Everything About Plant Oils
A Plant’s Life Force
Some time back I wrote about the skin as an organ, and gave a little bit of the science behind it. If you read that post, you’ll remember that the skin naturally produces a variety of different lipids (oils and fats) that, in the ideal scenario, keep your skin moisturized, balanced, and youthful. Yes, fats and oils are quite similar in their chemical structure and they differ from one another mainly from the types and quantities of fatty acids that they contain: oils tend to have a composition that makes them liquid, whereas fats tend to be solid at room temperature.
In any case, due to a variety of external factors (stress, poor diet, pollution, etc.) most peoples’ skins are not always balanced, and therefore need some help in restoring, or retaining, that harmony. This is where good skincare products can make a big difference. After all, plant oils are among the oldest used health and cosmetic materials known to mankind.
Any good skincare product that is designed to balance and moisturize the skin (usually a cream or serum) always contains oils. Remember, a cream is an emulsion of water and oil, so it makes sense that the kind of oil you use in a product, cream or otherwise, matters a great deal.
There’s a big difference between the types of oils used in the wider skincare industry. The larger multinational brands have typically used petroleum-based oils like mineral oil in their creams, while the more “natural” brands, particularly those that claim to practice “green” beauty usually use vegetable oils in their products. Mineral oil is much cheaper to produce and to handle, and therefore, for companies that are primarily concerned with profits, it is the preferred option. But the truth is that even though mineral oil provides an occlusive barrier on the skin and good slippage for massage, it is inert, it doesn’t work in synergy with the skin and it does not let it breathe.
Before we dive in any further (and I promise to try to not make this post too technical), it is worthwhile to understand exactly what an oil is and where it comes from. Oils are essentially just different molecules of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen combined in different structures or patterns through chemical bonds. Chains of these molecules form fatty acids, which is one of the substances the skin naturally produces to stay healthy, and therefore needs help in restoring when depleted.
The structure of the plant sterols is similar to the skin’s own cholesterols – considered along with fatty acids as among the most important fats in the lipid layer of the stratum corneum (the outer skin layer, the one you can see) – meaning that these cholesterols, in their function of forming an intact barrier layer, can be supported by the plant sterols. The lipid layer being stabilized, the skin becomes soft and smooth.
All plant oils have different functions and a variety of properties. They are more than just, what is called in the biz, “carrier” oils. They have lipids (saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, essential fatty acids, free fatty acids, polysaturated and monosaturated) and healing components called unsaponifiables (oil-soluble nutrients such as vitamins, macro and trace minerals, antioxidants, pigments, phytosterols, squalene, and more). There are many plant oils but only few have been commercialized (mostly for consumption) until recent times. A researched, well-designed, and synergistic formula of plant oils can work wonders on the skin because a well-balanced ratio of fatty acids and unsaponifiable compounds nudges the skin to fulfill its natural functions efficiently and offers a dose of antioxidant and healing components. Vegetable oils are life supporting.
So the main reason why a good holistic formulator will use a vegetable oil in the place of a petroleum-based oil is because vegetable oils naturally contain the aforementioned fatty acids. The term “vegetable oil” applies to those oils and fats that come from seeds (nuts, grains, kernels). Trees, fruits, flowers, and vegetables all come from seed, and it is typically from this small life-source that most vegetable oils are derived from.
We know that in the ideal environment a seed will germinate. When looking at what a seed is made of, there are three main components: the testa (the husk, or shell), the endosperm (fuel storage), and the germ. The germ is where the embryo and cotyledon (those two little leaves that first come out of the ground when you plant a seed) are contained. The germ holds the life-force of a plant, the DNA, this is where all that is needed for life is stored by the plant. During germination, the embryo uses its fuel storage from the endosperm to grow and spread out its roots and those cotyledon leaves. It is the fats and oils in the endosperm that are the stored fuels. Interesting, right?!
There are two main ways to extract the oil from the seed (I’m excluding essential oils here, different subject), the first being to press the seeds and basically squeeze out the oil, and the second is through a refinement or solvent extraction method where strong synthetic chemicals are used to separate the oils from the seed. Obviously I prefer the former when cold-pressed (heat affects oil, almost always negatively) which sustains all the valuable constituents and properties of the seed oil, and this is what enables the oil to have a positive effect on the skin. With solvent-extracted vegetable oils, most of the time all the good fatty acids and components are missing. The most common example that anyone might be familiar with is olive oil: you always want to get cold-pressed oil, first-cold-pressed if possible.
So as not to get too nerdy about this, I’m going to generalize all vegetable oils and say that when you buy one (whether it be blackberry seed oil, walnut oil, oat oil, or jojoba oil) you are buying that fuel storage of the seeds. An important thing to consider if you buy any vegetable oil: because many herbicides and pesticides are oil-soluble (meaning they combine with oil), it is important to buy vegetable oils from biodynamic, organic, or wild-harvested sources to avoid these chemicals from ending up in your food or skincare product.
Take blackberry seed oil as an example. When properly produced, this fruity smelling oil is a delicacy to the skin: abundant in antioxidant and rejuvenating compounds like carotenoids, vitamin E, and phytosterols. Like all berry oils, it has a fatty acid content in which the polyunsaturated fatty acids like linoleic and alpha linolenic acid (the two “essential fatty acids”) dominate. Another powerful antioxidant compound that blackberries have is vitamin C, however since vitamin C is water soluble it most likely will not be present in the oil (the research is still inconclusive on this, but beware of any oil product that claims to have vitamin C…). But when you get a blackberry seed oil that’s been solvent-extracted, you lose all of these vital components, and the oil will likely look like a watered-down olive oil, instead of a dark and rich, almost syrup-y, consistency.
This is why the process in which an oil is produced is just as important as the original raw materials. You could have the absolute highest quality jojoba oil in the world, but if its been refined or overheated to death, there is almost no point in even buying it. This is why when formulating a quality skincare product, your suppliers are as important as that which they supply. Prominent due diligence in selecting the ingredients is crucial to creating a product that will actually have a positive and noticeable effect on the skin.
For all the reasons above, it should be clear (I hope) that oils are fundamental for good skincare products. They tend to get a bad wrap, and most people who consider themselves to have “oily skin” tend to stay away from oil-based products because they think that more oil is the last thing they need, when in fact, a well-designed serum is probably the thing they need most! Everyone needs a good oil serum to have balanced, healthy skin!
• Kusmirek, J. (2002) - Liquid Sunshine
• Parker, S. M. (2014) - Power Of The Seed
• Price, L. (2008) - Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage