18 Worst Face Oils and Why to Avoid Them
by Heather Smith on Jul 10, 2023
Understanding the world of face oils can feel like solving a complex puzzle.
As a skincare formulator specializing in face oils and oil serums, I've spent countless hours navigating this labyrinth. Today, I'm sharing my insights not as definitive judgments but as nuanced observations, aiming to shed light on which oils I believe are the worst oils for face care and should not be a part of your beauty routine.
With that said, there's no such thing as an outright "bad" oil. Each oil has a unique blend of fatty acids, potential benefits, and downsides. Some may work wonders on one skin type but may be less beneficial for others. Some are good for body or hair care but not as suitable for facial care. Some might work great for you, but not for the majority of skincare product users.
Suitability for use on the skin and face is only one aspect that informs my opinions. The impact of these oils isn't just skin-deep. The way they're sourced, their environmental footprint, and the ethical concerns around their production add several layers to this narrative.
What Gets an Oil onto the bareLUXE Bad List
When you think of face oils, you automatically think "all-natural," which is usually true. However, targeting natural ingredients is only the tip of the iceberg when designing a product for your face.
Many of these oils have a role in skincare; small amounts of some of them even land themselves in one of our products for one reason or another. However, these oils are far from our list of favourites, and most should just be avoided for the face altogether.
In our quest for better skincare, specific characteristics might bump an oil onto the bareLUXE bad list:
The purpose of this article isn't to demonize certain oils but to arm you, the informed consumer, with knowledge. By understanding these nuances, you can make skincare choices that align with your skin's needs and your values and ethics.
So, let's delve in and uncover the lesser-known side of these oils.
18 Worst Face Oils and Why
Wheat Germ Oil
Wheat germ oil is derived from the germ of the wheat kernel, a highly nutritious part packed with vitamins and minerals. However, its use in facial skincare is controversial due to its high comedogenic rating, which means it's likely to clog pores and potentially lead to acne breakouts.
Comedogenicity refers to an oil's tendency to clog pores, resulting in blackheads or pimples. The scale ranges from 0 (non-comedogenic) to 5 (highly comedogenic), and Wheat Germ Oil rates a 5!
Wheat germ oil does have a higher amount of oleic acid (around 25%), but that doesn't explain why pore-clogging is so likely. The reason is that wheat germ oil is rich in diglycerides, where two fatty acid chains are bound to a glycerol molecule. These diglycerides are more polar (charge-distributing) molecules that interact with skin lipids in a way that can clog pores. It is also a very viscous oil, partly due to high levels of vitamin E (which is sticky).
It has a thicker consistency and doesn't get absorbed into the skin as readily. This leads to an occlusive layer on the skin surface, furthering the potential for pore blockage, making it one of the worst for acne.
Coconut oil has a comedogenic rating of 4, meaning it is highly likely to clog pores, which can lead to acne flare-ups. The primary reason for this is its high concentration of lauric acid, a type of saturated fatty acid that makes up about 50% of the fatty acid content in coconut oil.
As a saturated fat, coconut oil is solid at room temperature, with a dense, heavy texture that can sit on the skin's surface, trapping sebum and dead skin cells underneath and increasing the risk of pore blockage and acne.
Despite the popularity of coconut oil in DIY skincare due to its hydration and antimicrobial benefits, its pore-clogging potential suggests that it's best avoided on the face, particularly for those with oily, acne-prone, or sensitive skin types.
Marula oil is extracted from the kernels of the marula tree, native to Africa. Rich in oleic acid, vitamin E, and antioxidants, this oil is praised for its hydrating and protective properties. However, its high oleic acid content can cause issues for certain skin types.
Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, comprises about 70-78% of marula oil. This fatty acid is known for its moisturizing properties, but its thicker, heavier nature can be problematic for acne-prone or oily skin. It tends to sit on the skin's surface, creating a barrier that can trap sebum and dead skin cells underneath, leading to clogged pores and potential breakouts.
