Health & Grooming

By anointment

Pure, versatile and luxuriant, facial oils have a natural affinity with the skin and are now joining serums as skincare royalty. Anna-Marie Solowij reports. Photography by Ian Skelton

December 03 2012
Anna-Marie Solowij

Oil may be a dirty word with the anti-fossil-fuel lobby, but in beauty terms this organic unguent is enjoying a surge in popularity. Shunned for years (oil on the face was the equivalent of fat in food), now a new generation of facial oils is being marketed as a better-than-serum skin saver.

“I’ve had women squeal with disgust at the very thought of oil going anywhere near their face.” So says renowned aromatherapist Geraldine Howard, co-founder of Aromatherapy Associates and purveyor of some rather lovely products. “They are terrified of making their skin greasy and getting breakouts, but the truth is that plant oils have an affinity with the skin, sharing a similar fine molecular structure to sebum, so they are less likely to block pores than face cream.”

“It is mineral oil that gave facial oils a bad name,” says Annee de Mamiel, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, who has created a range of products to suit the skin’s changing needs according to the climate. Her Autumn Facial Oil (£60 for 20ml) contains eight nourishing and antioxidant essential oils.

“Mineral oil sits on the skin, plugging the sebaceous glands, which can lead to spots,” says facialist Amanda Lacey. Her Oils of Provence and Camellia Oil (both £88 for 30ml) are integral to her treatments, which are enjoyed by a loyal and celebrated clientele. “Oil glides better than a cream when you’re massaging the skin,” she adds. De Mamiel, meanwhile, eulogises about the power of essential oils to calm or invigorate not just the skin, but the mind and body, too.

Of course, they would say this: these women have created successful brands around these golden elixirs. But their enthusiasm fails to explain the relatively speedy ascent of their lines to top of the pile in the skincare hierarchy.

My highly unscientific, but unfailingly accurate, way of identifying a trending product is simple: I count how many have landed on my desk in previous months. In the case of facial oils, it’s rather a lot – so much so I’ve had to clear a bathroom shelf for them. True, three are from Clarins: its heritage oils, Santal, Lotus and Blue Orchid (£29 each for 30ml), come in hip new bottles. And another is actually a foundation – Giorgio Armani Maestro Fusion Makeup (£36 for 30ml) – which boasts oils as a key ingredient. But since when did anyone praise oil in their beauty ranges?

When I cast my cynic’s eye over them, a few theories come to mind. The first is that oil is the new serum (confusingly, certain oils are called serums in the belief that this term is more palatable to consumers). After all, when serum is trading at the highest price point in skincare, where else can you go? Oil, of course.

The “luxe factor” struck me the moment I opened L’Huile Souveraine from Dior Prestige, containing the amber-coloured flower oil Rose Souveraine, which smells hedonistic and feels like heaven. That it is purported to have been used by Jean-Louis Fargeon, Marie Antoinette’s perfumer, in the face creams he created for the queen, perhaps goes some way to explaining its price: £240 for 50ml; that and the fact that this is rose absolute – the most concentrated essence of the flower, and therefore the costliest. You’ll be relieved to hear that it’s a delight to use and seems to be lasting forever – with any oil, you need only the tiniest amount. I’ve been following Dior’s prescribed massage method – a five-minute evening ritual that has left my skin feeling supple, almost golden-coloured and more balanced.

Facialist Sarah Chapman has her own more practical theory on the successful segue from serum to oil: “More women have been using serums – they like the lighter feeling and you can layer them with other products. From there, it’s a natural progression to oils as they’re similarly delicate and pleasurable to use because of their texture and aroma.” Evidence of this adaptability is Chapman’s Skinesis Overnight Facial (£45 for 15ml), a blend of essentials oils. “I get clients to mix it in with their day cream and even body cream,” she says.

Such versatility may prove the ultimate success of oil. “I believe they will become the norm in skincare,” says Anna Ghee, CEO of the beauty brand Nude, whose new ProGenius (£58 for 30ml) features oils containing omega 3, 6, 7 and 9. “You can use oil in place of moisturiser or to supplement a hydrating product for drier skin; try it overnight or during the day, even blending it with foundation.”  

My other theory concerns the “eco factor”. With the increase in demand for “clean” products, oils are the ultimate “free-from” formulae: they don’t require preservatives (although it’s best to store them out of direct sunlight and away from heat) or detergents. As Dr Lionel de Benetti, former head of R&D at Clarins, now president of its scientific commission, says: “We can always update the packaging, and we’re using a new distillation process to extract the essential oils for our Face Treatment Oils, but no synthetic substance can improve on the plant oils themselves.”

Demanding consumers may well be seeking simple, pure, products – Decléor’s single-flower essences, such as Aromessence Néroli (£44 for 15ml), Dr Sebagh’s Rose de Vie (£129 for 30ml), Darphin’s Jasmine Aromatic Care (£67 for 15ml) and Swedish brand Estelle & Thild’s Rose Otto Facial Oil (£45 for 30ml), come to mind – but they also expect them to be effective. Corinne Morley, of New Zealand-based Trilogy skincare, known for its organic Rosehip Oil (£16.50 for 20ml), comments: “Everyone’s looking for better ways to harness science and nature, but oils have already done the hard work for us. They’re packed full of natural actives with a molecular structure that has an affinity with the skin. Rosehip oil, one of the most prized seed oils, contains 80 per cent essential fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins.”

It’s no wonder that cosmetics companies are packing off their botanists to the world’s remote regions in search of the most elusive (and exclusive) plant oils. Competition between brands is rife when there is so much at stake. Witness the success of argan oil: 10 years ago, no one outside North Africa had heard of this pale, nutty unguent used for medicinal, culinary and cosmetic purposes by Berber tribeswomen. Identified as an organic and sustainable ingredient by global beauty companies, argan became the buzz discovery of the 2000s. One of the purest I’ve used (on salads as well as my face) is Kahina’s Argan Oil (£76 for 100ml). I also love Liz Earle’s Superskin Concentrate (£40.25 for 28ml), a rich blend of argan, rosehip, neroli, lavender and camomile essential oils. Out of the argan trend came Moroccan Oil, the elixir that sparked an industry shift towards treatment oils for the hair. From there it didn’t take much to convert women to the benefits of facial oils.

Exciting new discoveries include baobab, championed by Dr Simon Jackson, a pharmacognosist who studies the use of plants in traditional medicine and founder of Dr Jackson’s Natural Products. His Face Oil (£55 for 50ml) contains baobab-seed oil used in sub-Saharan Africa to protect skin from the arid conditions. “Baobab is rich in palmitic acid, oleic acid and linoleic acid,” he says, “all key moisturising ingredients.” While Balance Me’s Radiance Face Oil (£30 for 30ml) contains the richly conditioning Amazonian buriti-nut oil. “So many new ingredients are coming out of Africa,” says Howard, who cites date-kernel oil and ximenia, a wild African plum extract that is the rare ingredient in Aromatherapy Associates’ Fine Line Face Oil (£43.50 for 15ml).

Some wonderful oils hail from closer to home, though. Aromatherapist, facialist and perfumer Alexandra Soveral gets some of hers from Portugal (from £39.50 for 15ml). “We go for a week once a year as a family, with our four dogs, to pick herbs such as lavender and rosemary from the wild pine forests. Because of the effect of the conifers, the herbs are three‑to-four times more anti-inflammatory than those grown elsewhere. I distil them myself to use in my bespoke treatments.” Whatever their provenance, it’s clear that oils are now nature’s most potent skin saviours.

See also

Skincare, Oils