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When you’re thinking about oil versus cream for your skin care, you’re probably looking for what’s going to keep you from getting dry skin.

However, moisturizing does so much more for your skin than just help with active dry skin. It helps retain moisture and improve the function of the moisture barrier, and alleviates other conditions.

Rosacea is a disease where you have an impaired skin barrier; using a moisturizer can really help with that.

A lot of people with acne are fearful of either oils or moisturizing creams because they’re worried that these products will make them oilier. But acne is both a disease of oil production, which is localized to the sebaceous gland, and a skin barrier defect, which has nothing to do with the oil gland, per say. Excessive oiliness doesn’t do much to improve skin hydration and moisture retention for your skin barrier, but a lot of acne products dry out the skin to reduce oiliness; as the skin becomes dry, the acne actually gets much worse because the skin is more prone to irritation.

Whether or not you’re in the market for an oil or a cream, I suggest checking out the brand, Cleure. They are a one-stop shop for sensitive skin. All their products are free of fragrance, dyes, essential oils, and plant extracts, which commonly cause a lot of irritation, and they’re cruelty-free and made in the US. Cleure also has hair care, makeup, and oral care products as well as organic skin care.

Benefits of Oils

Why should you use oils in your skin care? There are tons of oils on the market—emu oil, argan oil, jojoba seed oil, and more. Oils do offer the skin many benefits. They are emollients, which means they soften and smooth the edges of the skin cells, and they sink into the top layer of the skin, making the skin look smoother.

Many oils are packed with antioxidants, too, especially plant oils like jojoba seed oil, argan oil, and rosehip oil. Antioxidants help your skin better handle environmental stressors that contribute to skin aging and water loss.

Many oils are basically liquid wax testers like jojoba seed oil, which can help a little bit with moisture retention in the skin. Other oils have compounds within them that act as humectants, which will hold hydration into the skin.

Oils are also beneficial because they contain antioxidant compounds that can help ward off free radical damage that occurs from ultraviolet radiation, pollution, or tobacco use.

Now, while oils do sometimes have humectants in them and can help with sealing and hydration, they don’t reduce transepidermal water loss, meaning they don’t create a seal on the top layer of the skin that prevents loss of water. When you get out of a hot shower, your skin loses a lot of water. Putting an oil on the surface of the skin is not really going to help trap water in that situation.

Likewise, when the air becomes drier in the winter, or if you live in a dry climate like Colorado or up in the mountains, moisture is constantly getting sucked out of your skin, and an oil is just not going to keep the skin hydrated. They’re helpful in that they can improve lipid synthesis and overall moisture barrier function.

Oils and Acne

If you struggle with acne, you may be on the fence about using an oil in your skin care routine because as you know, your skin is already oily.

However, using oils on the skin does not make the skin oilier. Neither does it help regulate your skin’s natural oils, as some have claimed. Oil production is largely governed by hormones, so simply putting oil on the skin is not going to affect the rate of oil production.

Our natural oil is sebum. If you have acne, when that sebum sits on the skin, that greasiness from your oil gland can get broken down by the bacteria within the pore. That’s a major factor in acne pathogenesis. Using an oil can potentially alleviate that problem. Oils do trickle between skin cells more readily than moisturizing cream, which I’ll get to in a moment. In a sense, they can help flush the excess oiliness off the surface of the skin and from within the crevices. They can mix with your own skin oils and help lift some of that up out and just make the skin overall less greasy.

Additionally, if you have a situation where your skin cells are really sticky, which happens in women with hormonal fluctuations, as well as with acne in general. So because oils can trickle down into the pore, they can help reduce some of that skin cell stickiness and help reduce pore clogging and the formation of what are called comedones, basically whiteheads and then blackheads.

Are oils acne safe? Are there any oils that are not acne safe? The one oil that comes up time and time again, just in terms of people associating it with flares of acne, is coconut oil. A lot of people find, for whatever reason, that coconut oil aggravates their acne. However, there are studies showing that coconut oil is beneficial for eczema because it has some anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds.

Another oil that can be problematic is olive oil, because it is high and oleic acid, which disrupts the lipid architecture in the skin. It actually aggravates transepidermal water loss and worsens dry skin. You’ll find it in moisturizers and products and it won’t wreak havoc on your skin. But if you use it by itself, you might run into more issues with dry skin than you realize because it can increase transepidermal water loss, likely because it’s high in oleic acid, and allows for more water loss out of the skin.

Drawbacks of Oils

One problem with plant oils is that they’re not pure and reproducible substances. . When it comes to plant oils like jojoba seed oil, argan seed oil, sunflower seed oil, there’s a lot of variability from batch to batch and manufacturer to manufacturer. It also varies depending on where the oil was obtained, what region of the world, the season, the growing conditions, the part of the plant. All these things influence the relative abundance of beneficial properties.

Unfortunately, there’s no standardization, so it’s hard to say whether one brand’s oil is better than another. They can vary substantially in terms of the quality, the antioxidant profile, and the beneficial compounds.

