The season for dry, flaky skin is upon us. But before you reach for that bottle of lotion, consider this: Some ingredients in moisturizers can actually make your skin drier, interfering with the barrier on your skin that prevents moisture from dissipating.
"Skin creams can actually increase signs of aging," says David Pollock, a beauty-product developer turned consumer advocate and author of the book Just Stop the Lies! Secrets the Beauty Industry Doesn't Want You to Know. Emulsifiers, binding agents that allow oil and water to mix in moisturizers and lotions, leave a residue on the skin that disrupts your skin's lipid barrier, allowing water to evaporate from the skin faster. "You get a fast shot of moisture that eventually fades," he says. So you use more lotion, and your skin gets drier, and the cycle just continues.
Not only does that expose you to dozens of unregulated and untested chemicals that are ingredients in lotions, but it's costing you money, too. The cure? Look no further than your kitchen cabinet. The very same oils you use for cooking are some of the best moisturizers for dry skin—much more effective than expensive lotions and creams at just pennies an ounce, says Deborah Niemann, author of the new book Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life and the blog The Thrifty Homesteader. It's one of the most amazing beauty tricks you may have never heard about. "You can go all out and use something exotic, and it's still going to cost you pennies," she says.
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But not all vegetable oils are good for your skin, she warns. Some can actually dry your skin out, while others, such as canola, corn, and "vegetable" oils, are likely derived from genetically modified crops that have been sprayed with heavy doses of harmful pesticides. To keep your skin soft (and pesticide free), here are the four best moisturizers for dry skin that Niemann recommends:
• Grapeseed oil. A by-product of wine-making, grapeseed oil comes from the seeds of pressed grapes and, says Niemann, is reputed to work as well as over-the-counter creams that cost hundreds of dollars per bottle. Many holistic beauty care experts consider it the best oil for skin, regardless of your skin type. "It's especially good for thin skin around your eyes and neck," she says, and can even reduce fine lines. Not only that, but grapeseed oil is also high in vitamin C, which brightens your skin.
• Olive oil. This is a great oil if you have really dry skin—there's a reason Mediterranean women have used it as a moisturizer for centuries. It provides intense moisture, Niemann says, and the rich antioxidants that make it so good for your insides benefit your outsides, too, fighting free radicals created by exposure to sunlight.
• Sunflower oil. Just as good as olive oil, Niemann says, but a little less expensive. In addition to being a good moisturizer, she adds, it makes for a good massage oil because it's thinner and more slippery than some of the other cooking oils you can use. It also absorbs into the skin more quickly.
• Apricot kernel oil. Like sunflower oil, apricot kernel oil is lighter than the first two and absorbs quickly, making it a great moisturizer for busy mornings. It's also full of vitamins A, C, and E, antioxidants that protect the skin from signs of aging and sun damage.
Coconut oil is another cooking oil that's garnered a reputation for being a great skin salve. But Niemann recommends against using it. It's a common ingredient in soap because it's so effective at stripping surfaces of oil, she says, and it can do the same thing to your skin. "There are people who say it's great, and if it works for them, great, but it dries my skin out," she says.
Using oil for your skin
The best part about using healthy cooking oils for your skin? If you don't like the way any one of them feels, you can use up what's left over in your kitchen—no money gone to waste, and no more bathroom cabinets littered with half-empty bottles.
When you're applying any of them, Niemann recommends using just one or two drops. "It really doesn't take much," she says. If you've applied some to your skin and it hasn't absorbed within a couple of minutes, you're using too much, she adds.
Buy oils that are as unrefined as possible, as those retain the highest levels of vitamins and healthy fats. Look for words like "extra-virgin" and "cold-pressed." And like any oil you'd use in your kitchen, store those you're using for your skin in dark places away from direct sunlight, advises Niemann. If you can find an amber or cobalt jar to store them in, all the better. Those colors protect oil from sunlight. "It's like sunglasses," she says. Any oils you have in your bathroom should be used within a month, she notes. Otherwise, they'll go rancid and start to smell funky.
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Making your own scented oils
Get creative with using essential oils, she suggests, if you're the type who likes scented products. Essential oils' fragrance is much more natural and comes without the hormone-disrupting and allergenic chemicals used to artificially scent commercial lotions and creams. Any fragrance works well, she says, but steer clear of lemongrass, which is very astringent and can dry out your skin, and cinnamon, which can be irritating.
Tea tree oil has been shown to improve acne, but Niemann warns that the scent is very strong. If you want to add tea tree oil to your beauty oils, she suggests using half the amount you'd use with other essential oils.