To many, the dizzying array of body care oils neatly arranged on store shelves make it impossible to find the right one for your skin type. “Why would I choose one over the other?” you might ask yourself. Well, that’s why I’m here. As a licensed herbalist, holistic aesthetician, and author of 12 books on the topics of natural skin and body care, I know a thing or two about using oils topically.
First, a little education: “Vegetable oil” is a generic term often used to distinguish between an oil that derives from a plant and one that derives from petrochemicals (such as mineral oil), fish (such as cod-liver oil), or animal fats (such as lanolin or lard). Sourced from plants, the oils used for body care are commonly referred to as carrier, base, unctuous, or fixed oils. They are characteristically slippery to the touch, smooth in texture, and lighter than water, with an extremely low evaporation rate.
Contrary to what you may have heard, oils are not moisturizers. Only water and watery ingredients, such as aloe vera, hydrosols, flower waters, and water-based herb extracts, can actually hydrate and plump your skin’s tissues when applied topically. Oils, when applied over skin still damp from a bath or shower, will seal in the moisture that the skin absorbed and add a protective barrier, thus helping to prevent or slow inherent moisture evaporation.
Quality is important, so choose your oil wisely. The best therapeutic body oils are naturally extracted from organic sources and minimally processed. The key words on the bottle’s label will be organic, cold- or expeller-pressed, and unrefined — these have not been exposed to extraction procedures using petroleum-derived solvents, nor to extremely high heat, bleaching, or deodorizing. Though these refining processes can certainly lengthen shelf life, they also destroy or alter an oil’s natural molecular state, thereby affecting aromas, flavors, colors, consistency, antioxidant properties, and the vitamin, mineral, and essential fatty acid content. For high-quality oils, expect to pay more. It’s worth it for the health of your skin and body.
Body Oil Profiles
The following commercially available, nutritive vegetable oils are some of the most popular and effective for topically applied, natural skin and body care. If you have a nut sensitivity, conduct a skin-patch test prior to more extensive use of almond, coconut, or kukui nut oil.
1. Sunflower Oil (Helianthus annuus)
This light, pale-yellow oil is derived from sunflower seeds. Organic sunflower oil is either cold- or expeller-pressed, but most commercial oil is solvent-extracted to maximize the production of this rather inexpensive product. Rich in essential fatty acids, lecithin, amino acids, minerals, and vitamin E, it deeply nourishes, softens, and conditions all skin types. I particularly recommend it for those with super-sensitive skin who suffer from dermatitis, acne, or dry, flaky eczema or psoriasis.
2. Coconut Oil (Cocos nucifera)
Coconut oil is a saturated fat, high in lauric acid, and is extracted from the white meat of coconuts. The oil is white when solid but clear when liquid. Its sweet, exotic fragrance is only found in cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil; when refined it’s void of both fragrance and flavor. Easily penetrating, nourishing, emollient, and protective, it is recommended for dry, mature, and inflamed skin, and makes the perfect after-sun treatment as it cools and calms reddened skin. Coconut oil is best avoided by those with oily, combination, or acne-prone skin, as it may lead to irritation.
3. Kukui Nut Oil (Aleurites moluccana)
Extracted from the roasted nut of Hawaii’s state tree, this clear to pale-yellow oil has a slight nutty, sweet odor and provides non-greasy lubrication for the skin. Gently conditioning, emollient, and protective, it is excellent for extremely dry, environmentally damaged, sensitive, inflamed, and mature skin, but oilier skins that become surface-dry in the winter months can benefit as well. Providing antioxidants, vitamin E, and beta carotene, plus fatty acids omega-3 and -6, kukui nut oil can give skin a healthy glow.
4. Almond Oil, Sweet (Prunus dulcis)
Pressed from the ripened almond kernel, this is an all-purpose, emollient, easily penetrable, lightweight, pale-golden oil that’s recommended for all skin types but especially for inflamed, itchy, cracked, or sensitive skin. It’s also useful against the dry, flaky conditions of eczema or psoriasis. It contains vitamins A and E, minerals, and omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.
5. Grapeseed Oil (Vitis vinifera)
A popular body and cosmetic oil for all skin types due to its highly penetrable, soothing, non-greasy, and slightly astringent nature, this oil is produced by crushing and pressing grape seeds (from spent grapes after winemaking). Cold-pressed, unrefined grapeseed oil is not easily found, so look for an organic brand that is expeller-pressed. It has a mild odor, a pale yellow-green color, and contains vitamin E and some monounsaturated fat, but it primarily consists of omega-6 and -9 fatty acids.
6. Sesame Seed Oil (Sesamum indicum)
A key ingredient in Ayurvedic body and skin care formulations, this rich, relatively stable, golden-colored, and nutty-scented oil extracted from pressed sesame seeds offers omega-6 and -9 fatty acids; small amounts of vitamins B6, K, and E; and the minerals copper, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. It can be diluted with lighter oils, but that’s not necessary if you don’t mind the heavy, emollient, conditioning, protective qualities it provides to dry, mature, environmentally damaged skin, as well as to conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. Avoid purchasing “toasted” sesame oil unless you want to smell like stir-fry!
