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The Truth About Oils: Why They Don’t Cause Acne

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Read time: 17 minutes | by Sophia Ruiz (Founder / CEO)

“If you have acne or acne-prone skin, you should only use oil-free skincare.”

If you grew up in the 90s or early 2000s, this was most definitely something you believed (or at the very least, heard) — probably because your dermatologist, facialist, or rep at a department store said so.

The truth: oils don’t actually cause breakouts

The belief that “if you have acne-prone skin, you should avoid oils” originally stemmed from research findings showing that acne was correlated with our skin’s natural oil production (a.k.a sebum). And twenty to thirty years ago, this may have been a totally valid recommendation based on a totally valid, research-based conclusion about the skin.

But today, our understanding of breakouts and their causes has advanced far beyond those initial findings.

Studies now show that it’s not our sebum that is the problem — instead, it’s changes in its composition (what our sebum is made up of) that are the problem. Even more importantly, when our oil is balanced, it’s not only beneficial, it’s necessary for optimal skin health.

In other words, yes, there is an oil balance that contributes to breakouts. But, there’s also an oil balance that is deeply healing for the skin and even fights acne. In fact, without a healthy amount of the right oil, our skin can’t properly heal.

The same goes for oils we apply in our skincare routines. Oils, being made up of very similar substances to the natural oils produced by our skin, can have a composition that contributes to acne or one that actually helps heal breakouts.

Naturally, this discovery brings up a lot of questions:

  • What exactly is it about some oil that makes it fuel for breakouts?
  • What is it about healthy oils that makes them so healing for the skin? 
  • And how do we know which skincare oils we apply will help or harm the skin?

Those were the questions I had, too. And after years (literally) of researching this topic, I want to share the answers with you!

Why do some oils cause breakouts?

When we’re talking about skincare oils or sebum, we’re usually referring to triglycerides. Our sebum and skincare oils are generally mostly triglycerides with a smaller amount of free fatty acids, sterols, hydrocarbons, fatty esters, and fat-soluble vitamins. 

This goes for both the oils we apply to our skin and the sebum our skin naturally produces.

When applied topically, the major fraction of these oils, triglycerides, and the minor fractions — the sterols, free fatty acids, esters, and vitamins — all influence skin health.  But, the triglycerides are the most important determinants of whether our sebum or a skincare oil will either help or harm acne-prone skin.

The most important, triglycerides, are made up of fatty acids. For them to be active within the skin, they actually first need to be broken down into the fatty acids that make them up.

Those fatty acids are then what influence our health — whether that be by consuming fatty acids in our dietary fat or applying them topically.

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Triglycerides, fatty acids, and acne

Just to make things (necessarily) more complicated (haha), fatty acids can also be further broken down into different classes of fatty acids. This is important because the type of fatty acids inside the triglycerides of oils vary greatly from oil to oil. These variations in fatty acid composition determine whether an oil is healing or harmful for the skin.

Fatty acids can be broken down into four general categories and all have different properties:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. This includes EPA, DHA, and ALA, mostly, alongside some other lesser-known intermediate fatty acids. EPA and DHA are found exclusively in animal products whereas ALA is found mostly in plants. They are well-known for their health-promoting properties.
  • Omega-6 fatty acids. This includes linoleic acid, GLA, and arachidonic acid, mostly. Omega-6s get a bad rap, but they really shouldn’t, as we’ll get into. They’re amazing for skin and hair.
  • Omega-9 fatty acids. This includes oleic acid, erucic acid, and gondoic acid. Although these omega-9 fatty acids are generally beneficial when taken internally, these are some of the most harmful for acne-prone skin. We’ll unpack exactly why in a little bit!
  • Saturated fatty acids. This includes lauric acid, myristic acid, stearic acid, palmitic acid, behenic acid, caprylic acid, and capric acid. Caprylic acid and capric acid, two medium chain fatty acids primarily found in MCT oil and coconut oil. Saturated fats in excess can be harmful, including for breakouts. But, there are some exceptions.

Each of these fatty acids have different effects on different aspects of skin health and the acne formation process. We’ll break down each one so you have a better understanding of the impact these fatty acids (and the oils that they make up) can have on our skin and breakouts.

Fatty acids, inflammation, and acne

Most of us have been taught that acne is caused by oil and bacteria. The oil clogs the pores, bacteria overgrows, and that causes acne.

We’ve already debunked the half-truth that oil causes acne. Again, it’s about the composition of the oil, not oil itself.

And while bacterial overgrowth on the skin does contribute to acne, bacteria isn’t the origin of acne. Instead, research shows that inflammation in the skin is actually one of the most important origins of acne (alongside free radicals).

The concept that inflammation is one of the true root causes of acne requires a whole article in and of itself. But, the important thing to note here is that fatty acids are huge contributors to inflammation or the lack thereof.

