The latest generation of ‘super’ facial oils is more akin to face serums. But how do you pick one that’s ‘super’ – and right for your skin?

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It’s safe to say face oils divide opinion. Skincare fans either abhor or swear by them, and among skincare professionals, facialists tend to adore them while the majority of derms and skin doctors are doubtful about them, to say the least. “The wrong oil for your skin can cause blackheads and breakouts, admits Charlotte Ferguson, creator of Disciple Skincare. “But the right one can redress the balance and actually unclog pores. So, it’s important to know exactly which fatty acids and other ingredients your oils are made up of to ensure they’re not counter-productive.”

Wherever you stand on them, though, these oils have come a long way. Always a simple but sure-fire product for boosting the skin barrier , advanced biotechnology and delivery systems is now allowing face oils to be packed with all the problem-solving, age-defying active ingredients traditionally only found in hi-tech serums. It makes for a generation of ‘super’ facial oils that are as natural as they are effective. But how can you distinguish a bog-standard oil from a ‘super’? And is there really a face oil for every skin type and need?

How can a face oil benefit my skin?

You can view most face oils as nutritious, bio-compatible food for your skin. “Their main benefit is down to their omega fatty acid  content,” says Georgie Cleeve, founder of Oskia Skincare. Omegas are key ingredients for replenishing skin’s barrier function, ensuring skin remains supple and in a state of calm and balance. “The ratios of the different omegas (3, 6, and 9) reflect the “thickness” of the oils, making different plant oils suitable for different skin types,” she says. It’s why so many brands produce their own targeted blends, all promising a glow and more nourished, resilient skin, but featuring vastly different combinations of different plant and sometimes synthesised oils.

“Ultimately, an omega is an omega, whether it’s from an expensive plant source or a cheap one,’ says Cleeve, who flags many ‘basic’ nourishing face oils on the market are 50-80% cheap oil, like rice bran or olive, plus a tiny percentage of the more expensive ones such as cacay. That doesn’t have to mean they’re bad at supporting your barrier, but it does mean their sometimes-steep price tags aren’t always justified.

A slightly higher price can be worth paying for those oils rich in vitamins and antioxidants, like vitamin C-rich sea buckthorn oil and retinoic acid (vitamin A)-containing rosehip oil ( Trilogy Rosehip Oil , £28.45, is rumoured to be Kate Middleton's favourite oil)

Exactly how much of their benefits are preserved from bud to bottle, however, depends on the oils’ sourcing and manufacture. And being oils squeezed straight from seeds, fruits and plants, you can’t control their concentration, making it hard to know just how protective, let alone anti-ageing, your oil really is. What you can rely on in pretty much every face oil is that it’ll work as a preservative-free moisturiser that can help heal aggravated skin and give your face a nice sheen.

Do face oils cause breakouts?

Face oils can cause spots and this is why dermatologists, on the whole, are not fans, in the same way that they are wary of oil-based cleansing balms and waxy moisturisers. “Most oils and waxes are just too heavy, especially for oil-prone skins, and can soon start to clog pores ,” says cosmetic dermatologist  Dr Anita Sturnham . “I make an exception for skin-identical oils – those that closely mimic our own sebum and are used by the skin to boost barrier function.” The two most often credited for suiting all skin types are jojoba oil and squalane.  Sturnham also rates apricot kernel oil and uses all three lipids in her own Decree range, “but no others.”

Ferguson explains it another way. “The acne-prone have lower levels of linoleic acid (omega 6) in their skin’s surface lipids than those with normal skin. This deficiency makes sebum go thick, clogging pores and trapping bacteria. Linoleic-rich oils such as evening primrose help liquefy the natural sebum and so, counter-intuitively, unclog pores.” In other words, the wrong oils can cause breakouts, while the right ones can actually prevent them.

Is it true - can face oils dry out your skin?

Somewhat bizarrely, this can also happen. “Using rich oils and waxes consistently can send a message to the skin’s oil-producing glands to take a vacation and stop producing their own lipids,” says Sturnham. This means the skin becomes dry and uncomfortable, at which point it can start over-producing oil to redress the balance. “You end up with this chaotic waxing-and-waning oil production cycle,” says Sturnham. It explains why some skins can be really oily while feeling tight and dry at the same time; when this is the case, you’re better off switching to water-based serums and gel moisturisers  with low levels of skin-identical lipids.

