You care about what goes in your body, right? Read food labels? Avoid questionable ingredients? Invest in the best quality animal products and produce you can? Well then, it only makes sense to care about what goes on your body as well.
It’s easy to treat skin health like it’s somehow separate from overall health—as if the important stuff happens inside your body, and the skin just holds it all together. You may take steps to keep it looking youthful and prevent burning, but do you consider skin care part of your wellness routine? Perhaps not, unless skin conditions force you to think about it. Yet, skin is your largest organ. It’s a major gatekeeper of what does and does not enter your body. We know now that the skin hosts a living microbiome that not only protects skin health but also plays a role in systemic immunity and inflammation.
Mark has touched on safer skincare in the past, but today I’m offering up something a little different. What if I told you that you can use one product to clean and moisturize your skin and fry your eggs in the morning? It’s true.
Oil cleansing is nothing new in the natural beauty space. Heck, people were using oil to wash their faces and bodies thousands of years ago. More people have become interested in it in recent years because it is a staple of Korean skincare routines, which have exploded in popularity worldwide. (Maybe you’ve noticed how you can find sheet masks in practically every store now? Thank the influence of Korean skincare, or “K-beauty,” for that too.)
While oil cleansing can be as simple as washing your face with whatever cooking oil you have in the kitchen, there’s a little more to it than that. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Oil Cleansing: What is It, and Why Should You Try It?
Very simply, oil cleansing takes advantage of the “like attracts like” principle of chemistry. When you wash your face, the goal is not only to remove dirt but also excess sebum and oil-based makeup, sunscreen, and environmental pollutants. Sebum is an oily or waxy substance secreted by sebaceous glands in your skin, especially on the face and scalp. It’s part of your skin’s natural defense system, but it can also build up on the skin, become trapped in follicles, and contribute to acne.
We all know oil and water repel each other, which means water is not the most effective way to remove oily substances from the skin. To combat this, the soap and cleansers you’ll find in the skincare aisle of the drugstore use surfactants and other ingredients that can irritate and dry out the skin. Oil cleansing works because the oil binds with the grime on your skin so you can wipe it away more easily.
For those with sensitive skin, the biggest benefit may be what oil doesn’t contain: parabens, sulfates, phthalates, dyes, fragrances, and other suspect ingredients. This is a plus for Primal folks, who like to be cognizant of what they’re putting on and in their bodies.
Although you can use oils to wash your entire body, the oil cleansing method generally refers to facial cleansing, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.
Is Oil Cleansing Right for Me?
Oil cleansing is perfect for:
People with sensitive skin who tend to react to store-bought cleansers
Anyone who wants to avoid certain ingredients due to health or safety concerns
Minimalists who want to purchase the fewest products possible
Oil cleansing can work for every skin type, even oily skin. The trick is to find the particular oil or oil blend that works best for your skin. This may take some trial and error. I’ll discuss the pros and cons of different facial oils below.
Oil Cleansing Method Step-by-step
Start with dry skin. Rub about a teaspoon of facial oil onto your face. Don’t forget under your chin and around your jawline. Massage for at least 30 seconds, but one to two minutes is generally recommended, to release the sebum, dirt, and makeup from your skin.
Use a washcloth or microfiber cloth to gently wipe away the oil. Some people prefer a dry cloth, by one dampened with warm or hot water seems to work better.
Optionally, perform a second cleaning. (See the double cleansing method below.) This is especially useful if you wear a lot of makeup. You can do a second oil cleansing or follow up with a gentle cleanser. Now is also a perfect time to apply some more oil to your face and do some gua sha, and/or perform some face yoga.
Finish with your preferred skin products. Many people report that they don’t need moisturizer or additional products after oil cleansing because their skin already feels so supple.
That’s it! You can use the oil cleansing method nightly if you want, though you might find that your skin prefers only every other night. In that case, see if you can get away with just warm water and a washcloth in between.
Note: When you first start oil cleansing, you might experience some redness, dryness, or oiliness. That’s pretty common when switching up your skincare routine, especially if you have sensitive skin to start. Stick with it. Give your skin a couple weeks to settle down before experimenting with different oils unless you have a serious reaction, in which case stop immediately.
Double Cleansing Method
With the double cleansing method, you follow up your oil cleansing with a second face wash using a water-based cleanser.
Double cleansing isn’t necessary by any means. In fact, it’s probably overkill for folks whose faces don’t get too grimy during the day. Try it if you wear heavy makeup or sunscreen, or if you spend a lot of time outdoors in places with less-than-optimal air quality.
For the ultimate in self-care, check out the renowned 10-step Korean skincare routine. It starts with a double cleanse, followed by eight (optional) steps to exfoliate, tone, nourish, and moisturize your skin.
Best Cleansing Oils
You can buy pre-made facial cleansing oils at various price points. Alternately, you can purchase one or more basic oils, usually at a lower cost, and make your own. Personally, I like to customize my skincare and experiment with different oils, so I do the latter.
To start, you’ll need one or more cleansing oils. To those core cleansing oils, you might add other oils with beneficial properties. I think of these as luxury or specialty ingredients because they’re often more expensive than your core oils. However, they can also be used as cleansing oils if your budget allows.
