that hydrate the skin:

  • When describing rosehip seed oil on Nylon.com: “…the cold-pressed oil not only hydrates skin, but replenishes it with revitalizing vitamins…” (Nylon also states in the same article that jojoba oil provides the skin with “instant hydration”)
  • In an article about whether lotion or oil is better on Rodale’s Organic Life: “We Americans are lotion lovers. But in Europe and other parts of the world, oil is actually the more popular option for hydrating dry skin.”
  • In an ingredient showcase about coconut oil, AnnMarie Skincare starts with this statement: “coconut oil is an abundant source of fatty acids that are uniquely formed to deeply moisturize, hydrate, and condition the skin.”

I’m going to come across as really nit-picky here–I realize that.

But you know how it feels when you have a pet peeve and it keeps coming up over and over again? It’s kind of the same feeling as when you hear fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. Although since chalkboards are now obsolete, I realize I’m taking a risk that if you’re a young millennial, you won’t know what that sounds like. So here it is for you just in case:

Anyway, that’s the reaction I get when I see or hear claims that oils hydrate the skin! Why, you ask? Because…

Oils don’t hydrate the skin!

OK now that we’re all on the same page, I’ll explain why statements that oil hydrates the skin irks me. It’s because oils don’t hydrate! They don’t hydrate because are anhydrous, meaning they don’t contain any water. Oils, like other anhydrous lipids (butters, waxes) bring moisture to the skin, but not water. They nourish, they lubricate, and they form a protective lipid barrier on the surface of the skin to help keep water in, but since they don’t contain any water themselves, they do not actually moisturize by hydrating.

Do oils really hydrate the skin?Oils, butters, and waxes fall under the category of moisturizers known as emollients. They are very important and are highly beneficial to the skin.

Since the skin’s barrier is comprised of a lipid matrix, it’s more likely that antioxidants, vitamins, and essential fatty acids will reach the deeper layers of the skin than those nutrients found in an aqueous (water-based or water containing) substance would. That’s because water can’t easily penetrate a lipid, and it also has the tendency to evaporate before it can provide benefit. That’s not to say that water-containing ingredients don’t benefit the skin–but it’s much harder for them to do so.

Only ingredients that contain water can hydrate the skin or bring water into the skin. Ingredients such as water itself (I prefer distilled water in skincare products), botanical infusions (that’s a fancy term for herbal tea), hydrosols, flower waters, or aqueous (water-soluble) botanical extracts are considered hydrators. Ingredients such as aloe vera gel, biowaters and bioferments, hyaluronic acid, and glycerine are strong hydrators because they are humectants–they moisturize by attracting water from the environment into the skin which increases skin hydration. Humectants are all hydrators, but not all hydrators are humectants.

To properly hydrate the skin, you need three things:

  • Internal hydration (remember skin cells are built inside the body, not outside)
  • External hydration with products that contain hydrators and humectants
  • A strong lipid barrier both inside at the cellular level and outside on the surface to help prevent both cellular water loss and transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

Skin hydration inside and out

Skin Hydration To achieve optimum skin hydration, I recommend drinking lots of filtered water and eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. I also recommend adding healthy fats to your diet, which help fortify cellular membranes to prevent cellular water loss.

On the outside, you’ll want a skincare regiment that consists of both water and oil-based products. If you’re a cream and lotion kind of gal, look for ones that contain hydrators, humectants, and emollients. If you have dry or dehydrated skin or it’s cold and dry outside, you might consider adding an oil serum on top to further seal moisture in. If you’re someone who avoids creams and lotions, I recommend hydrating the skin using facial steams, herbal compresses, or hydrosols (after cleansing) and then immediately following with your facial oil.

So to recap…

Oils don’t hydrate the skin. The only they can increase skin hydration is by helping to seal existing moisture in the skin–not by adding more. So there you go.

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Do you have questions or thoughts about skin hydration?

Go ahead and ask and share it in the comments below. And next time you hear someone say to use a hydrating oil for your skin, please share this article with them 🙂

*Photo credit Spa Pantry by Universal Companies

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23 thoughts on “Do Oils Really Hydrate the Skin?”

  1. Thank you so much for your article. I’ve been telling women for years that oils do not hydrate. However, its hard to get the message across when so many product descriptions use hydration as a selling point. Thanks again

  2. Jessica Marble mcMullan

    I totally agree! Is there anything you recommend that’s the best & affordable? I have combination skin. I’m 40 yrs old & I’m looking to fix the signs of areas in my face & next that are starting to show dryness & lines! Please help! I just started BioSil & Rainbow light Women’s One (plant base Mult.) Now I just need external!