Some fatty acids contribute significantly to inflammation while others actually help to fight and prevent it.

And because inflammation is one of the most important triggers of acne, anything that causes inflammation in the skin will generally contribute to acne. The opposite is also true: anything that fights or prevents inflammation will generally fight or prevent acne.

So, applying that to fatty acids, any fatty acid that reduces inflammation will benefit acne-prone skin, while any fatty acid that triggers inflammation is likely to also trigger breakouts.

Keep in mind that this is a generalization and not every single inflammatory fatty acid will cause acne. We all have a different tolerance and threshold for inflammation before it will cause acne.

Sometimes it can take a while before something inflammatory will manifest as a breakout and other times you’ll see the effects right away. It depends on nutrient stores, genetics, and more!

That being said, it doesn’t mean that just because a fatty acid isn’t a problem for you right away that it won’t ever be a problem.

So, it’s a good rule of thumb (especially if you’re acne-prone) to stick to the anti-inflammatories and avoid the inflammatories.

Fatty acids for acne: inflammatory vs. anti-inflammatory

Each fatty acid in a given oil is going to have a different effect on inflammation. Their anti-inflammatory or inflammatory effects also exist on a spectrum. For example, there may be many inflammatory fatty acids, but some are more inflammatory others.

Concentration matters, too. So, you might have an inflammatory fatty acid that is inflammatory at high doses but actually necessary for proper immune function at low doses or in synergy with another anti-inflammatory fatty acid!

Lots of nuance here to be considered. But, just to keep things simple, we’ll give an anti-inflammatory / inflammatory rating to each individual fatty acid. But, know that none of these exist in isolation, so context always has to be considered :)

  • EPA: Highly anti-inflammatory
  • DHA: Anti-inflammatory
  • ALA: Anti-inflammatory
  • Linoleic acid: Mildly anti-inflammatory (can be inflammatory under very specific circumstances)
  • GLA: Anti-inflammatory
  • Arachidonic acid: Highly inflammatory
  • Palmitic acid: Highly inflammatory
  • Stearic acid: Mildly inflammatory
  • Behenic acid: Inflammatory
  • Myristic acid: Inflammatory
  • Lauric acid: Inflammatory
  • Caprylic acid: Anti-inflammatory
  • Capric acid: Anti-inflammatory
  • Oleic acid: Neutral to mildly inflammatory
  • Erucic acid: Neutral
  • Gondoic acid: Neutral

Fatty acids and the skin barrier

Another way fatty acids can impact skin health and breakouts is through the function of our skin barrier — also called the acid mantle, the epidermal permeability barrier, and the stratum corneum.

The importance of the skin barrier

A healthy skin barrier is arguably one of the most important aspects of skin health. A strong skin barrier keeps good things in — like hydration — and bad things out: pollution, allergens, and irritants.

When the skin barrier breaks down, our skin becomes dehydrated. This makes it harder for our natural exfoliation mechanism, called desquamation, to work properly. This means we can experience a build up of dead skin cells, which can contribute to breakouts. Our skin may also become dull, dry, and flaky.

A broken down skin barrier also paves the way for inflammation. With pollution, allergens, and irritants having greater access to the deeper layers of the skin, these compounds can then cause inflammation, which we already know can be an acne trigger. This inflammation also contributes to redness, post-acne red marks (called post-inflammatory erythema, or PIE for short), and more.

So, what does this have to do with fatty acids?

Well, our skin barrier is made up of three important lipids: cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides.

Fatty acids we obviously know are present in oils, but our ceramides are also made from fatty acids.

Without the right fatty acids, ceramides can’t be produced. 99% of skincare oils don’t contain cholesterol, unless they’ve been added to a formula. So, the application of oils directly contributes to the fatty acid and ceramide pool that is required for skin barrier function.

But, here’s the most important thing: even though fatty acids are necessary for barrier repair, not all fatty acids are actually good for the skin barrier:

  • EPA: Neutral
  • DHA: Neutral
  • ALA: Neutral
  • Linoleic acid: Strongly skin barrier supportive
  • GLA: Mildly skin barrier supportive
  • Arachidonic acid: Disruptive
  • Palmitic acid: Disruptive
  • Stearic acid: Mildly repairing
  • Behenic acid: Mildly disruptive
  • Myristic acid: Mildly disruptive
  • Lauric acid: Disruptive
  • Caprylic acid: Neutral
  • Capric acid: Neutral
  • Oleic acid: Strongly disruptive
  • Erucic acid: Disruptive
  • Gondoic acid: Mildly disruptive

Comedogenic fatty acids, non-comedogenic fatty acids, and acne

The last important aspect to consider when it comes to oils and acne is the comedogenicity of a fatty acid. Some fatty acids are comedogenic (a.k.a pore clogging), while others actually prevent the clogging of pores.