Alternatives with a lower oleic acid content and a higher proportion of linoleic acid may be more suitable for these skin types.
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability, Humanitarian, Common Allergen
Like wheat germ oil, soybean oil has unique characteristics that elevate its potential to clog pores, even though it might not appear the most comedogenic based solely on its fatty acid composition.
Soybean oil has a unique property: it has a high phytosterol content, especially beta-sitosterol and stigmasterol. While these compounds have been associated with potential anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering effects when ingested, topically, they can affect the skin's lipid barrier and may contribute to pore-clogging by influencing sebum production and the function of pores.
Moreover, soybean oil is a common allergen, with soy allergies being one of the most prevalent food allergies globally. Topical application in sensitive individuals can lead to inflammation and irritation, increasing the likelihood of pore blockage.
Lastly, it's important to consider the sustainability and humanitarian issues with soybean oil. Soybean cultivation significantly contributes to deforestation, especially in the Amazon rainforest. Moreover, soybean cultivation often involves the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, contributing to pollution and ecological disruption. Soybean cultivation has been associated with land rights issues, particularly in developing countries where large tracts of land are often used for mono-cropping soy. This can result in displacement of local communities, loss of biodiversity, and alteration of local ecosystems.
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability
Corn oil, derived from the germ of corn kernels, has a more balanced fatty acid profile and is moderately pore-clogging (comedogenic rating of 3). We avoid any oils higher than 2 for face oils.
A more important concern with corn oil is the sustainability side of things. From an environmental standpoint, corn farming has significant implications. Large-scale corn production often involves intensive farming practices and heavy pesticide use and contributes to soil degradation, posing environmental and sustainability concerns.
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability
Cottonseed oil has a few concerns that have secured its place on our bareLUXE Bad list. Although it's less commonly found in skincare products than other oils, it is problematic, especially for the face, and isn't worth trying.
In addition to its pore-clogging potential, cottonseed oil comes with environmental concerns - it's considered a very dirty crop to grow. Cotton is one of the most chemically intensive crops to grow, and many pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are used during its cultivation. These practices contribute to soil degradation, water contamination, and harm to local biodiversity.
Moreover, extracting oil from cottonseeds is energy-intensive, often requiring chemical solvents that can further pollute the environment. These factors combined give cottonseed oil a high environmental footprint, which should be considered when considering holistic skincare.
Flax Oil (Linseed Oil)
Flax or Linseed oil, derived from the seeds of the flax plant, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and touted for its anti-inflammatory benefits (in nutrition). Alpha-linolenic acid can oxidize quickly when exposed to light and heat, potentially leading to skin irritation. Plus, flaxseed oil is known for its thick consistency, which can clog pores and contribute to acne, particularly in oily or acne-prone skin.
So keep this one on your salad, not your face!
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability, Humanitarian
Palm oil, sourced from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is rich in vitamins A and E and has emollient properties. However, it has 44% palmitic acid, a saturated fat that is highly pore-clogging. Using straight palm oil on your face is a recipe for acne breakouts.
Palm oil derivatives make it into innumerable skincare formulation ingredients. Palm oil production is a primary driver of deforestation in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to significant environmental concerns, including loss of biodiversity and increased carbon emissions.
Moreover, the palm oil industry is frequently criticized for poor working conditions and labour rights violations, raising serious humanitarian concerns.
Efforts to improve environmental and humanitarian issues exist, and progress is occurring. Avoiding palm oil-derived ingredients is nearly impossible, so paying close attention to supply chain analysis and ethical source confirmation is critical.
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability, Inflammatory
Olive oil, renowned worldwide for its benefits in a heart-healthy diet, often surprises people when it appears on a list of less-desirable facial oils. But when we dig into the details, the reasons become clear.
