How Marketing Made ‘Oil-Free’ a Thing
Experts say “oil-free” skincare is scam that benefits beauty brands more than it benefits your skin.
The “fat-free” fad of the 1990s was born in the 1960s. That’s when the sugar industry paid scientists to “find” data that sugar didn’t lead to heart disease or weight gain, but fats did. The findings fueled America’s first dietary guidelines in the 1970s, the creation of the carb-heavy food pyramid in 1992 and, Harvard researchers say, maybe even obesity. Today we know that healthy fats actually prevent heart disease and weight gain, and sugar does the opposite. “Fat-free,” essentially, was a scam; a factual inaccuracy that supported the sugar industry, sold a lot of products, and still causes confusion 60 years later.
Did the same thing happen to skincare?
In the 1970s, dermatologists pioneered a flawed method for testing the comedogenicity, or pore-clogging capacity, of skincare ingredients. This resulted in false or unreproducible positives for commonly-used oils, including coconut oil and petroleum. Then, “A lot of skincare marketing began in the ’90s that said, ‘You have oil on your skin, we’ve got to get rid of that oil,’ and using oil-free skincare made sense,” Wendy Ouriel, a cellular biologist, cosmetic formulator and founder of OUMERE, tells me. “It’s like how if you were ‘fat,’ you went on a ‘low-fat’ diet. It’s the same thing.”
“I think nobody knows [why the oil-free trend started], but I have my opinion: I think it has to do with the rise of silicones,” says Sue Nabi, former president of L’Oreal and Lancome and founder of vegan skincare line Orveda. She points to the 1989 launch of Vidal Sassoon Wash and Go, the industry’s first “2-in-1” shampoo and conditioner. “I remember this because I was just starting to work at L’Oreal at that time, 1993, and everyone was talking about this 2-in-1 shampoo because it used silicones in a shampoo formulation, so you didn’t need to use a conditioner,” the executive recalls. Most products were oil-in-water emulsions at the time, and silicones offered an affordable, easy way to “give the skin the feel of oils,” as Nabi puts it. “I think this was probably the moment it started being used in skincare, makeup, and shampoos.”
In the decades since, the world has largely acknowledged that fat-free marketing is misleading. But oil-free marketing? Not so much. “There has been an increase over the last five years,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, who has been tasked by beauty brands to create oil-free formulations in the past. The chemist calls the concept of oil-free cosmetics “overblown,” saying, “Somehow consumers got the message that oil clogged pores and resulted in acne or other skin problems. That’s not completely true, but fear-monger marketers took advantage of it and carved out a little niche for themselves.”
All of the above experts agree: “Oil-free” is a cosmetic claim that sounds nice, but benefits beauty brands more than it benefits the skin.
“Anyone who doesn’t understand biology or know about skincare would create oil-free skincare,” Ouriel says. That’s partially because the skin already secretes its own “oil,” so to speak: sebum. This substance locks in hydration, balances the skin’s pH, has “innate antibacterial activity” and anti-inflammatory properties, aids in wound-healing, and protects from the sun. “Natural oil production is essential for the health and maintenance of the normal barrier function of the skin,” confirms board-certified dermatologist Dr. Nava Greenfield. Interestingly enough, sebum is made up of triglycerides, fatty acids, wax esters, squalene, and cholesterol — components also found in many plant oils.
Aside from sebum, the skin’s lipid barrier contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are necessary for proper barrier function (and, perhaps more importantly, general heart and brain health). These particular fatty acids can’t be synthesized by the body, so humans need to obtain Omegas through diet. Studies show that topical supplementation supports the barrier, too — supplementation with the Omega-3s and Omega-6s found in plant oils, for example.
Despite all of this, the cosmetic uses of plant oils, mineral oil, and petroleum jelly eventually became associated with the proliferation of acne. Experts point to two main reasons: the introduction of comedogenic ratings in the ’70s and a misunderstanding of the mechanisms of natural oil production.
“The comedogenic testing that has been done was done on rabbit ears and is not necessarily applicable to human skin,” Romanowski explains. (Some testing has been done on human back skin, which is also not comparable to human facial skin.) “We don’t have a good way to measure whether something is [pore-clogging] or not,” the chemist says, adding that just because a single ingredient has a high comedogenic rating doesn’t mean the final formulation will be comedogenic. “I think the whole notion of comedogenic oils should be done with because it’s not predictive of much.”