  • EPA: Non-comedogenic
  • DHA: Non-comedogenic
  • ALA: Non-comedogenic
  • Linoleic acid: Non-comedogenic, fights clogged pores
  • GLA: Non-comedogenic
  • Arachidonic acid: Non-comedogenic
  • Palmitic acid: Comedogenic
  • Stearic acid: Mildly comedogenic
  • Behenic acid: Non-comedogenic
  • Myristic acid: Non-comedogenic
  • Lauric acid: Comedogenic
  • Caprylic acid: Non-comedogenic
  • Capric acid: Non-comedogenic
  • Oleic acid: Strongly comedogenic
  • Erucic acid: Unknown
  • Gondoic acid: Unknown

Fatty acids, sebum, and the development of acne

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork to understand the active fatty acids within both the sebum our skin produces and the oils we apply to our skin and their effects on the skin, we can now better understand the changes in acne-prone sebum and why they cause acne.

We’ve established that linoleic acid, GLA, MCTs, and omega-3s are beneficial for acne-prone skin while saturated fats and omega-9s disrupt the skin barrier, clog pores, and trigger inflammation — all contributing to breakouts.

Interestingly, several studies have shown that changes in acne-prone sebum closely mirror the understanding of fatty acids we just unpacked. In acne-prone skin, the changes that accompany breakouts are a decrease in linoleic acid and an increase in oleic acid and saturated fatty acids.

This makes sense — the fatty acids that are the most inflammatory, damaging to the skin barrier, and comedogenic are elevated, whereas the fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory, skin barrier-supportive, and non-comedogenic (and even fight pore blockages) are decreased.

As a result, the balance of fatty acids in acne-prone skin favors an inflammatory, disruptive skin environment that then favors the formation of acne.

The opposite also seems to be true — a balance of fatty acids in the opposite direction (increased linoleic acid, decreased saturated fats and oleic acid) is associated with clear skin and probably contributes to acne prevention.

And this is really where the opportunity for skincare oils to be hugely beneficial (or harmful) for acne-prone skin starts to reveal itself.

How skincare oils can support (or harm) the healing of acne-prone skin

So, we already know that some fatty acids can be helpful or harmful for acne-prone skin through their effects on inflammation, skin barrier health, and their comedogenicity (or lack thereof). 

We also know that acne-prone sebum contains higher levels of the harmful fatty acids and less of the acne-fighting fatty acids, while the opposite is true for sebum from clear skin.

The same is true for skincare oils — depending on their fatty acid profiles, we can technically assign them as pro-acne — having a fatty acid profile similar to that of acne-prone sebum — or anti-acne — having a fatty acid profile similar to sebum from clear skin.

So, if we look at this through the lens of breakouts, what we understand about how fatty acids contribute, and the activity of oils in the skin, we see that a skincare oil with the right fatty acid profile can actually be a powerful weapon against acne. By manipulating the balance of fatty acids in the skin, skincare oils actually create a microenvironment that more closely resembles the sebum of clear skin.

The opposite is also true — an oil with the wrong fatty acid profile can further exacerbate the excess of acne-causing, comedogenic fatty acids already present and most definitely exacerbate and/or trigger breakouts.

This leads us to an important conclusion: oils shouldn’t be avoided in acne. In fact, by avoiding oils altogether, we might be missing out on a powerful healing tool, capable of directly targeting one of the most important sources of breakouts — changes in sebum composition.

Instead, we simply have to avoid the oils with fatty acid compositions that favor acne!

The truth about comedogenic lists and comedogenic oils: why they’re wrong 90% of the time

Although we’ve already mostly unpacked how to decipher whether an oil is safe for acne-prone skin or not, I find that it’s also helpful to clarify why comedogenic ingredient lists often get things wrong — just to clarify the confusion.

You may be surprised to find out that we have next to no data on the comedogenicity of oils, despite the fact that many oils on comedogenic lists have actually been given a formal comedogenic rating.

The truth is that there are very few oils that have actually been formally tested for comedogenicity in the context of a research study. That includes:

  • Blackcurrant Seed Oil: non-comedogenic
  • Cocoa Butter: strongly comedogenic
  • Hazelnut Seed Oil: moderately comedogenic
  • Squalene (not squalane, two different compounds!), when oxidized: strongly comedogenic
  • Mink Oil: mildly comedogenic

So, if you see an oil outside of these five oils on a comedogenic list, the comedogenic rating is not actually from a real study — it’s a rating that the person compiling the list has decided on or has taken from an informal list published somewhere else.

I want to emphasize, though, there’s nothing wrong with giving an oil a hypothetical rating! After all, just because there’s not a study on an oil doesn’t mean it’s non-comedogenic. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to what oils get labeled as comedogenic or not. 

