If you thought choosing between the hundreds of different facial oils on the market were overwhelming, just wait until you start thinking about the fatty acids that comprise them.
These acids are found in fats and oils but are also a key component of the stratum corneum, the outer protective layer of your skin. So the idea that adding more fatty acids to your skin could help improve the look and function of that layer makes sense.
In fact, some bloggers and influencers swear that the proportions of different fatty acids in an oil make or break its effectiveness—but is this actually the case? And do you really need to add fatty acids to your skin-care regimen?
What exactly are fatty acids?
Fatty acids are long strings of hydrocarbons with a carboxylic acid functional group on one end. They’re most often seen in the form of triglycerides, which are three fatty acid molecules stacked on top of each other and bonded at the carboxylic acid ends.
Triglycerides make up the bulk of solid and liquid lipids, the physical and chemical properties of which depend on the proportion and types of fatty acids they contain. Generally the higher the concentration of saturated fatty acids, the thicker and more solid a fat will be; the higher the concentration of unsaturated fatty acids, the thinner and more liquid.
If this is starting to sound more like an article about heart disease than skin care, I don’t blame you—we hear about saturated and unsaturated fats almost exclusively in the context of cardiovascular health. But fatty acids, specifically certain polyunsaturated fatty acids, are crucial to healthy skin function.
These essential fatty acids (EFAs) are those that your body can’t synthesize on its own, specifically omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Linolenic acid is the most common omega-3, while linoleic acid is the most common omega-6. Most of us get plenty of these through our diets from foods like fish, nuts, seeds, and oils. But if you don’t get enough of those, your skin can’t do its job properly.
In fact, if you have an EFA deficiency, the condition often presents with visible skin abnormalities such as scaliness, dryness, rashes, irritation, and poor wound healing. (However, know that this condition is rare and occurs mostly in infants.)
Your skin’s barrier relies on essential fatty acids to function properly.
You’ve probably heard the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin, described as a brick wall: Your skin cells act like bricks, and the mortar is a mixture of sebum, ceramides, and—you guessed it—fatty acids.
Here, the fatty acids already present in your skin do three important things: “They decrease trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), they’re antimicrobial, and they’re anti-inflammatory,” Olga Bunimovich, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells SELF. If any one of those functions is compromised, your skin barrier will be too. “[EFAs] help form an antibacterial, water-resistant barrier, which is basically how our skin protects itself from infection,” Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D., a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
A healthy barrier is essential to smooth, hydrated skin, and there is some research to show that applying plant oils that contain high amounts of essential fatty acids—like sunflower seed oil—may help repair that barrier in patients who have a history of EFA deficiency. In one study published in 1975 in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, the researchers looked at three patients who’d previously been diagnosed with EFA deficiency. After applying sunflower seed oil to their forearms for two weeks, the participants showed a reduction in TEWL and had fewer scaly lesions (a symptom of EFA deficiency). But again, EFA deficiencies are rare, and in this study, control patients who did not have EFA deficiencies didn’t show any benefits after two weeks of applying the oil.
Does your skin actually need more fatty acids?
In addition to helping maintain the stratum corneum (and therefore keep skin looking healthy and functioning well), there’s some evidence that EFAs can reduce the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.
For instance, a 2005 study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics found that topical omega-3 can reduce UV sensitivity in skin cells in a lab setting. Other studies have found similar links between topical omega-3 and a reduction in the signs of photoaging. And a 1998 study published in Archives of Dermatological Research showed that topical application of linoleic acid could reduce UV-induced hyperpigmentation in guinea pigs.
So although we’re lacking large-scale trials in humans, this research does suggest there’s potential for skin-care products rich in omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids to actually improve the look and feel of your skin.
There is also some limited evidence to suggest that topical application of essential fatty acids can help manage an EFA deficiency. In fact, Dr. Bunimovich specifically cites a 1976 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For the study, researchers applied safflower oil to the skin of EFA-deficient rats for 15 days. After that time, they found elevated concentrations of linoleic acid (omega-6) in the rats’ red blood cells, which suggests that topical applications of EFAs can help address EFA deficiency in the bloodstream—if you’re a rat, at least
“When you ingest omega-6 [acids], most of it gets broken down by the liver so not as much makes it to your skin,” Dr. Bunimovich explains. “But if you [apply it topically], you’ll get very good penetration [into the bloodstream].”
However, it’s worth noting that this effect has only been observed in people (and rats) with an established EFA deficiency; if your body isn’t starved for omega-6 or omega-3 acids, it won’t need to take them in through your skin.
So should you add omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to your skin-care routine?
Given that we know EFAs can absorb into the skin under the right circumstances, it’s tempting to conclude that the same is true for all fatty acids we put on our faces—like, say, fancy cold-pressed facial oils. But spending hours reading about fatty acid profiles—the proportions of different fatty acids in a given oil or fat—probably isn’t a good use of your time.
The truth is that most fats and oils haven’t been tested for skin penetration, and their chemical properties are so varied that there’s no good way to predict how they’ll behave on your skin. Plus your body already produces all the nonessential fatty acids it needs. So it’s very unlikely that a few drops of facial oil will make a big difference one way or the other.
So what’s the bottom line? If you don’t have an EFA deficiency, we don’t know if applying fatty acids to your face will do much. But if you do have a (rare!) EFA deficiency, there’s evidence that a facial oil could help relieve some of the skin-related symptoms.
When deciding whether or not you want to seek out fatty acids in skin-care products, remember that most people get the essential fatty acids they need through their diet. So if your skin is basically healthy, applying them topically isn’t really necessary. However, if you struggle with chronically dry, flaky skin, incorporating oils or creams that contain some omega-3 and/or omega-6 fatty acids into your routine could be helpful.
The easiest way to do this is to look for formulas that specifically advertise omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid content, such as Paula’s Choice Omega+ Complex moisturizer, $35, and Biossance Squalane + Omega repair cream, $58.
But plant, nut, and seed oils with high EFA concentrations work too. Sunflower, safflower, evening primrose, rose-hip seed, and flaxseed oils all have particularly high concentrations of linoleic (omega-6) and linolenic (omega-3) acids. For instance, check out the Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed oil, $10, or Waleda Skin Food Original Ultra Rich cream, $19, which contains a hefty amount of sunflower seed oil.
That said, be cautious if you have sensitive skin or any allergies because botanical ingredients like these are common irritants. And if you have oily or acne-prone skin know that most plant oils are notoriously comedogenic.
Aside from those concerns, however, there’s no real reason not to give EFA-rich creams and oils a whirl, especially if you have dry skin or feel like your skin barrier could use some extra attention.
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Originally Appeared on Self