“Where we get tripped up in this is not fully understanding the world of acne,” Dr. Greg Altman, a cosmetic chemist with a Ph.D. in biotechnology engineering and the CEO of Silk Therapeutics, tells me. “For example, people say, ‘If I have really dry skin, if I have no oil, that should prevent acne.’ That’s not true. People with really dry skin can actually have really bad acne.” That’s because a healthy amount of sebum balances the skin’s pH to neutralize acne-causing bacteria and provides anti-inflammatory benefits. In other words, acne can stem from a lack of natural oil.
Conversely, “if you have oily skin, your body is producing more oil than it needs because there’s a miscommunication; your body thinks you’re not getting enough oil,” Ouriel explains. There are plenty of reasons this could happen, the biologist says, including stress (either mental stress or physical stress on your skin), hormonal imbalance, or just having naturally oil-prone skin.
“In any case, the solution is very much the same, and it’s more oil,” says Ouriel. (There are lots of other, non-superficial solutions, too, like reducing stress or reevaluating your diet.) “If you put the right oil on your skin, your body says, ‘I don’t need more oil’ and it stops producing it,” the biologist continues. This concept is often debated in the beauty space, but Ouriel says homeostasis isn’t really debateable. “Everything in the body works on a feedback loop. That’s just basic physiology.”
But what’s “basic” to a biologist is still complex and complicated and hard for cosmetic companies to communicate to customers. “So marketers just said, ‘You have oily skin, you don’t need more oil, let’s do oil-free skincare,” according to Ouriel. Simple, no?
There’s just one catch: “To formulate very good skincare, you need components that are oil-like,” Dr. Altman states.
This is reflected in the ingredient lists of almost all of the supposedly “oil-free” skincare on the market, from Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisturizer to Perricone MD Oil-Free Hydrating Cream to Avalon Organics Oil-Free Moisturizer.
Instead of plainly-named oil sources, these products feature triglycerides, jojoba esters, palmitic acid, octyl palmitate, ethylhexyl palmitate, caprylyl glycol, squalane, petrolatum, and more — all of which come from oils. “On some level, almost all ingredients are derived from oils,” reveals Romanowski. “Cetyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate, stearyl alcohol, behentrimonium chloride.” Even glycerin, arguably the industry’s favorite hydration-boosting humectant, is derived from the triglycerides in oils, according to Dr. Altman.
“Most of the separation is done on coconut oil or palm oil, because it’s cheap, so it makes sense to do some extraction,” adds Sebastien Massard, the Global Marketing Manager of Vantage Specialty Chemicals. “You’re going to do some distillation, some refining of your oils and you’re going to separate the different components: triglycerides, free fatty acids, fatty alcohols.” After breaking the oil down to its individual parts, cosmetic chemists then pick and choose what parts they want. Triglycerides add “slip,” palmitic acid acts as a preservative, jojoba esters support the skin barrier.
“If you look at jojoba oil from a chemical standpoint, then there is no issue with putting it on the skin,” Massard says. (It’s a 97% chemical match to human sebum.) Jojoba is technically a wax, “but because it’s labeled ‘oil,’ people have a negative perception of it.” The solution? Turning “jojoba oil” into “jojoba esters” with a few minor tweaks. “You don’t necessarily fundamentally change the structure of jojoba, but you’re going to rearrange a little bit,” he elaborates. “Then the [ingredient] name is going to be changed to jojoba esters, to indicate you did rearrange a little bit.” With that, it can be included in “oil-free” formulations, and brands and customers are satisfied.
After all that distilling, refining, and chemical rearranging, is it fair to classify the above ingredients as “oil-free”?
“No, I don’t think so at all,” Dr. Altman says. “I think the term ‘oil-free’ in this regard is truly misleading. The real question is, does it have oil-like characteristics? And [these ingredients] definitely have what I would call oil-like characteristics.”
It’s worth noting that Dr. Greenfield maintains “oil-free” skincare products — even those that include the above derivatives — may still be beneficial for those with “sensitive or acne-prone skin,” because these skin types should avoid “ingredients known to cause breakouts.” But what’s interesting here is that current comedogenic ratings do not take into account the individual components of oil that may lead to breakouts.“Triglycerides, palmitic acid, and [other derivatives] all contribute to the comedogenic rating of the oils they’re derived from,” Romanowski says.
In other words: Discarding the full oil in favor of a singular component does little to affect the so-called acne-causing capability of an “oil-free” product. As Dr. Altman puts it, “There’s no rhyme, reason, or logic to why one would be pore-clogging and not the other.” (Of course, genetics always play a part in skincare, and individuals can have intolerances to almost anything, including oils. Some oils are also more well-tolerated than others — but if you’ve been using an “oil-free” product filled with oil derivatives, chances are, your skin can handle the pure stuff, too.)