Because oils are combinations of lipids and these are their active components that influence the skin, the basis of our hypotheticals should be based on their lipid composition. But, that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least from what I can tell!

For example, an oil like cherry kernel oil might get a “2 / mild-moderate comedogenic” rating with 35% oleic acid, whereas argan oil will get a “0 / non-comedogenic rating” with 40% oleic acid. It has more oleic acid than cherry kernel oil, the most likely culprit behind the “comedogenicity” of any oil, and yet argan oil (often) gets a non-comedogenic rating, whereas oils with similar amounts of oleic acid will get a comedogenic rating.

As a result, you have many different products that are marketed as “non-comedogenic” that coul very well be causing you issues.

My general recommendation is to steer clear of comedogenic lists giving subjective ratings of ingredients that haven’t actually been tested, unless they explicitly list their reasoning for why they’ve decided to add it to their list. Otherwise, I feel like it just adds to information overload and decision fatigue!

Comedogenic oils to avoid: classification based on fatty acid profiles

Now that you’ve heard a bit of the research on fatty acids, oils, and acne, and you have a general idea of how I think about them, I’m going to give you my list of oils that I believe research would support are comedogenic, even if they haven’t been explicitly tested!

List of comedogenic oils: avoid for acne-prone skin

Keep in mind that not every oil on this list will be strongly comedogenic, but I like to take a very conservative approach to the oils that I use for acne-prone skin. At a bare minimum, I believe the hypothetical risk of comedogenicity with these oils outweigh their potential benefits.

This list also isn’t necessarily exhaustive! There are new oils being popularized all the time now, so you might be using one that you don’t see on this list. I’m more than happy to take a look at any specific oil (or any product, for that matter!) for you, just shoot me an e-mail! :)

  • Any butter (cocoa butter, mango butter, cupuacu butter, etc.)
  • Any wax (beeswax, caranauba wax, etc)
  • Açaí berry oil
  • Almond oil
  • Amaranth oil
  • Amla oil
  • Apricot kernel oil
  • Argan oil
  • Abyssinian oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Babassu oil
  • Baobab oil
  • Broccoli seed oil
  • Buriti oil
  • Camelina oil
  • Castor oil (good for hair growth, not for skin due to its high omega-9 content)
  • Cherry kernel oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Date seed oil
  • Hazelnut oil
  • Linseed oil (flaxseed oil and linseed oil are from the same seed but not the same thing, linseed oil is chemically modified and likely contains impurities that are comedogenic)
  • Jojoba oil
  • Mink oil
  • Macadamia nut oil
  • Meadowfoam seed oil
  • Marula oil
  • Olive oil
  • Palm oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Psoralea corylifolia (Bakuchi or babchi oil)
  • Plum oil
  • Pomegranate seed oil
  • Pumpkin seed oil
  • Sunflower oil (high oleic only, the high linoleic varieties are fine)
  • Seabuckthorn pulp/fruit oil (seed is fine)
  • Squalene (not squalane; when oxidized)
  • Soybean oil
  • Tamanu oil
  • Tallow

How to start a skincare regimen with non-comedogenic oils for acne-prone skin

Fatty acids are just one part of the skin’s necessary “nutrition”. They can be profoundly healing through their support of skin barrier function, balancing the microbiome, and ability to quench inflammation — not just for acne-prone skin, but for all skin types.

At the same time, just like you couldn’t expect your body to thrive on a single nutrient, neither can our skin. Singular nutrients are never supposed to work in isolation — they work in a harmonious synergy with many other nutrients for optimal health. That’s why all of our Sana Haus products are formulated with nutrient synergy in mind, for truly holistic skin nutrition.

You’ll find a wide array of non-comedogenic oil extracts with the ideal ratio of fatty acids to balance acne-prone skin, including ultra-potent supercritical CO2 extracts, in our oil serums. You’ll also find all the nutrient co-factors necessary for optimal skin nourishment and skin barrier repair. Our Clarity serum is specifically tailored to address the needs of acne-prone skin, powering your skin’s natural healing process.

It’s also important to keep in mind that our skin must be in an acidic pH (4.5-5.5) to properly utilize fatty acids we apply to the skin. If your skin is outside of that pH range, oils will sit on top of the skin and not properly absorb. For this reason, you’ll need a pH-balanced cleanser and ideally a pH-balancing toner as well!

A basic cleanse-tone-oil serum routine is a great way to get started with taking advantage of all the healing properties oils truly have to offer the skin. If you’d like to build out a more robust regimen, I recommend our holistic skincare regimen, The Sana Method!

As always, I’m here if you have ANY questions! Please don’t hesitate to reach out for personalized skin support or fine-tuning your skincare for your unique skin needs.

If you’ve made it to this point, thanks so much for taking the time to read ♡

All my love,

Sophia

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