Looking at the fatty acid composition of olive oil, we find:
- Oleic Acid (Omega-9 Monounsaturated Fat): 55-83%
- Linoleic Acid (Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fat): 3-21%
- Palmitic Acid (Saturated Fat): 7.5-20%
The research on olive oil's inflammation potential is less clear-cut. Some studies suggest that it has anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its rich antioxidant content, including vitamin E and polyphenols. However, other research indicates that olive oil can disrupt the skin's barrier function, leading to dryness and potential irritation over time. This disruption could indirectly increase inflammation, particularly in sensitive or already inflamed skin.
When it comes to the sustainability of olive oil, there are both positive aspects and challenges.
On the positive side, olive trees are remarkably resilient and can thrive in poor soil conditions and harsh climates. This hardiness allows them to grow in areas where other crops might struggle, and they can produce fruit (and therefore oil) for many decades, sometimes even centuries. Furthermore, olive trees can help combat soil erosion and contribute to biodiversity, providing habitats for many species.
However, olive farming can be water-intensive, particularly in the Mediterranean region, where water scarcity is a growing concern. While traditional dry-farming techniques can mitigate this to an extent, irrigation is increasingly used to maximize yields, which can strain local water supplies.
Another significant concern is the waste produced during olive oil extraction. Olive mill wastewater is rich in organic compounds and can be challenging to dispose of sustainably. It can contaminate water bodies if not properly treated, although initiatives to repurpose this waste into bioenergy or fertilizer are gaining traction.
Finally, the demand for olive oil, particularly high-quality extra virgin olive oil, has led to instances of fraud and mislabeling. This not only misleads consumers but can also drive unsustainable farming and production practices as producers seek to cut costs.
Issue: Animal Cruelty
Emu oil is derived from the fat of the emu bird. It's been touted for its anti-inflammatory and skin-softening properties. However, as an animal-derived product, it raises ethical concerns.
The production of emu oil involves the slaughter of emus, which brings up animal rights issues. Those who prefer vegan or cruelty-free skincare options would likely opt for plant-derived oils that offer similar benefits without the associated ethical concerns.
Issue: Animal Cruelty
Mink oil is obtained from the fat of minks. It's rich in palmitoleic acid, an omega-7 fatty acid known for moisturizing properties. However, mink oil production involves significant ethical issues as it relies on mink farming, which is widely criticized for its inhumane practices.
Moreover, mink oil can potentially be pore-clogging and lead to breakouts in acne-prone individuals. Thus, given its potential for skin issues and the ethical concerns involved in its production, mink oil is generally not recommended for facial skincare.
Issue: Animal Cruelty, Common Allergen
Lanolin, a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep, is often used in skincare for its emollient properties. However, lanolin is known to be a common allergen, potentially causing skin irritation and contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals.
Furthermore, as an animal-derived ingredient, lanolin may not be suitable for those adhering to vegan or cruelty-free skincare practices. For these reasons, it's advisable to use lanolin cautiously, particularly for sensitive or allergy-prone skin.
Issue: Comedogenic, Animal Cruelty
Tallow is a type of rendered fat traditionally derived from beef or mutton. It's been used in skincare for centuries due to its skin-similar composition. However, tallow's high saturated fat content can potentially clog pores and contribute to breakouts, making it a less-than-ideal choice for acne-prone or oily skin types.
In addition to the pore-clogging concerns, the use of tallow raises ethical issues, particularly for those who prefer cruelty-free or vegan skincare options. As an animal-based product, the use of tallow necessitates the slaughter of animals, which poses a moral dilemma for many consumers.
Issue: Animal Cruelty
Squalane, a hydrogenated form of squalene, is a naturally occurring compound in our skin that plays a crucial role in hydration and barrier function. Traditionally, squalane was derived from the liver of sharks, particularly deep-sea sharks. Shark-derived squalane is compatible with our skin due to its biomimetic nature.
However, the extraction process involves the killing of sharks, leading to significant ethical and sustainability concerns. It contributes to the endangerment of shark species and disrupts marine ecosystems. Due to these concerns, many cosmetic companies have shifted to plant-derived squalane (e.g., from sugarcane).
