Is cleaning your face with an oil cleanser really cleaning?

Going against convention with your cleansing regimen.

Going against convention with your cleansing regimen

(Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Oil cleansing isn't just a trend anymore — in recent years, it's become an essential step in many skincare routines. Fans of oil cleansers say they can remove dirt and makeup while leaving skin clean and supple, as opposed to ashing your face with soap, stripping away natural oils, then applying moisturizers to offset lost hydration. 

However, not everyone is sold on this new skincare regimen. Many beauty lovers are on the fence about trying oil cleansers, wondering how these products work, and how they could possibly benefit their already-oily end-of-day skin. Lathering oil on oil can't possibly make sense … can it?

A traditional perspective

Ayurveda, an traditional form of Hindu medicine, has incorporated oils as a cleansing method since ancient times. According to Ayurvedic principles, selecting an oil comes down to our individual needs, which are based on the body's balance of three doshas or energies: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

"There are countless individual skin variations within the spectrum, from very dry to very oily skin, depending on which dosha or doshas are most prominent," says Ayurvedic practitioner Mamta Pranjivan. "Vata types tend have more dry and wrinkle-prone skin, Pitta types have slightly oilier and freckle-prone skin, while Kapha types have more oiler or acne-prone skin."

Based on a personal skin analysis, and consideration of lifestyle and environmental factors, Ayurvedic practitioners recommend pure oils to clean and balance out an individual's skin. "For example, coconut oil is best suited for [the] summer season and for warmer body types such as Pitta, while almond is warming and better for Vata and Kapha," Pranjivan says.

Today's oil cleansers

According to Lisa Mattam, founder of Ayurveda-inspired skin and haircare brand Sahajan, the rationale behind oil cleansing is both simple and sound. "Like dissolves like, so oil dissolves oil. Most makeup is oil-based, so an oil cleanser is going to have the ability to melt makeup away — even mascara," she says, adding that oil cleansing is also ideal for removing dirt and pollution.

As for those who find the idea of putting oil on their face intimidating, Mattam says that it's important to remember that not oils are created equal. Sahajan's products, for instance, are developed with Ayurvedic practitioners in India using careful blends of time-tested ingredients, "A properly formulated cleansing oil is going to operate differently than rubbing canola oil all over your face," she says. 

What the doctors say

Some experts remain skeptical of the science behind oil cleansing, including Toronto dermatologist and medical director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre Dr. Benjamin Barankin. "I don't like oil cleansers — even a wooden floor needs proper cleansing before the oil is applied," he says.

"Oil and water do not go together, and most people who use oils on their skin think they're dry, when in fact they're dehydrated," he explains. "By applying oil superficially, the patient is not only blocking the pores, but starving the skin of the water benefits of a proper moisturizer. The best choice is to avoid them altogether."

Dr. Julia Carroll of Toronto's Compass Dermatology sees oil cleansing as a viable method in certain cases, such as when a patient's skin is sensitive or eczema-prone. "Oils or cream cleansers are more gentle, less irritating," she says.

That said, these products may not be ideal for all skin types. "For those who are more oily or acne-prone, I would opt for a foaming cleanser," suggests Dr. Carroll. She also stresses the importance of formulation. If you decide to go for an oil cleanser, she says, look for a simple set of ingredients and avoid added fragrances or botanicals, as they can be irritating to the skin.

The takeaway

While it may go against your first instinct — and maybe even your derm's advice — new and long-time fans of oil cleansing report feeling clean and moisturized when they include the practice in their skincare routine.

Today's cleansers tend to be made with ingredients based on both age-old wisdom and current skin science. But there are a lot of options out there, so if you'd like to try oil cleansing, the best way to avoid trial and error is to prepare. Have a pro assess your particular skin type and do a little research on different oils before investing in an expensive cleanser.

Here are some popular products to consider if you decide to give oil cleansing a go:

Biossance Squalane + Antioxidant Cleansing Oil, $36,

This lightweight formula removes dirt and makeup gently thanks to sugarcane-derived hemisqualane, and includes eight plant-derived extracts and oils to infuse vitamins into the skin and provide antioxidant protection.

Sage Cleansing Oil, $39,

Greek brand Monastery's Sage Cleansing Oil is packed with a plethora of ingredients including sweet almond, grapeseed, coriander and Greek sage oils. The formula was designed to calm the skin, and according to Monastery, is well-suited for oily and blemish-prone skin.

Chamomile & Mandarin Cleanser 60ML, $35,

This cleansing balm from Helena Lane is made with jojoba oil and infused with chamomile and calendula flowers. Effective at dissolving even waterproof makeup, this cleanser also includes mandarin essential oil for a delicate citrus scent.

Rosemary & Lavender Cleansing Oil, $34.69,

A little goes a long way with this cleanser by Immersion Botanica. Formulated with sunflower and castor seed oil, this product was developed to moisturize the skin while cleaning it. Rosemary and lavender essential oils also lend a pleasing scent to this skin-loving solution.

Remarkable Cleansing Oil, approx. $59,

Patyka's luxe cleansing oil is enriched with rosehip oil to help with collagen and elastin production, and prickly pear to deliver an antioxidant boost. A powerful dose of Vitamin E also improves the skin's ability to retain moisture.

Essential Oil Cleanser, $48,

This hard-working formula is enriched with rose oil, used in Ayurvedic skincare for its moisturizing and calming properties, plus coconut oil for its emollient power and moringa oil to clean away dirt and pollution.

Burt's Bees Facial Cleansing Oil with Coconut & Argan Oils, $17.99, The blend of coconut and argan oils in this antioxidant-rich formula work to smooth and moisturize skin while effectively dissolving dirt and makeup. And at under $20, the price is just right.

Meera Solanki Estrada is a Toronto-based beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer, and editor. She is also a pop culture radio show host and producer with an unhealthy love for caffeine, carbs and all things pink. Follow her on Instagram at @meera.estrada.