Often, oils are touted as being cleaner or purer because they don’t have any preservatives. But because of that, the individual compounds within the oil can degrade and the oils can become rancid, and then they become very, very irritating. So while they’re touted as being clean and nontoxic they can become more problematic if they degrade.

The greatest benefit of oils is that they improve the overall look of the skin. Because they are emollients, they smooth things down and give the skin a healthy glow, but they don’t really lock in moisture and hydration. They’re not really a go-to when it comes to acutely dry, irritated skin or for maintenance of the skin barrier.

Moisturizing Creams

For very dry, irritated skin, you want to go to our friend, the moisturizing cream. Moisturizing creams contain oils. As a side note, sometimes they contain plant oils, not always, but many moisturizers contain, for instance, jojoba seed oil. Even moisturizers labeled “oil free” technically do contain a synthetic oil, like silicone, which tends to feel more lightweight so it’s more pleasing to people who don’t like the feeling of oils on their skin.

The major difference between using an oil and using a cream is that with an oil, you’re just getting one component, the emollient. Moisturizing creams not only contain oils or emollients which soften the skin edges, but they have the other two key components of a moisturizer: humectants, which hold on to water in the skin, and occlusive ingredients that seal everything in.

Moisturizing creams are best for maintenance of the skin barrier because they contain all the factors that are needed: reduction of trans epidermal water loss, softening skin cell edges, lubricating the skin surface, and improving skin hydration.

Unlike oils, which are able to seep down in between skin cells and within the pore, moisturizing creams mostly stay on the surface. Oils and moisturizers work on different levels within the stratum corneum, that top layer of the skin, so they really just achieve different outcomes.


Oils or Creams – how to decide?

I you rely exclusively on an oil for your moisturizing needs, you’re really selling yourself short. It’s not going to properly seal in hydration and reduce transepidermal water loss like a cream.

If you don’t have particularly dry skin—maybe you live in a really humid climate, or you just don’t really have super dry skin—then maybe all you need is an oil.

Most of us need a little bit more—especially those of us who like to stay in the shower a little bit longer than we should, who live in a drier climate, or who are getting up there in age. As we get wiser, our ability to reduce water loss from the skin starts to dwindle. We stop making lipids as readily as we did when we were children.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use an oil too. It’s not necessary, but it certainly can have benefits for both acne and dry skin conditions. The most intriguing property of oils is their potential to deliver antioxidants to the skin that could help you fight off free radical damage and inflammation.

I have found that oils are helpful for people who are going through a lot of dryness and peeling from tropicals, whether it be a cosmetic peel or retinoids, they’re having a lot of flaky skin. Anytime the skin peels, the last thing you want to do is pick or attempt to scrub that off. As you’re scrubbing and picking, you’re further aggravating the moisture barrier. Creams don’t always go on peeling skin in the most cosmetically elegant way; they can look a little clumpy and peel off with the peeling skin cells. Oils can be helpful for smoothing that down and helping the shedding skin cells naturally sluff off without picking or trying to scrub it off. Because oils are so good as emollients, they slip between the shedding skin cells and just help them naturally lift up without aggressively peeling or irritating the skin.

How to Use Oils & Moisturizers

So how do you use an oil in your skin care routine? How exactly do you incorporate it? Well, truthfully, you can use it on the skin, either wet or dry. It doesn’t really matter. And if you want to use it along with a moisturizing cream, that’s an option too.

I suggest applying oils first and then applying creams on top. This allows for better penetration of the potential antioxidants into the skin before you seal everything in with a moisturizing cream.

Moisturizing cream can also be applied to wet or dry skin, but it works better when the skin is damp. Any time you get your skin wet from bathing or washing your face, as soon as you rinse and cleanser off or get out of the shower, apply moisturizing cream right away while the skin is still damp. This will help trap hydration in the skin and allow the humectant, the emollient, and the occlusive to really work in your favor.

One interesting use for oils is slathering it onto your skin pre-bath or pre-shower. You don’t need very much. It shouldn’t go on your feet, so you shouldn’t slip around. Just rub it into the skin. This will help start to break up any film of dirt, cosmetics, and sebum. It also helps because the action of bathing and cleansing the skin can end up irritating our moisture barrier, so having a little bit of oil on board helps reduce the stripping effect of cleansers. I know it seems counterintuitive to grease up before you bathe, but especially if you deal with eczema or extreme certainly can help reduce dryness.

Putting an oil into your bath water can also help with extreme dryness. I always suggest using a fragrance-free bath oil like the Neutrogena Body Oil. You can put that into the bathwater. That would be a good option for people with eczema in particular, but anyone can do it. It just helps lubricate the skin, soften skin cell edges, and reduce some of the burdens of irritation.

Post bath or shower, the cream is what you want to effectively seal in that hydration. That’s another way to pair oils and creams together to allow them to work effectively.


At the end of the day, there is no one right answer. As with most things, you’ll have to experiment, listen to your body, and find what works best for your unique skin type and challenges. I hope this information has been helpful. And remember—the best skincare routine is a simple skincare routine.