Issue: Petrochemical Industry
Mineral oil, a byproduct of petroleum refinement, is often used in skincare due to its occlusive properties, helping to prevent water loss from the skin. Contrary to popular opinion, it's actually unlikely to clog pores, and it really isn't one of the worst skin oils.
However, the sourcing of mineral oil raises environmental concerns due to its connection with the petrochemical industry, which contributes to pollution and climate change. Additionally, while highly refined mineral oil is considered safe for cosmetic use, concerns persist over potential contamination with harmful substances.
As we said before, face oils are meant to be natural, and mineral oil is about as unnatural as you can get.
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability, Common Allergen
The high oleic acid content in peanut oil (>50%) could potentially lead to clogged pores, especially for individuals with oily or acne-prone skin. It's not as high as in some other oils on this list, but when combined with peanut oil's other potential issues, it adds to the concerns.
Undoubtedly, the most significant issue with peanut oil in skincare is its allergenicity. Peanuts are one of the most common food allergens, and even though the allergy is usually associated with ingestion, it can also manifest with topical application in sensitive individuals. Reactions can range from minor skin irritation to severe allergic responses, which can be life-threatening in the most extreme cases.
Peanuts require a significant amount of water and are often grown in regions where water scarcity is a concern. In addition, peanut cultivation can contribute to soil degradation and is often linked with the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can impact local ecosystems and pollute water sources.
All things considered, peanut oil's potential benefits for skin health are overshadowed by its allergenicity, potential to clog pores and environmental footprint.
It's another example of an oil that may be better kept in the kitchen rather than on your vanity.
Issue: Comedogenic, Sustainability, Inflammatory
Canola oil, despite its widespread use in the kitchen, makes its way onto our bareLUXE Bad list for several reasons, primarily related to its environmental impact and potential for causing inflammation.
Pore clogging and inflammation are common due to the high and unbalanced oleic acid level (>65%). This is due to the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids. While both are necessary for skin health, an excess of Omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to inflammation.
Canola, or rapeseed, is a high-yield crop, meaning farmers often choose it to maximize their profits. This leads to mono-cropping, a practice that depletes soil nutrients, reduces biodiversity, and makes ecosystems more vulnerable to pests and diseases. This, in turn, results in the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Moreover, much of the canola oil on the market is genetically modified (GM). While the safety of GM crops for human consumption is a hotly debated topic, their impact on biodiversity is a definite concern. Cross-pollination with non-GM crops can reduce genetic diversity and increase vulnerability to diseases and pests.
Sunflower Oil (High Oleic)
Issue: Comedogenic, Inflammatory
While sunflower oil is typically high in linoleic acid and excellent for your skin, a variant known as high oleic sunflower oil contains elevated levels of oleic acid. While this monounsaturated fatty acid has skin-nourishing benefits, an overabundance can potentially disrupt the skin barrier, leading to inflammation and exacerbating skin conditions like acne.
We wouldn't dream of leaving you hanging. If you're looking for a face oil that's versatile and essentially guaranteed to be compatible with your skin, find a high-quality, plant-based squalane and start there.
If you want to dive deep into the options, start with our face oil guide and then, check out our list of favourites specific to your own skin type and needs:
Navigating the world of facial oils can often feel like stepping into a labyrinth. With so many oils on the market, each with its unique composition and purported benefits, it can be challenging to know what will work best for your skin and align with your values.
However, the shades of grey we've discussed remind us that these oils aren't inherently 'bad.' In specific contexts and formulations, many of them can offer notable benefits. Some can contribute positively to sustainability and humanitarian efforts when responsibly sourced and used. The key is understanding potential trade-offs, making informed decisions, and always listening to your skin's responses.
Remember, skincare is personal. What works for one person might not work for another, and that's okay. The world of facial oils is vast and diverse, offering ample opportunities to find what suits your skin needs and aligns with your convictions.
Your journey in skincare is about finding a balance – between your skin's needs, your health, your values, and the impact your choices have on the wider world.