For years, our mothers used to tell stories of how they would drench their skin in oil, go lie outside and (gasp) tan for hours. Nowadays, thanks to efforts from the American Academy of Dermatology, 94 percent of Americans in a recent survey recognize the importance of sunscreen and sun avoidance.
Yet the media keeps promoting organic oils, like argan oil and pequi oil, as protecting you from the sun. Is this magic or just hoopla?
For hundreds of years, argan oil has been to the Moroccans something of a miraculous oil, as it was believed to do everything from prevent miscarriage to treat chicken pox to eliminate wrinkles, according to the European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology.
Dubbed ‘the gold of Morocco,’ the secret of argan oil comes down to two essential fatty acids (linoleic and oleic acids), which are hydrating, and antioxidant polyphenols. According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, argan oil does in fact have significant UV-protective properties. While most oils lower the refractive index, allowing a greater number of UV rays to penetrate the skin, argan oil actually shields the skin somewhat from UV rays.
Still, I would not consider the UV protection conferred by argan oil to be significant enough to use this product without a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15!
Also known as Caryocar brasiliense fruit, pequi is an edible Brazilian fruit that has been used in popular meals and recipes, such as chicken with rice, for centuries. However, after a 2009 study in Genetics and Molecular Research found that pequi oil consumption was a significant enough antioxidant to lessen DNA damage in runners, interest in pequi started to pique.
From personal use, pequi oil has the best scent of any of the other oils I have tested. I describe it jokingly as the scent of a “romantic nut” – it’s sweet and almond-like, with a hint of something deeper and sultry, like amber. I thought I was nutty (ha) for having this assessment, but research has actually been published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis on the complexity of notes in pequi oil.
While pequi oil has a similar chemical makeup (see below) to argan oil, and therefore is also highly likely to be a significant UV protectant, pequi oil has not been directly proven as a UV-protective agent in any independent published research study as of yet. So, again, no sneaking out with using pequi oil as your only sunscreen!
SUNFLOWER SEED OIL
Sunflower seed oil is another hydrator commonly found in cosmetics, cleansing products, and hair conditioners. The secret to its efficacy is that sunflower seed oil contains about 60% linoleic acid, which hydrates as it is both incorporated into skin lipids and prevents water loss from the hair.
Sunflower seed oil also has antibacterial properties, as infants receiving a daily skin treatment of sunflower oil were found to be 41% less likely to develop infections in one small study (The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 2004). Lastly, sunflower seed oil is a source of vitamin E (Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 2006).
Keep in mind that the type of sunflower seed oil used in cooking is not the same as organic, cold-pressed sunflower oil. Cooking sunflower seed oil should never be applied to the skin (Aromatherapy for the Healthy Child, 2000). Even with organic, cold-pressed sunflower oil, speak to your dermatologist first, and begin with a patch test on a very small patch of skin. And, again, this is no substitute for sunscreen!
Olive oil is commonly found in skin care products, and why not? It is one of the few ingredients proven to inhibit chemically- and UV-induced tumor activation in the mouse (Carcinogenesis, 1998, 2000). While it has been proposed in the journal The Lancet Oncology that olive oil may protect against cancer because it contains three classes of protective polyphenols (simple phenols, secoridoids, and lignans), it has also been suggested by scientists that olive oil may be protective against cancer due to its natural inclusion of squalene.
Whatever the reason, olive oil is great, whether ingested or applied topically. It has been proposed in the journal Toxicology that regular use of olive oil-containing products (food and topical skin care) may protect against UV-induced skin damage, as does use of vitamins C (as L-ascorbic acid) and vitamin E (as tocopheryl acetate).
Olive oil also contains resveratrol, which may promote the activity of sirtuins, agents that are currently suspected to prolong the life of fibroblasts (collagen-producing cells) by turning off gene expression for unnecessary tasks.
On the other hand, olive oil may not be great for those who are suffering from skin wounds or injuries: According to a 2002 study in Acta Paediatrica, it was found that olive oil significantly delayed recovery of barrier function compared with control- or Aquaphor-treated skin. What's more, olive oil has been reported to cause contact allergy in some individuals, though research in the journal Contact Dermatitis established olive oil is a very weak irritant in general.
Organic oils offer many promising benefits for the skin, specifically acting as natural sources of high doses of antioxidants and hydrators, which makes them very popular in today's "green" society. Of course, despite evidence that some oils may offer UV protection, it is very important to keep in mind that this protection may be negligible in comparison to the UV protection conferred by sunscreens, UV-protective clothing, and the like. What's more, it is vital to realize that organic oils are not suitable for all skins. Those with oily and acne-prone skin in particular may find use of these ingredients to incite breakouts, especially when they are used outside the context of pre-packaged products. In other words, use only natural, organic oils that are regulated for consumer use!