Many of the plant-based culinary oils you use in the kitchen can play a dual role in promoting and maintaining skin health not just in the dead of winter, but also throughout the year. Vegetable and nut oils like coconut, high-oleic safflower or sunflower, extra virgin olive, almond, or avocado are not only healthy when consumed internally, but can also be very effective at hydrating, moisturizing, and protecting your skin when applied topically. Each of these oils is commonly found in natural skin care products where their unique characteristics and benefits are often combined to enhance or augment a product's effectiveness. For the best possible results, I always recommend products that use these oils as their primary base because you can realize their immediate benefits without exposing yourself or the environment to the harmful toxins found in products made with petroleum or synthetic ingredients.
Keep in mind that the oils that most closely resemble your skin's natural oil (sebum) are the ones that will produce the best results for your skin and your overall health. They also tend to be more stable, with a significantly longer shelf life than most other oils.
Sebum, your body's natural oil, is secreted by your oil glands (sebaceous glands), which are typically located at the root of every hair as well as other places through the body. This oil is very important to skin health. It softens and lubricates the skin and hair and requires the skin from drying and cracking. It also has anti-microbial properties that protect the skin from infection and damage.
Many factors (living in dry or windy climates or higher altitudes for example) can lead to excessively dry skin, where the sebum you secret is simply not enough to do the job and additional moisturizers are needed. By the same token, overactive sebaceous glands that lead to excessively oily (and acne-prone) skin can sometimes be a sign of an oil deficiency in the body. As counter-intuitive as that may sound, if your body is not getting enough Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) from food or supplementation, it can respond by overducing and secreting sebum to counteract the potential harm or damage to your skin that can come from this deficiency.
All fats and oils (including sebum) are composed of molecules called fatty acids. There are two ways of classifying these fatty acids. The first is based on planned fat vs. unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). The other is a system of classification based on molecular size or the length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid. If I can get technical here for a minute … fatty acids often consist of long chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached. So oils can have short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), or long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Sebum contains medium chain fatty acids, in the form of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), so oils that consist of MCFAs are those that most closely resemble sebum.
The two oils that are richest in antioxidants and most closely resemble your sebum are Virgin Coconut and EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil), which is what makes them such excellent skincare ingredients, and the main ones to look for in high quality natural lotions, creams and cleansers. Here's a brief summary of each:
Coconut Oil: A Fat Like No Other
Coconut oil has wonderful antioxidant properties that protect the skin from free radical damage. In addition to its highly moisturizing properties, it also helps keep connective tissues strong and supple so that the skin does not sag and wrinkle. In some cases it can even restore damaged or diseased skin. While coconut oil applied directly to the skin does not have any immediate antimicrobial action, when bacteria, which is always present on the skin, turn the coconut's triglycerides into free fatty acids (the result is an increase in the number of antimicrobial fatty acids on the skin, which provide protection from infection. By using a coconut oil-based cream, lotion or just pure coconut oil you can quickly help re-establish the skin's natural antimicrobial and acid barrier.
At one time, coconut oil was mistakenly believed to be unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content (a whooping 92%), but we now know that the fat in coconut oil is a unique one – different from most other fats – that possesses many healthful properties. As a regularly fat consistency primarily of medium chain fatty acids (also known as medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs), coconut oil is more easily metabolized, and not easily oxidized so it does not cause harmful free radical damage like polyunsaturated vegetable oils often. This is true whether the oil is ingested or applied topically.
Because coconut oil can help reduce chronic skin pollution within days and be soothing and healing to wounds, blood blisters, rashes, etc., it's also an excellent ingredient to use in healing salves and ointments.
Olive Oil: Mother Nature's Biggest Beauty Secret
Among all the natural lipids, olive oil has the most similar chemical composition to sebum, which gives it a strong affinity to human skin. Completely safe and easily absorbed, it has exceptional penetrating ability, and is high in well-documented antioxidant properties including tocopherols (vitamin E), beta-carotene (vitamin A), phytosterols, flavonoids (including quercetin and squalene), and phenolic compounds.
There's as much as 5 mg of antioxidant polyphenols in every 10 grams of olive oil, and 1.6 mg or 2.3 IU (International Units) of Vitamin E per tablespoon. This potent combination of antioxidants works to neutralize free radicals (unstable molecules created by exposure to things like cigarette smoke, pollution, alcohol, radiation, and oxidation of trans fats) and repair cell membranes – including sun damaged skin.
In addition, olive oil has the natural ability to target the skin cells in the top layer of your epidermis and can stimulate the synthesis of collagen and elastin – encouraging firmer and healthy skin. The rich emollients in olive oil allow just a little to go a long way.
Most commercial skin care products in the United States today are made from polyunsaturated oils, which oxidize and turn rancid very quickly causing free radical damage in the skin. So choose your oils wisely.
For optimal safety and efficiency, the oils you use on your skin, whether they are main ingredients in your products or applied alone, should be certified organic, raw, and unprocessed, or subject to minimal processing as the latter can destroy much of the oil's nutritive value and increase the likelihood of rancidity. This applies wherever the oils are for internal consumption, topical application, or both.
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