Ouriel agrees. “I don’t understand why some of these derivatives are used, if not for more marketability of a product,” she says — which, yes, exactly. A former employee of The Estée Lauder Companies who wishes to remain anonymous tells me, “‘Oil-free’ is a marketing thing only. We only wanted this label because it makes acne-prone consumers feel safe to use it.”
It also makes formulas feel extra-luxe since, as Nabi notes, most “oil-free” labels may as well read “silicone-full.” Beauty brands often turn to high concentrations of silicones to make up for the lack of fatty-acid-rich oils. (See: Boscia Green Tea Oil-Free Moisturizer, Dr. Dennis Gross Oil-Free Moisture Cushion, Clinique Stay-Matte Oil-Free Makeup Foundation.)
“Silicones do one thing, and they do one thing fabulously well,” the cosmetics executive observes: as occlusives, silicones create a “barrier” on the skin’s surface to make it look and feel smooth on contact. “That’s the reason silicones are used in products you use on your scars. It makes the scar look better or flatter.”
This class of ingredients is useful in wound-healing settings, and “can be interesting in compromised skin, but only a hint is necessary,” according to Nabi. She believes “companies like L’Oreal have been too heavily relying on these,” primarily for their smoothing effect and unparalleled, silky feel. (Unlike oils, silicones don’t contain any nutrients, vitamins, or essential fatty acids; and the “smooth” look they provide washes off with your next cleanse, leaving no long-term benefits behind.) This, in part, is why Nabi left L’Oreal and Lancome and decided to launch her own line.
“I realized we were in a texture-only industry,” she says. “It would take up to three years of working on a fabulous, usually silicone-based formula, and when you come to see it, [the chemists] would tell you that you can add 0.5% of the active ingredients. And you would say, ‘Why would I only put 0.5% if I need 1 or 2 or 3 or 4%?’ and they would say, ‘No, you are going to ruin my texture.’ This was really the way the industry was working.”
With Orveda, Nabi takes the opposite approach. “I told the laboratory to put the actives together and build the texture around that.” This method requires more time and more money, “but it’s really, really worth it. It’s about working with the skin, not against it,” she says. “People don’t need silicones, but they need a good, biomimetic oil.” (That’s “biomimetic” as in, mimics the skin’s natural lipid profile, like jojoba oil and other blends that feature balanced levels of Omega-3s and Omega-6s.)
Silicone isn’t necessarily “bad” for the skin. “From a chemist’s perspective, it’s a good molecule, it’s bio-compatible,” Dr. Altman says. “My issue with silicone is this: It is going to wash off my face, and when it’s washed off my face, it’s going to go down the drain. And when it’s down the drain, it is in our water supply. And it is now a synthetic polymer that we know, when it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, becomes toxic to the environment. That’s where I’m like, why are we doing this?”
The problem is a complicated one. “The reality is, a long-string silicone in the environment is not hazardous,” the chemist says. However, research shows that over time, long-string silicones break down into short-string silicones, “and when it gets to a short enough string, it becomes a dioxane, and it is cancerous.” To be clear, there aren’t any published studies specifically pointing to the bioaccumulation of short-string silicones yet. “Has anyone been able to go to the deep abysses of our ocean, where silicones are found, and show them breaking down? No, and that’s always where you get arguments,” he says. “That’s frankly where the public health community needs to come back and say, ‘We believe in the precautionary principle we have enough evidence and common sense to start to take precautions today.’”
One of those precautions, chemists say, could be trading in excessive silicones for more oils.
“I believe 95% of people shouldn’t really care about using an oil-free formulation, but maybe focus more on the sustainability of a formulation,” Massard agrees. “‘Are my ingredients made in a sustainable manner that makes sense?’ is a better question for more of the population than ‘Is this oil-free?’ We are missing out on a lot of good products.”
With the proliferation of silicone-free formulations and plant seed oils, the skincare industry does seem to be slowly moving in this direction. “Even when I was at Lancome, we were starting to create products that used botanical oils,” Nabi says. “It signifies a fabulous change in the way we are taking care of our skin. Skincare should have never moved from this direction.”
“Oils are not at all bad,” Dr. Greenfield agrees. “They are very helpful and beneficial, especially for those with dry skin, and necessary moisture can be locked in more effectively [with oils] than without oils.”
True, it’s not always as simple as adopting an oil-rich skincare routine and seeing magical results. “It’s kind of like healthy eating,” Ouriel muses. “You can’t just have one healthy food and be healthy.” In other words, applying an oil-in-water moisturizer or pure facial oil after using a stripping cleanser and an exfoliating face scrub may not have the intended effect. “With oil, it’s just one aspect of the overall architecture of skin health,” says Ouriel. “It’s an important step, but it’s not the only step.”
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