7. Olive Oil, Extra-Virgin (Olea europaea)
A rich, moderately heavy, relatively stable oil derived from the first pressing of green or ripe olives, this oil can vary in color depending on the variety of olives used and the region from which they came. Its aroma can be strong, but don’t let that dissuade you, as it offers a bevy of benefits for your skin, especially if you have extremely dry, mature, environmentally damaged, itchy, inflamed, chapped, flaky, or cracked skin. A superior quality extra-virgin olive oil contains high levels of monounsaturated fat, plus omega-6 and -9 fatty acids; antioxidants; vitamins E and K; enzymes; and small amounts of iron, calcium, potassium, and sodium. With softening qualities, olive oil makes a wonderful base oil for medicinal salves. Real olive oil will solidify or become cloudy and thick if refrigerated.
8. Jojoba Oil (Simmondsia chinensis)
Pronounced “ho-ho-ba,” this light oil is pressed from the seeds of a desert shrub. Because it’s technically a wax, it does not turn rancid and is exceptionally stable for up to 25 years. Top-quality jojoba oil is a rich, golden color; is unscented; contains vitamin E, the vitamin B complex, several minerals, and omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids; and serves as a mild anti-inflammatory agent. Chemically similar to human sebum (the oil secreted by your skin), jojoba is highly penetrable, softening, conditioning, and balancing for all skin types and discomforts.
9. Avocado Oil (Persea gratissima)
Derived from the flesh of the fruit, this full-bodied, protective, softening, restorative, medium-green oil is beneficial for skin that’s environmentally damaged, sensitive, dry, prematurely aged, or mature. It contains beta carotene; vitamins B1, B2, D, and E; amino acids; lecithin; and omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids. Due to its thickness, avocado oil is best blended with thinner oils, such as almond, jojoba, or sunflower. Unrefined avocado oil will solidify if refrigerated.
Specialty Oil Profiles
The following three oils are on the more expensive side and are generally used to augment a body or facial oil to create a blend designed for a specific skin care need. Purchase these in small quantities and keep refrigerated.
Rosehip Seed Oil (Rosa rubiginosa)
A highly penetrative, amber-red oil pressed from the ripened seeds of Chilean rosebushes, it has a light, tart aroma and is quite fragile, with a refrigerated shelf life of only 4 to 6 months. This nourishing oil, high in essential fatty acids, beta carotene, and vitamin A, is an ideal conditioning agent for scar tissue, stretch marks, premature wrinkles, and weathered, dry, devitalized skin. An amazing skin-cell regenerative and anti-inflammatory, it dramatically increases the elasticity and firmness of the skin. This oil can be used 100 percent in facial oils but is typically included in blends up to 30 percent. Avoid using on oily, acne-prone, or combination skin, as it may exacerbate these conditions.
Tamanu Oil (Calophyllum inophyllum)
This rich, thick, brownish-green oil with a sweet, earthy fragrance is typically cold-pressed from the sun-dried nuts of an evergreen tree native to Africa, India, and Australia. It’s mildly analgesic, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory; rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin E, and beta carotene; and often used up to 50 percent in blends specifically formulated to help fade scars, heal burns, and soothe chapped or bruised skin, eczema, psoriasis, shingles, and herpes sores. Highly emollient and conditioning, it’s the perfect choice for environmentally damaged, mature, or very dry skin.
Sea Buckthorn Oil (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Derived from the cold-pressed berries and seeds of the shrub that grows wild along the coastal regions of Europe and Asia, this oil is a deep orange-red and may temporarily stain the skin, so it is typically included in oil blends only up to 10 percent. Containing high levels of carotenoids, plus omega-3, -6, and -7 fatty acids and vitamins B, E, and K, this nourishing, easily absorbed oil promotes renewed elasticity, reduction of redness, and skin regeneration. It is of great benefit to environmentally damaged, scarred, inflamed, dry, and mature skin, including conditions such as rosacea, acne, psoriasis, and eczema.
Storing Body Oil
It’s important to note that most unrefined body (and culinary) oils — with the exception of avocado, coconut, extra-virgin olive, jojoba, and sesame — have a relatively short shelf life and tend to become rancid if stored at room temperature for more than 6 to 8 months, especially in warm weather. These oils should be refrigerated and used within one year. I refrigerate almost all of my oils. Coconut, extra-virgin olive, and jojoba oils I store in a dark, cool cabinet and use by the freshness date indicated on the bottle.
Oils for Herbal Infusions
The oil you choose will depend on the type of product you are making. To create a medicinal oil, most herbalists use a good quality, extra-virgin olive oil as their base in which to infuse healing herbs for whatever discomfort they want to ease: arthritis, muscle strain, headaches, cuts and scrapes, bug bites, dry or cracked skin, dermatitis, etc. Why olive oil? It’s shelf-stable, excellent for supporting skin health, and medicinal in its own right.
For an aromatic, herb-infused body, massage, or bath oil, use all-purpose almond, sunflower, or jojoba oil as your base. All have minimal scent, thus allowing the more delicate fragrances of sweeter botanicals to shine through, such as roses, lavender buds, chamomile flowers, vanilla beans, or resins such as frankincense or myrrh.
In a Facebook Live video, Mother Earth Living editor-in-chief, Hannah Kincaid, joins author and herbalist Rosemary Gladstar to make her Famous Face Cream, using and referencing several of the oils mentioned above. Get the recipe, and learn more, by watching the video.
Stephanie Tourles is a licensed holistic aesthetician and herbalist with more than 25 years of experience. She is the author of 12 books on natural body care and topically applied herbal remedies, including Organic Body Care Recipes.