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How oil cleansing works and why you need to try it

Ash DePass

Ash DePass

Ash DePass is the co-founder of STUNN Collective, former actress, accidental marathon runner, yogi, and skincare queen.
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OIL CLEANSING 101

Published: 10.27.2021

4 MIN READ

Oil cleansing has gained popularity over the last three years alongside the Korean beauty (K-Beauty) wave. Traditionally done as the first step in the K-beauty skincare routine, oil cleansing is known to effectively remove make-up (even waterproof make-up), impurities, and pollution from your skin.

Okay, but let’s take a pause – putting oil on your face cleans it? Really?

The answer is ABSOLUTELY.

It sounds super counterintuitive, especially if you have oily or acne prone skin, but the truth is oil cleansing is a must for almost every skin type.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of how oil cleansers work and their surprisingly fantastic benefits, let’s talk a bit about traditional cleansing, and why you might want to re-think what optimal cleansing looks (and feels) like.

A woman with great skin in a shadowed room

A case against traditional cleansers

You more than likely grew up scrubbing your face with harsh cleansers and barrier stripping toners on a mission to eradicate excess oil from your pores and avoid the treacherous forehead shine (not to be confused with the highly sought after all-over glow).

Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, had a lot to say on the topic of traditional cleansing versus oil cleansing for Vogue Magazine.

“The squeaky-clean feeling you may experience after using foaming cleanser or traditional bar soap is actually harmful,” explains Dr. Zeichner, “Stripping the skin of essential oils may disrupt the skin barrier, leading to dryness and inflammation.”

An eye-dropper on a white background

Those harsh, super foaming cleansers you may be used to are actually disrupting your skin’s microbiome and damaging its barrier, which ends up pushing your skin’s oil production into overdrive. When this happens your skin ends up thinking there isn’t enough oil, which tells it to produce more oil.

Your skin has something called the “Acid Mantle” which you can think of as its own natural protection from bad bacteria, dryness, and irritation, and stripping that away can actually lead to breakouts and a host of other skin issues.

While it may feel super strange to equate massaging oil into your skin with cleansing your skin, the truth is it’s a lot safer and more effective than traditional foaming cleansers.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about…

A woman brooding at the camera with a white shirt and white sheets

How does oil cleansing work?

Oil cleansing works on the premise “like dissolves like”; while oil and water repel one another, oil and oil attract.

This means that the cleansing oil lifts excess sebum (the oily substance produced by glands on your skin), cleans out clogged pores like blackheads and whiteheads, and removes dead skin, pollutants, and – of course – makeup.

While you may be used to your cleanser sudsing or foaming, oil cleansers are designed to be massaged onto the surface of your skin with your clean fingertips, which softens and loosens sebum plugs from your pores, then massaged away with a face cloth for gentle and effective cleansing.

Like a regular cleanser, oil cleansing is generally the first step in your skincare routine. Feel free to follow with a double cleanse, if you follow the K-Beauty method, apply your serums and moisturizers, or keep it minimal and simply apply a little bit more of the cleansing oil once your face is cleansed for a hydrated and healthy face all day or night.

KEY POINT: One thing to bear in mind is that oil cleansers must be removed with a face cloth. This can be done by wetting your face cloth with warm water and gently running it along your skin in an upward motion to remove the oil along with all the dirt, make-up, and bad bacteria that it has pulled out of your pores.

Sounds pretty great, right?

A woman standing in a shower

What are the benefits of oil cleansing?

The most straightforward benefit of oil cleansing is its ability to completely remove make-up, pollution, and impurities without damaging your skin barrier. 

As mentioned, foaming cleansers, no matter how gentle or plant-based, have the potential to negatively affect your lipid barrier and skin microbiome.

Your lipid barrier and microbiome are two of the most important components of your skin as they play key roles in keeping your skin youthful and healthy, as well as protecting your skin from the elements and inflammation. So, when they are stripped daily, it’s very difficult for them to replenish.

Most oil cleansers are gentle enough to not damage your lipid barrier, and certain oil cleansers with 100% plant-based oils and non-disruptive formulations are also known to support your skin’s microbiome as opposed to destroying it, like so many skincare products tend to do.

