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As a teen and in my early twenties, I was no pro at skin care. I knew you were supposed to wash your face and take your makeup off and stuff, but I was generally too preoccupied with other things in life to care too much.

But the older I get, the more dry my skin becomes—a fab combo for the early onset of wrinkles. Additionally, being pregnant with each of my three children has resulted in major skin changes that left me scrambling to sort them out, including painful breakouts and a very dull complexion. (Pregnancy glow is apparently a myth—at least for me.) So, I’ve begun learning more about and testing proper skincare routines.

Perhaps the least intuitive practice I’ve come across in my quest for better skin care is oil cleansing. Why would anyone want to smear oil on their face? I thought the first (several) times I heard about it. Wouldn’t that make it greasy and shiny?

But I also try to keep my skin care and cosmetic routine clean and free from as many unknown ingredients, chemicals, and fragrances as possible, so it seemed like something I should at least try.

It turns out oil cleansing is balancing and supportive for all skin types, depending on the types of oil you choose. It works because it does not strip your body’s natural oils from the skin, and it can actually help lead to more vibrant skin and healthy layers of the epidermis. It can be used to address dry skin, oily skin, acne-prone skin, breakouts and blemishes, and even ultra-sensitive skin.

The surface of the skin has a microbiome, just like the one that lives inside of our gut. So, yes, we perpetually have bacteria living on the skin but not in the icky way that it sounds. When we use harsh cleansing agents or otherwise harm the good bacteria living on our skin, it leaves room for bad bacteria to move in, and we can end up with more skin problems.

Basics of oil cleansing

Oil cleansing is a simple process that doesn’t involve expensive products, numerous steps, or a lot of practice. It’s rooted in many holistic practices with the idea that “like defeats like”—in this case, clean and pure oil will dissolve and remove dirt and soiled oil from the skin’s surface.

Oil cleansing can be used to:

  • Unclog glands and address breakouts and blackheads
  • Remove dead skin, makeup, and dirt (even waterproof makeup)
  • Moisturize dry skin
  • Balance oily skin
  • Reduce inflammation in acne or other facial skin conditions

Regular use of oil can help to improve the skin’s barrier function, which prevents unwanted bacteria or pathogens from entering.

How to oil cleanse

If you’ve decided that you want to give it a try, you need to select which oil(s) you will use for your process. There are many options to choose from, including:

  • Castor oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Jojoba oil
  • Almond oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Argan oil

Typically, you will combine one or more oils for the purpose of your cleansing, depending on your skin’s needs.

Good oil options for dry skin include olive oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, and avocado oil.

If your skin is acne-prone or you have a lot of breakouts, consider castor oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, and sunflower oil.

Argan oil is often used for anti-aging purposes, and sunflower oil is lighter and allergy-friendly for those who can’t use coconut or almond.

To start, choose two oils that fall under the category that you need, and combine them in a one-to-one ratio. Some can be used on their own, but castor oil will always need to be paired with something else since it can dry out the skin and does not return hydration as easily. But it is an excellent astringent cleanser for acne or breakouts and works excellently for oil cleansing when paired with another hydrating option.

When you purchase your oils, you won’t necessarily want to head to the cooking aisle. You will want to choose cold-pressed, virgin or extra virgin options that are free from extra ingredients, additives, or fragrances. These are often found in the cosmetics or skin care aisle, at health-food stores, or at online retailers like Amazon or Vitacost. Products meant for skin will often state that they’re for skincare or not meant for cooking use.

When you’re ready to wash your face, start by applying your oils of choice to your face. You’ll want enough to feel like every inch is covered and that you have enough to rub your skin with, but not so much that it’s dripping off your chin. Rub it around in a circular, upward motion, especially over your cheeks and forehead, and be sure to focus special attention on areas where you have makeup or are prone to breakouts. No need to be painfully vigorous—just be gentle and thorough.

After you’ve finished the cleansing, gently wipe your face with a soft cotton cloth and warm water. Some people choose to use colder water for the invigorating feel, but a warm wet rag will remove oil faster and more thoroughly. After you’ve removed all of the oil, depending on your skin type, you may want to follow with a dab of pure oil for moisturizing. Jojoba or coconut can be good for keeping moisture in dry skin, especially in the fall and winter months. Argan is light enough that it can moisturize without being greasy, and it fights wrinkles at the same time.

Oil cleansing is safe enough to do on a daily basis, but you won’t want to do it multiple times per day. It’s best to do at the end of the day to remove impurities and send you to bed with hydrated skin.

After you’ve finished the cleansing, your skin should feel soft and moisturized, but not irritated, overly greasy, or dry. If it feels irritated, you may need to get a softer washcloth or not massage as hard. You may also need to try a different oil combo if you feel like it is the oils irritating your skin. If it feels greasy, you may need to cleanse with two washcloths—a second for a final removal that gets the rest of the oil residue off. If it feels dry, you need to add more pure oil post-cleanse or go with more hydrating oils for the actual cleansing process.

If you are on topical or internal medication for skin conditions, it’s always best to check with your healthcare provider before making a skin-care routine change.

It could take one to two weeks before you notice benefits from oil cleansing. However, if you notice immediate irritation, don’t keep going for two weeks—your oil choice might need to be changed due to allergies or sensitivities. Some initial breakouts or a change in your skin as the skin’s microbiome adjusts to the new level of hydration or cleanliness are normal, but it should not be painful, inflamed, or irritated.

I was extremely skeptical before I tried oil cleansing. Even though I had very dry skin, I assumed my face would feel greasy and that I’d need to wash my face again after cleansing with oil. The results, however, have continued to surprise me. People frequently ask what my skin-care secret is and are shocked when I say that all I do is wash my face. I don’t even bother with foundation, concealer, or other makeup. While results can be different for everyone, I hope you’re inspired to give this natural cleansing method a try!