Grid of Moisturizers
PHOTOGRAPH BY DWIGHT ESCHLIMAN/GETTY

A Lotion vs. Oil Smack Down

Experts reveal which moisturizer is better for your body.

Leah Zerbe January 23, 2012

For many of us, the change in seasons means our skin starts looking like the desert, minus the tumbleweeds: dry, cracked, dehydrated. If you're one for piling on lotion but you don't seem to get the moisturizing results you'd like, it might be time to go European-style (i.e. oil-driven) on your stubbornly parched skin.

"Moisturizers are great at keeping the skin healthy looking and reducing signs of aging," says aesthetician Charmaine Leah, who founded organic beauty products boutique Mint & Berry. "But compared to other beauty products, moisturizers often contain the most synthetic chemicals and petroleum by-products, many of which are linked to health concerns. Seeing as moisturizers work by deeply penetrating skin, it's smart to consider using green products, which contain fewer synthetic chemicals that may enter your bloodstream."

One Way Or Another
We Americans are lotion lovers. But in Europe and other parts of the world, oil is actually the more popular option for hydrating dry skin. And there are differences between the two. Some manufacturers have to add all sorts of fillers and emulsifiers to create creamy lotion, while certain plant-based oils are super-effective at keeping us hydrated and radiant without needing the added ingredients. Still, not all lotions are eco-evil. And when looking for a winner in the oil-versus-lotion debate, Leah thinks there is a place for both.

"I believe oils and lotions have varying benefits and drawbacks, but both can be incorporated into a healthy beauty routine," says Leah. "Oils protect the skin's lipid barrier and are great at preventing moisture from evaporating from the skin. Some people believe applying oil, especially to acne-prone skin, will clog pores, cause breakouts, or leave a greasy film. The truth is, most natural oils are easily absorbed, not greasy, and noncomedogenic; that is, they have a low potential to clog pores, which makes oils perfect for all skin types."

Body lotions, on the other hand, are designed to penetrate the skin, leaving it softer, more hydrated, and younger looking. "Lotions have the benefit of containing a number of beneficial ingredients such as aloe vera, vitamin E, vitamin D, shea butter, and keratin," explains Leah, who uses moisturizing lotion in the morning and oils at night. "All of these bonus ingredients replenish the skin of its lost moisture, repair damaged skin, and can alleviate various types of skin conditions."

Whether or not lotions will lose their luster remains to be seen, but if you're game to try using oils as moisturizers, keep these points in mind.

Be an expert on extraction. It's important to know how your oil is extracted, because you don't want it exposed to high temperatures or extracted using harmful chemical solvents. Cold-pressed is ideal, but CO2-extracted oils are also allowed in certified-organic products. As a rule of thumb, always stay away from synthetic fragrances, sometimes listed as "parfum" or "fragrance" on the ingredients label, and instead opt for unscented, or scented with cold-pressed essential oils. Harsh solvents are not allowed in USDA-certified-organic beauty products, but buyer beware. Many products claim to be organic or "natural" but do not bear the USDA seal stating that they meet food-grade organic regulations.

Avoid mineral oil. An ingredient in many beauty-care products, mineral oil is a processed petroleum product. Who wants to wear that? For a rundown of the safety of all skin-nourishing products' ingredients, and to see how your products fare, visit the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. "Look for products with the fewest ingredients and those that do not contain fragrance, parabens, petrolatum, or petroleum jelly," says Leah. "North Americans, in general, have a misconception that skin care and beauty require fancy products with lots of ingredients to work better. The reality is that an inexpensive bottle of sweet almond oil will likely work just as well as an expensive bottle of the latest big-brand moisturizer."

Wear the winners. Jojoba oil is an excellent choice for body moisturizing, as is sustainably harvested coconut oil. At cooler temperatures, coconut oil solidifies, but if you scoop a bit into your palm and rub it between your hands, it will turn into a smooth body moisturizer. Some people even use it on their faces. Leah is partial to jojoba, sweet almond, and avocado oils.

Pick proper soap. Sharyn Wynters, a naturopath and coauthor of the book Survive! A Family Guide to Thriving in a Toxic World, warns of using synthetic soaps with a pH balance different from that of our "acid mantle," the thin coating on top of our skin that helps protect us from bacteria and other perils of the outside world. She recommends Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps for a pH more in line with our bodies' natural state (between 4.5 and 6 for adults), and notes that people can purchase pH testing strips at the local pharmacy to test their favorite soap's acidity or basicity.

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