A close up of water

Another significant benefit of oil cleansing is its ability to prevent TEWL (transepidermal water loss), while sealing in moisture and repairing your skin’s moisture barrier.

“Cleansing oils contain hydrating and soothing ingredients that may actually be more effective and less irritating than some traditional cleansers,” said Dr. Zeichner for SELF magazine.

Other benefits, depending on which ingredients are used in the cleanser, range from being ultra hydrating, to brightening, to reducing redness, to preventing break-outs, to providing cellular benefits such as stimulating collagen production and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

A close up of a woman touching her face

But, not all oil cleansers are created equally.

Now that you’ve got the lowdown on oil cleansing, and are ready to make the switch – you may be thinking: “Hey, I’ve got coconut oil and olive oil in my pantry – I can just wash my face with that.”

Think again…

“There’s a big difference between applying a cosmetically formulated cleansing oil versus rubbing canola from your kitchen onto your skin.” Said Dr. Zeichner for SELF.

While oil cleansing is extremely gentle and effective at pulling dirt, grime, and pollution out of your pores, some heavier oils such as coconut oil, are comedogenic which means it has the tendency to clog pores.

Part of the skin barrier is composed of the lipid layer, which we touched on earlier. Your lipids are made up of ceramides, cholesterols, and essential fatty acids. So, choosing a cleansing oil with ingredients that have a similar profile, or are similar to your skin’s natural oil, like moringa seed oil, sacha inchi oil, or grape seed oil can help replenish and balance it, without throwing off your skin’s pH levels.

It’s also important to choose an oil cleanser that is made up of 100% plant-based ingredients and that don’t contain any added chemicals, synthetics, sulfate detergents, phthalates, PEGs, DEA, TEA – or any other acronym or word that you can’t pronounce.

Those additives are simply not necessary in the efficacy of the cleanser, and can damage your skin’s microbiome.

Ficus plant on a white background

What to look for in an oil cleanser

When you’re selecting an oil cleanser, look for 100% plant-based ingredients without any additives or chemicals. A couple of additional things to ensure are that the formulation is microbiome friendly and non-comedogenic.

If you have any known allergies to any essential oils or particular ingredients, make sure to avoid cleansers that contain those ingredients. While lavender oil might have amazing benefits for reducing inflammation, it might just not be the right fit for your skin.

Everyone is bio-individual, which means all products won’t work for everyone. And while oil cleansing is safe and effective for all skin types, if you have ultra sensitive skin, certain oils might just not be a match for you. So, be sure to patch test on a neutral area, such as your wrist, before you slather on your face.

Close up of woman's face

Oil cleansing in the morning

You might wonder why you need to wash your face in the morning if all you did since you last washed it was sleep, but you might be surprised to know that your skin can accumulate bad bacteria and environmental debris while you sleep.

Cleansing in the morning can also help wipe away the residue of any creams or serums you applied the night before. You definitely don’t need a harsh or super deep penetrating cleanser in the morning, but choosing an oil cleanser with hydrating and brightening properties can be an added benefit.

Oil cleansing at night

If you wear make-up – even if you don’t – cleansing at night is crucial. Throughout the day, dirt, bacteria, and pollution build up on your skin and seep into your pores. So, if you don’t wash those things away, they can clog your pores, create inflammation, and disrupt your skin’s microbiome.

Oil cleansing at night allows you to effectively remove those things along with any make-up, sunscreen, and any other skincare products without stripping your skin. You can also look for oil cleansers with calming or restorative properties to help you relax and regenerate your skin while you sleep.

Conclusion: oil cleansing is the holy grail for minimalist skincare

Overall oil, cleansing is just an absolute must for almost every skin type, as it can be clarifying for those prone to breakouts, nourishing to parched complexions, and balancing for everyone who falls somewhere in between.

You can add it into your skincare routine as the first step in a k-beauty inspired double cleansing routine, or replace it with your current cleanser for a deep, effective, and gentle cleanse.

The AM+PM Oil Cleanser Set An image of Halo and Prism oil cleansers

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