Finally, you might choose to add essential oils according to your skincare goals. (Essential oils aren’t actually oils, but that’s neither here nor there when it comes to oil cleansing.) This is completely optional. Make sure you’re diluting essential oils properly, as undiluted essential oils are usually too potent for topical applications. A good starting place for most essential oils is a 1 percent dilution, which is three drops of essential oil per tablespoon of cleansing oil, or six drops per fluid ounce.
Popular Facial Cleansing Oils
When choosing an oil, quality matters just as in cooking. Don’t just buy the cheapest oil you can find. Some popular facial oils are ones that Primal folks generally avoid, such as grapeseed. As a rule, if I don’t eat it, I also don’t put it on my skin.
The following are not complete lists but common oils that people like. There are many more you might try based on what you think will make your skin happy.
Castor oil (only in combination with other oils – more on this below)
Additional oil add-ins (can also be cleansing oils):
Lemon (use only under SPF or at night)
Can You Use Coconut Oil for Oil Cleansing?
Want to start a ruckus? Go on a natural skincare forum and suggest that coconut oil is the best oil for your skin.
I’m slightly exaggerating, but for real, coconut oil is pretty controversial in the skincare world. Some people swear by it because it’s naturally antibacterial, not to mention readily available and affordable. It’s also comedogenic compared to the oils recommended above, meaning it can cause breakouts.
There’s no reason you can’t try it. I use coconut oil on my body but not on my face just in case.
Castor Oil Dos and Don’ts
People have been using castor oil cosmetically and medicinally for thousands of years, perhaps longer. An entire chapter was devoted to it in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text dating back more than three millennia.1
It is one of the most popular oils for oil cleansing because it is moisturizing, antibacterial, acne-fighting, and super effective at breaking down other oils. Although it is generally regarded as safe for topical use, castor oil is too astringent on its own, so always dilute it with another cleansing oil. Castor oil shouldn’t comprise more than 50 percent of your cleansing oil blend. There are also concerns about safety and sustainability during the harvesting and refining process, so be sure to choose ethically harvested, hexane-free castor oil.
Castor oil can also induce labor.2 Pregnant individuals should never ingest castor oil without their doctor’s knowledge. To be safe, ask your doctor before using it topically.
How to Get Started with Oil Cleansing
Pick a single oil or oil blend to start. If you don’t already have a preference, try a 50/50 mix of castor oil and another cleansing oil. My go-to oils are avocado oil or jojoba oil.
Don’t want to use castor oil? No problem. It’s not necessary by any means, and some people find that it dries out their skin anyway. Use one or two of the other cleansing oils instead.
Start by incorporating oil cleansing into your nightly routine two or three times a week. Ideally, don’t use other cleansers in between. You’re trying to help balance your natural facial oils and allow your skin to adapt to oil cleansing. Simply wash your face with a washcloth and warm water.
Don’t add any other new products to your routine at this time. You want to be able to see how your skin reacts to the oils.
Once your skin acclimates, optionally start to experiment with adding specialty or essential oils. Again, make only one change at a time to gauge your skin’s reaction, especially if it’s sensitive. Don’t do what I do and change it up every time on a whim.
What if your skin is still irritated after a few weeks of oil cleansing? First, try changing your cleansing oils. You could be having a mild allergic reaction, or the oil(s) you’ve chosen might not be a good fit for your skin type. Anecdotally, some people’s skin doesn’t do well with olive oil for some reason, and I already mentioned that coconut oil is iffy.
You might need to reduce the proportion of castor oil in your cleansing blend if your skin is becoming dry. On the flip side, if your skin seems to be getting oilier, increasing the amount of castor oil could help.
Remove any extra or essential oils you’ve added and focus on finding base oil(s) that work for your skin type.
Finally, you can try reducing the frequency of your oil cleansing down to just once or twice per week, then slowly build up from there if desired.
Ultimately, oil cleansing should be a relaxing addition to your skin-care routine that allows your skin’s natural beauty to radiate.
Oil Cleansing FAQs
How do you oil cleanse? What are the steps?
Start with dry skin. Rub about one teaspoon of cleansing oil all over your face. Massage it in for one to two minutes to release the oil and grime from your skin. Use a cloth (dry or dampened with warm or hot water) to remove the oil completely.
What oils should I use for oil cleansing?
Popular cleansing oils include castor oil, avocado oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, and sesame oil. Some folks also add argan oil, rosehip oil, or other beneficial facial oils. Coconut oil is not recommended due to its comedogenic properties.
How often should you oil cleanse?
People who regularly wear makeup or sunscreen on their skin or who live in environments with a lot of air pollution might want to oil cleanse every night. Other folks prefer to use oil cleansing as a deep cleaning treatment only a couple times per week.
Is oil cleansing good for oily skin? Dry skin? Combination skin?
Oil cleansing is appropriate for any skin type. Although it may seem counterintuitive, oil cleansing can actually be more beneficial for people with oily skin than washing their face with harsher cleansers. The trick is to find the cleansing oil or oil blend that works best for your skin.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.