Lotion vs. Oil: Which Is Better for Your Body?

New moisturizers offer an oily alternative to slathering your skin with greasy lotion.

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 on your stubbornly parched skin. The trick is finding moisturizers that are nontoxic. "Moisturizers are great at keeping the skin healthy looking, and reducing signs of aging. However, compared to other beauty products, moisturizers often contain the most synthetic chemicals and petroleum by-products, many of which are linked to health concerns," explains aesthetician Charmaine Leah, founder of Mint & Berry, an organic beauty products boutique. "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."


The Details
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 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, hydrated, and younger looking, explains Leah. "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 ingredients replenish the skin of its lost moisture, repair damaged skin, and can alleviate various types of skin conditions."

What It Means
So, will lotions lose their luster? One company that thinks so is Badger, a pioneer in the certified-organic body-care sector, which hopes to turn Americans on to body oil as a moisturizer. This fall, the company is launching organic body oils featuring cold-pressed jojoba and olive oils. Rodale sampled the body oils at Natural Products Expo East in Boston, and found them to be refreshing to the skin, without a trace of the oiliness that some people might expect. That's because jojoba oil, the main ingredient, shares a similar chemistry to our body's own skin oils, explains Sharyn Wynters, a naturopath and coauthor of the book Survive! A Family Guide to Thriving in a Toxic World.

Want to try using oils as moisturizers? Keep these points in mind:

Be 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 lotion to hydrate your skin, give it a healthy glow, and reduce the signs of aging."

Wear The Winners
Jojoba oil is an excellent choice for body moisturizing, as is sustainably harvested coconut oil. Wynters prefers Wilderness Family Naturals. At cooler temperatures, coconut oil solidifies, but if you scoop a bit into the palm of your hand and rub it between your hands, it will turn into a smooth body moisturizer. Some people even use it on their face. Leah likes jojoba, sweet almond, and avocado oils.

Pick Proper Soap
Wynters also warns of using synthetic soaps with a pH balance different than 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' (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 pH.

Make Your Own Moisturizers
Check out our Nickel Pincher's recent advice on making your own organic skin-care products, including a recipe for a coconut-oil–based moisturizer.

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