By Michelle Villett
As part of a beauty regimen or diet, oil sounds all wrong. Most of us have scrupulously avoided it for years with the help of “oil-free” labels on everything from moisturizers to salad dressings. But as it turns out, our fears of greasy skin, thunder thighs and a higher risk of heart disease may be unfounded, thanks to evidence that some oils are good for us, inside and out.
Just ask Pierre-Emmanuel Saubade. Along with his father, Michel, he runs the French skin-care brand ar457, a line based on oil from the nuts of the argan tree. Often called “liquid gold” the ingredient is native to Morocco, where locals not only use it on their skin, hair and nails but also eat it. “Argan oil is an exceptional beauty enhancer,” says Saubade. “It’s high in linoleic acid – a deficiency of this fatty acid is one of the main causes of aging skin – and its tocopherol (Vitamin E) content is three times higher than any other oil. It also contains phytosterols, which protect the skin from free radicals.”
No wonder brands like Guerlain, Schwarzkopf and Yves Rocher have also added it to some of their products. It’s not just a beauty aid, though; according to a 2004 study at Hassan University in Morocco, ingesting argan oil can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and protect against oxidative damage.
Based in London, England, Liz Earle, co-founder of Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare, is also a fan of argan oil: The golden essence is featured in her Superskin Concentrate treatment. But Earle is also touting another, lesser-known oil as the next big thing: cranberry-seed oil, the star ingredient in her Superskin moisturizer, a cult favourite. “It contains an almost one-to-one balance of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (the optimal ratio for good health) and very high levels of anti-oxidants,” she says. “Oils are more concentrated than creams, so they deliver more benefits.”
Not sure about applying oil to an already-shiny complexion? You’re not alone. Rahul Koul, chief operating officer at Sundari – a skin-care line based on Ayurveda (an ancient healing practice from India) – says that when the company started in 1999, its biggest challenge was convincing women that using oil wouldn’t cause breakouts. “We’ve had to explain the difference between essential oils, which nourish the skin, and carrier oils, in which the essential oils need to be diluted because they’re so potent,” says Koul. (Allergies and cheaper carrier oils can cause breakouts.) Using the right proportion is key, continues Koul. “A drop or two is enough because it spreads easily. If you don’t use oils properly, you won’t reap the benefits.”
If anyone can publicize these benefits, it’s John Knowlton, a cosmetics scientist in Johannesburg, South Africa, who helped develop products for Johnson & Johnson and Avon.
He’s now a consultant for Bio-Oil – a South African skin-care remedy that recently debuted in Canada – and claims he hasn’t seen a more impressive product during his 24-year career. When it fist launched in 1987, the blend of calendula, lavender, rosemary, chamomile and vitamin A and E oils was marketed to treat scars and stretch marks. “Customers started to use it on their faces to even out skin tone, reduce the appearance of fine lines and boost moisture,” says Knowlton. The key is a high-tech carrier oil that enables other ingredients to penetrate without leaving a residue.
“It used to be very difficult to formulate an oil-based skin-care product that was easily absorbed and efficacious,” he says. “Modern techniques and a greater understanding of the chemistry of essential oils have made it possible.”
But some dermatologists, including Dr. Lisa Kellett of DLK on Avenue in Toronto, are wary. “Just because something is an oil doesn’t make it more effective than a cream,” she says. What matters is the amount of active ingredient in the oil and how well it absorbs. She also warns people with acne not to use products with mineral oil, a by-product of petroleum. Earle agrees: “Though it’s not dangerous, mineral oil leaves a greasy film on the skin. Plant oils have a structure that’s similar to our sebum, so they’re fast-absorbing and suitable for all skin types.”
Regardless of whether oil makes its way into your beauty routine, adding it to you diet provides numerous health benefits, says Natasha Turner, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto and the author of The Hormone Diet. “Monounsaturated fats, like olive and canola oils – as well as avocados, walnuts, deep-sea cold-water fish and omega-3 eggs – are best for us,” she says. “Unlike the saturated fats in red meats and dairy products or the trans fats in many packaged goods, these oils are natural anti-inflammatory agents known to reduce the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, arthritis, diabetes and cancer.” While Turner recommends adding them to dressings, smoothies and dips, you can also get your fix from supplements, says Dr. John Berardi, a member of the Genuine Health Expert Advisory Team and president of Precision Nutrition Inc., a nutrition-research company in Toronto. “Fish oils are the most potent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which alleviate inflammatory symptoms and acne,” he says. Look for a supplement that contains omega-3 rich oil, found in fish like mackerel and sardines.
And if you’re the multi-tasking type, you’ll likely find Intellimune Oil to be the most appealing option of all. The antioxidant-rich oil (you would have to eat the seeds of 4.5 kilograms of grapes, raspberries or cranberries to get the same benefits) is the star in a new line of organic nutraceuticals and personal-care products called Intelligent Nutrient, the brainchild of Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher. “You can use it both internally and externally,” he says, claiming that a few teaspoons a day can help prevent premature again, boost immunity and even make your nails and eyelashes grow. Although his claims are awaiting evaluation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rechelbacher believes in the oil so strongly that he has added it to every hair, skin and body product in his line.
A prophetic voice in the industry, Rechelbacher is tapping into what he sees as a growing trend: the fusion of skin care and health for results inside and out. But is it a new way of thinking? Not really, says Koul. “The ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine takes a holistic, long-term view of wellness,” he says. “People are becoming exposed to alternative means of taking care of themselves, and that includes diet and skin care. Oils are part of that – and they have thousands of years of trial and error to support their efficacy.”