Consultant dermatologist Dr Mary Sommerlad  also cautions against oils high in oleic acid (omega 9) like virgin olive oil: “these can break down the skin barrier and have an exfoliating effect, smoothing skin but also causing moisture loss. So, while they feel rich and moisturising initially, use too much and they can be drying,” she says.

Can a facial oil be anti-ageing?

This is where we get into ‘super’ facial oil territory: oils that go beyond nourishing and repairing the skin barrier. To qualify as a ‘super’, an oil needs to have added active ingredients with proven benefits, but including these wasn’t always possible – until recently.

Bio-actives, or molecules and cells extracted from plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria shown to have regenerative effects on the skin (by for example boosting cell turnover or revving up collagen production), “historically were almost exclusively water-soluble, meaning they could only be used in water-based serums and creams,’ says Paul Berrow, CEO of 320 MHz Bio-Energetic Skincare.

“But over the past half-decade or so, bio-labs have figured out how to make oil-soluble versions of water-based actives alongside discovering countless new botanical compounds that can be added to oils.” This means that a good oil can now be on a par with a 'super serum'. Unaffected by preservatives (which pure oils, being water-free, don’t need), unadulterated plant extracts and oils are, believes Berrow, ‘recognised’ by human cells, and absorbed for their energy and ability to upregulate cell function.”

Other brands will add well-established, oil-soluble actives, either nature-derived or synthetic, to high-quality base oils. One of the most popular and well-regarded vitamin C  compounds, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (also known as THD ascorbate) is oil-soluble and now widely found in brightening vitamin C oils. 7-Dehydrocholesterol is a lipid precursor of vitamin D, which helps soothe and regenerate skin. And retinol  and its siblings in the retinoid family (retinal, retinyl palmitate, and so forth) are all oil-soluble, making them perfect for inclusion in anti-ageing and even anti-blemish face oils.

How can I spot a really good facial oil?

That’s all nice and well, but with so many oils available at such a vast range of prices, what do you need to look out for to know you’re getting value for money? Here’s a handy checklist.

  • How is the oil extracted? If the blurb on your bottle of oil speaks of cold-pressing, steam distillation, enzymatic extraction or CO2 extraction, you know your oil has been delicately tapped with its full ‘life force’ intact. Yes the way your oil is extracted from the nut, fruit or other botanical matter, matters. The fast and furious method is to use industrial solvents or apply high heat during the oil pressing process in order to extract mass quantities of oils. This yields plenty of oil with useful fatty acids, but most of the vitamins and conditioning properties get destroyed.
  • What's the quality like? Look for a ‘single estate’ oil, meaning that the plant extract is not gathered from lots of different places all over the world, but just from one place. The packaging or blurb would mention that. Good traceability and preferably organic (particularly important if your blend includes essential oils and grape seed as it avoids pesticide contamination), means better quality.
  • Does it contain seed oils? Seed oils, which really do contain all the budding life-force of a plant (nuts are seeds as well, but many are so over-produced their nutritional value isn't great), are most potent of all, especially if they’re from ‘superfood’ sources such as prickly pear, moringa, chia, baobab, oat androsehip. Spot them high on your ingredients list and you’re on to a good one. If capric/caprylic triglyceride (a nature-derived but synthesised lipid) tops the bill, however, you don’t want to pay very much at all for your bottle of oil.
  • Does it come from hardy plants? Oils and extracts from plants that survive in extreme environments (think deserts, mountain tops, sea beds; examples are oils from arctic lingonberries and deep sea algae) tend to be very rich in phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
  • Does it have ‘bio-actives’ and ‘native plant cell extracts’? These are a good indication your oil is more like an active serum. Same for lipo-soluble synthetic actives – if the product website has proof of clinical trials on any of these ingredients and on any ingredient complexes exclusive the oil, even better.
  • Is it packaged right? Look for dark or opaque glass bottles, or those made from special UV-blocking glass. The more 'super' your oil is, and therefore packed with more active ingredients, the more important it is to shield it from light, oxygen and temperature changes. Generally, once a bottle has been opened, use it up within a year.

What is the best face oil for my skin type?

With all of the above in mind, we’ve selected our favourite oils for your particular skin type and condition right here.

Best all-purpose facial oil: Kelsey Raspberry Farms Full Bloom Plumping Concentrate, £95 for 30ml

So, light it’s almost water-like, this squalane-based  oil with a very faint raspberry scent won’t block any pores. But it will fend off pesky free radicals thanks to high levels of enzymatically extracted raspberry seed oil, with pomegranate, chia and lupin seed extracts thrown in for good measure. It’s all-purpose plumping protection.