    Thank you

    1. Hi Jessica, if you sign up for my free class, you’ll learn to choose ingredients and customize products for your unique skin. Click HERE.

  3. HI, Thank you so much! I actually realized this on my own as I was only using oil before bed but my skin still looked de-hydrated. I started using aloe and then using my oil over top (just to see if it worked) and yes, it really helped. I NEED to drink more water and I also realized I don’t have “dry” skin…. I had “dehydrated” skin. Anyway, I love your knowledge and thank you for calling it out 😉

    1. Thanks for sharing, Debbie! Yes it can be hard to tell the difference between dry and dehydrated, and adding hydration AND protection with healthy oils inside and out can make all the difference!

    1. Great question, Dorothy. Yes, absolutely–I actually recommend doing that, because then the oils can help seal in the moisture and prevent evaporation. Many of my colleagues and students alternatively prefer hydrating the skin first with an herbal compress or hydrosol in place of a water-based moisturizer, if you’d prefer not to use an additional product with your oils. Both are excellent methods to hydrate, then nourish and protect the skin. –Rachael

  4. Pingback: La hidrataci?n de la piel - Blog sobre cosm?tica y qu?mica natural | Oushia

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I see so many bloggers, vloggers and so called beauty experts go on and on about how superior oil is to every other type of moisturizer, which may be true for them, but not giving accurate information as to why that is. Along with being very well written this article gives the science behind oils v types of hydrators which is something I value very, very much. Do you have any similar articles on other misconceptions or widely given skincare advice that just isn’t true? Would you be willing to write any? Pretty please with sugar on top!

    1. You are so welcome! Yes I have written a few that are similar–I recommend using the search feature on this blog to search for a topic that interests you, and if you don’t see it, feel free to contact us and request a post on that topic! We’ll do our best to accommodate 🙂

  6. It’s great I found your article!
    I googled “why don’t oils moisturize my skin?” And your article came up first.

    I was already aware of this through my personal experience.

    I’m a 36yo male and my skin is so darn dry in the winter months and I was applying more and more oils and nothing was happening! It made shaving very difficult too!

    My wife said to apply her cetaphil lotion and it really improved the skin condition.

    Now I’m in the lookout for a product with better ingredients than cetaphil, which contains both water and oil based moisturizers.

    Cheers,
    Neil

  7. Rachael I enjoyed reading your article. I’m 79yrs my skin is now thin a few wrinkles and very dry during cold winters. My skin need help. I’ve spent money looking for oil and moisture cream that don’t work. I need help with name products that are water based ect. Can you help?

    Regards
    Jill

    1. Hi Jill, I can’t really make recommendations outside of a client relationship–but what I think would really benefit you would be to consult with a holistic aesthetician in your area who can analyze your skin correctly and make personalized product recommendations. Good luck, and thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment! –Rachael

  8. Tahira Akhtar

    I cant believe i never saw this before… makes sense why my skin still looks so dry even when i use oil on my skin
    How would i make oil moisturise my skin? Can i do a steam on my face and then use oil, or would i need to use a cream/lotion as a moisturiser and then use oil on top?

    Hope you can help you’ve been a life saver

    1. Hi Tahira, that would require you to make an emulsion. I teach you how to do that properly and safely in my online Create Your Skincare courses. Check those out here.

  9. This is for Neil and anyone else looking for a moisturizer that is both water and oil based. I swear by Dove cream oil lotion. I like the shea butter one. It’s marketed towards women (Neil) but who cares, it works. I introduced my dad to it and he likes it too.

  10. Hi I read an article by Renee Rouleau that said drinking water to dydrate your skin is a myth because water will run through the intestines, get absorbed into your bloodstream, and then get filtered out by the kidneys. At this point, it will hydrate the cells inside the body but to expect it to reach the outside layers of the skin (known as the epidermis), is just not possible. I’m confused because you’re saying it will hydrate your outer skin.

    1. Denise, the article is about how oils do not hydrate the skin, since so may people and companies refer to oils as hydrating, which they are not since they do not contain water. While you are correct that water taken in internally first goes to hydrate the vital internal organs, and is not adequate to hydrate the epidermis, it is untrue that the epidermis gets no water at all from drinking water. However, since it is a small percentage, that is why in my article I recommend the three different ways to ensure skin hydration.

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