Why Your Oil Cleanser Is Breaking You Out

Oil cleansing is a gentle and extremely effective way to remove makeup, waterproof sunscreen, sweat, and oil from your skin. While it is a better choice than regular cleansers, it could be breaking you out for the reasons listed below. 

First, let’s review why regular cleansing agents are harmful to the skin.

Cleansing Surfactants

Surfactants are a type of cleansing agent that sticks to proteins on the surface of the skin and removes them along with dirt and residual skincare products.

In many cleansers, such as foaming cleansers, they contain surfactants that are often harmful to the skin. These surfactants disrupt the skin barrier by compromising the lipid layer that protects the skin (1). The surfactants interfere with the structure of the skin. In addition, harsh surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate can increase the pH level of the skin and further destroy the skin barrier. 

A group of surfactants in a cleanser forms a micelle. When these come into contact with warm water, they can penetrate the skin easily. Studies have shown that the higher the concentration of micelles in a cleanser, the more it can wreak havoc on the skin by creating more irritation (1).

This is why it’s important to incorporate an oil cleanser in your routine to reduce the irritation caused by regular cleansing products and soften the skin all while adequately removing makeup and sunscreen. 

Now, let’s get into the reasons why your oil cleanser may be breaking you out.

1. You Are Not Washing It Off Properly

Oil cleansers are beasts when it comes to removing even the most difficult waterproof makeup and/or sunscreen. However, in order to gain the most benefits from oil cleansing, you must ensure that you are properly removing all traces of the oil after cleansing. 

This involves thoroughly washing the face with plenty of water to ensure all cleanser is removed, especially from the sideburns and hairline. 

Leaving any of the oil on the skin can cause irritation, inflammation, and clogged pores. The excess oil mixed with sebum, makeup and sunscreen blocks the hair follicle causing an inflammatory reaction and acne lesions.

The solution? You can dampen a soft wash cloth and gently wipe away excess oil. Or, you can simply ensure that you splash your face with enough water to remove as much oil as possible.

Then, make sure you follow up oil cleansing with a second cleanser. This is usually a very gentle or even hydrating cleanser that will help to remove excess oil effectively, and remove the last bit of makeup or sunscreen that may have been left.

2. Using a Homemade Cleanser

While creating homemade cleansing oils ensure that you are fully aware of the ingredients in your cleanser, there are a lot of errors that can be made when doing so. 

Firstly, since oils do not mix with water, it is difficult to wash off oils with water alone. Homemade oil cleansers often do not contain additional ingredients that help your cleanser to wash off effectively with water.

In commercially available oil cleansers, the manufacturers typically add in an ingredient, known as an emulsifier, that helps oil and water to mix. In this way, your oil cleanser can be easily washed off.

Emulsifiers lower the surface tension of the skin to allow oil and water to mix (2). Nonionic surfactants are gentle cleansing agents that include emulsifiers to help wash off oil easily. One type of emulsifier includes PEG-80. This is a compound that can be added to oil that is water soluble, and helps to stabilize oil when it comes into contact with water (2).

The solution? Purchase a commercially available cleanser, preferably with a short ingredient list.

3. Fragrance May be the Root of Your Skin Issues

Here is another thing to watch out for – ensure to purchase an oil cleanser that does not contain irritating fragrance. Fragrance comes in many forms, and manufacturers may not explicitly state the word “fragrance” in the ingredient list, even if there are hidden fragrances in the product. 

Fragrances can wreak havoc on the skin’s moisture barrier. For the most part, fragrance only provides a nice scent that may make your cleansing experience ever so slightly more enjoyable. However, the risks of fragrance in skincare are not worth it.

Fragrances can cause irritation and redness when applied to the skin, especially on sensitive skin (3). Regardless of whether or not you have sensitive skin, anyone can develop an allergy to fragrance.

A few examples of fragrance include limonene, citronellol and geraniol. As you can see, none of these are simply named “fragrance”. Therefore, they might be in your skincare products without you realizing.

All types of fragrance in skincare products can lead to contact allergies, in which the skin becomes irritated upon contact or frequent contact with a product. Essential oils are another type of fragrance that can irritate the skin and cause allergies to develop (3).

Other fragrances include many ingredients under names you may not recognize. Each has side effects that can harm the skin and body. These include dichloromethane (human carcinogen), formaldehyde (sensitizes the immune system), methanol (toxic to developmental health), styrene (toxic if taken internally – which may often happen when applying cosmetics to the face), and butylated hydroxytoluene (irritates skin and eyes) (4).

4. Loaded With Comedogenic Ingredients

“Comedogenic” is a relatively old term that refers to skincare products that are likely to cause acne lesions when applied to the skin either once or continuously. The term was concocted through rabbit ear assays, which involved testing products on rabbit ears and determining whether or not the skin displayed irritation, and if so, how severe the reaction was. While humans are not rabbits, these assays provided some baseline idea as to what products are likely to cause irritation over others.

One ingredient that is present in many cleansing oils is ethylhexyl palmitate. It made my list of comedogenic skincare ingredients, and you should be aware of it too. This is a type of fatty alcohol. It is known as an emollient, in which it softens skin cells when used in cleansing oil and moisturizers. However, due to its thickness and likelihood of causing skin irritation, it can be breaking you out.

Coconut oil is an oil that is often added to skincare products and oil cleansers. Mineral oil is another oil that is often added as well. People may experience breakouts from these oils, as they can form a layer over the skin, and block the pore. 

In general, oils high in oleic acid, such as avocado oil and olive oil, should be avoided.

Oleic acid is a type of free fatty acid that has been shown to disrupt the skin barrier, cause breakouts, and increase transepidermal water loss. For example, olive oil has been shown to disrupt the skin’s barrier and slow wound healing (5).

What You Need To Know

Looking at all factors of cleansing, cleansing oil is an extremely effective and advisable way to remove sunscreen, makeup and other skincare products, sweat and oil. It is gentle on the skin and reduces irritation if you choose a cleansing oil with clean ingredients and avoid the above mistakes to prevent breakouts from occurring.

Studies have shown that cleansing oil works significantly better to wash off waterproof sunscreen than regular foaming cleansers (6). It is less irritating and does not cause dryness in comparison to cleansers with harsh surfactants in them. 


(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3425021/

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3088928/

(3) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30422886/

(4) https://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/fragrance/

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796020/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31157512/


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