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Best for tired, dehydrated skin: Venn Advanced Multi-Perfecting Red Oil Serum, £95 for 30 ml

A blend of 34 light seed oils and fermented botanical and herbal extracts, this herby-smelling oil is like a sort of Jagermeister digestive aperitif for the face. It feels deeply hydrating rather than oily and has plenty of energising, circulation-boosting actives to put the roses back into your cheeks. A real pick-me-up.

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Best for oily skin: Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil, £68 for 35ml

This has high levels of purifying (neem, tea tree, black cumin) and anti-inflammatory (camomile, aloe, liquorice) seed oils and extracts, plus pore-purging salicylic acid and pigment-busting hexylresorcinol, so it will control sebum production, keep spots at bay and tackle post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It may not smell the best but who cares if it works and isn’t heavy-feeling?

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Best for blemishes: The Ordinary Salicylic 2% Anhydrous Solution, £5.20 for 30ml

It feels very counter-intuitive to put an oil right onto your spots, but the oil in question is non-clogging squalane  and it has a maximum-level 2% concentration of salicylic acid  to effectively nuke breakouts, individual blemishes and overall congestion, while calming and hydrating upset skin. You can apply it all over the face overnight, too, for a brighter, softer, clearer complexion. It smells bad but hey, it’s almost medicine!

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Best for combination skin: Elemental Herbology Purity Facial Oil , £44 for 20ml

Reasonably lightweight and weaponised with 2% salicylic acid and bakuchiol , this slightly nutty-smelling oil unblocks pores and balances oil production, but is also nourishing enough to revive dry areas, thanks to sea buckthorn, raspberry seed and hemp seed oils.

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Best for anti-ageing: Mara Evening Primrose & Green Tea Algae Retinol Face Oil, £60 for 15ml

Seed oils, hydrating algae extracts end retinol make this a powerful line smoother, skin firmer and brown spot reducer  – use it overnight like all retinols. Despite the oil’s richness, which makes it a shoe-in for dry to normal skin, it could also work on oily skins. Retinol limits sebum production (the reason why your face might feel dry the day after use) so the oils in this product can serve to nourish your skin without making it overly oily.

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Best for brightening: Biossance Squalane and Vitamin C Rose Oil, £55 for 30ml

A big dose of THD ascorbate (a lauded brightening and protective vitamin C compound) alongside soothing, sweet-smelling rose essential oil in a light  squalane  base makes for a reliable skin illuminator.

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Best for soothing: Gallinee Microbiome Skincare Prebiotic Face Oil, £35 for 30ml

Everyone’s favourite probiotic brand has packed its bacterial nous into a super-calming face oil featuring barrier-building pre and postbiotic lipids extracted from a volcano (how’s that for an extreme environment), plus soothing oat kernel oil and bisabolol, all suspended in a base of jojoba and squalane . It’s nourishing enough for dry skin but not over-oily, and smells slightly nutty, slightly mineral: maybe that’s the smell of volcano?

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Best budget one: Bybi Beauty Bakuchiol Booster , £13 for 15ml

Very simple but powerful: this is nothing but squalane  and 1% (a proven effective dose) of alt-retinol  bakuchiol, capable of softening wrinkles and pigmentation without any irritation. Sometimes you just don’t need any bells and whistles for a product to get the job done.

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Best for stressed-out skin:  Gherane Reset Facial Oil, £42

Busy working bees beset by deadlines and city pollution  will find their skin can get prone to unexpected bouts of irritation and/or spots. This medium-rich, gently scented oil with prebiotics with plant-derived anti-inflammatories and sebum-regulators will restore the skin’s barrier and balance and has powerful antioxidants from edelweiss and camellia to fight off free radicals from exhaust fumes and stressy meetings.

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Best for night-time: 320Mhz Age-Repair Sleep Elixir Concentrate , £84 for 30ml

All killer and no filler, this is a cacophony of seed oils and bio-active extracts with scientific backing, able to minimise micro-contractions and prevent wrinkles like peptides  can, boost elasticity and increase collagen production like retinol does, and hydrate like a hyaluronic acid-rich cream. Smells rather wonderful too, to encourage a good night’s sleep.

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Which face oil works for you? Let us know in the comments below