The Great Debate: What’s Better for Your Skin, An Oil or Cream?

Here’s how to find your complexion soul-mate…

This post comes to you from our beauty contributor, Kari Molvar.

Taking care of your skin can involve all sorts of complex rituals but the most basic might be the most important of all: moisturize it well. In fact, dermatologists will tell you this simple habit is super critical, especially during this time of the year when the air is dry and cold (and then warm and humid the next minute). “Every cell and component of our bodies relies on hydration in order to function properly,” says New York City dermatologist Julie Karen, M.D. Without it, your skin’s barrier breaks down, which makes you susceptible to chapped patches but also irritation and allergens—yikes. Another surprising fact: “You need adequate moisture because the enzymes that help exfoliate skin need that water,” says Manhattan dermatologist Sue Ann Wee , M.D. “So if you don’t have enough water, you will not shed dead skin normally—and that’s why people end up with dull-looking, dry skin.”

Ok, so bring on the hydration! But what’s your ideal quenching option: a moisturizing cream or facial oil? The latest formulas deliver plenty of skin goodness yet work differently depending on your complexion type. Here’s your cheat-sheet to figuring out your skin’s perfect match.

Go for a facial oil if…

Your skin is dry but not reactive.

Oils are usually rich in essential fatty acids, which are superhero nutrients for moisturizing your skin—they help repair your outer barrier to prevent moisture loss, says Dr. Wee. But all oils are not created equal: those containing saturated fats, like coconut oil, for example, can clog pores and aggravate acne. And highly fragrant essential oils, like neroli or lemon, can also irritate sensitive skin. A well-tolerated, ultra-healing option for most skin types? Reach for a pick with olive or argan oil, recommends Dr. Wee.

You want a product with a simple, natural list of ingredients.

Oils are usually derived from plants, seeds or fruits, and they typically have more active ingredients—like polyphenols and antioxidants—than petroleum or glycerin-based ointments, says Dr. Wee. You’ll typically find fewer (if any) preservatives in facial oils, but that means they’ll expire faster than traditional creams.

You want a moisturizer you can use on more than just your face.

Oils work amazing well on other parts of your body—dry elbows, the heels of your feet, your cuticles, you name it. Thanks to their easy-to-absorb texture and liquid nature, you can get tons of mileage out of one little bottle.

Go for a cream if…

You want to moisturize but also target other issues.

Creams are usually packed with “a host of ingredients that address multiple concerns, form acne to anti-aging,” says Dr. Karen. The major function of oil, on the other hand, is to hydrate the skin. If you want brightening agents, skin-firming retinol and plumping molecules along with moisture, a multi-tasking cream can be your best bet.

You’re sun-sensitive.

“Sometimes oils, because of the way they transmit light, can actually increase penetration of UV radiation,” points out Dr. Wee. If you have eczema, rosacea or just prefer not to have anything shiny on your skin, a lightweight cream can penetrate deeply without any greasy residue.

You want moisture that lasts and lasts.

Many of the latest creams contain next-level forms of hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that’s naturally found in your body and acts like a sponge to absorb and pull in water. The newest types sink in deeply to slowly release moisture throughout the day—meaning one application can keep your skin protected for hours.

+ So what’s your vote? Are you on team facial oil or cream? Tell us in the comments!

Read more from Kari here.

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7 years ago

I love oils! I use argon and sallflower for my acne prone skin. My skin is soft, hardly any blackheads and I have actually gotten compliments on my complexion ( which never happened before).

I didn’t know that there was a difference. I always thought that any products that aren’t water-based would cause me to break out! I’d love to try oils.

Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

7 years ago

Straight oils don’t help me right now, since I’m almost 70. What does, however, is layering of stuff that is humectant, and then sealed in with something more occlusive. If I try to just use straight oil on my body, it just makes me itch – I need a therapeutic, very utilitarian lotion like Eucerin. For face I love the CeraVe AM and PM lotions. During day, I layer Cetaphil Cream over a vitamin C serum and top that off with CeraVe AM lotion for my sun protection. At night, I use my Rx retinoid with CeraVe PM and top all that off with Aquaphor.

Mandie Fae
7 years ago

I use rosehip seed oil for my face. It’s gentle and it feels like my skin soaks it up, and a little goes a long way. 3 drops for my face and 2 for my neck. I pat it on all over and then gently rub it around to make sure I’ve covered my whole face. It smells earthy and I think my skin loves it. I’m not sure what I will do in the summer as I am sun-sensitive but would prefer an oil to a cream.

7 years ago

Oils have become my skin’s best friends. In the morning I exfoliate with buttermilk, tone with witch hazel then moisturize with coconut oil. In the evening I use my own blend of nourishing oils and essentional oils. Takes time to see results, but worth the wait. Best if you are proactive and start earlier in life rather than later. Creams make me break out.

7 years ago

I actually use both. At night I use a grape seed oil mixture I made. I use it after getting out of the shower. I put it on my body, then whatever remains on my hands, I lightly pat on my face. In the morning I use a cream based moisturizer before I put my makeup on. I get really dry skin, but sometimes my t-zones get oily. . But I find my skin stays soft and breakout free with this regimen.

7 years ago

I use both but if I had to choose- probably an oil. I love them but I know tones of people who get icked out by the fact that there face is greasy (for a few minutes before the oil sinks in might I add)

7 years ago

According to dryness of skin , Cold cream will be effective and the skin will be safe.

7 years ago

I don’t know about these products , I am using “Annimateo” skin care product Luxury Anti-aging/Hydrating Tinting Facial Oil and showing good result for my skin.but after research comments on your post I really like to use this product.

7 years ago

I love sweet almond oil! It is a “dry” oil which means it doesn’t leave you feeling greasy, and it absorbs nicely into the skin…Also since it is a base oil, it can be used alone or essential oils can be added to it as it has no fragrance of its own….
After much research, I’ve purchased rosehip seed oil for my face… Can’t wait to try it as it is the only oil that is really good for keeping the lines away and the skin youthful!
Having a fair complexion and living in the dry, high desert of New Mexico..It is very important to keep the skin moisturized and hydrated!

6 years ago

I know I’m a bit late to the game, but I’m hoping my words might help someone.
First of all. If you prefer oils over lotions, sesame oil might work as a sunscreen in the summer. I use it myself (on days where I think I might end up in the sun), but I never spend more time in the sun than absolutely necessary, and I never was very prone to sunburn, so I can’t vouch for its efficiency.
I’ve used oils on my face for a few years. First almond oil, which was good. Then grapeseed oil which is drier. And now I use hemp seed oil. Wow, is this stuff great? It doesn’t feel greasy at all, but it really moisturizes. The scent is probably not for everyone. It smells VERY nutty and a bit “raw”. I combat this with essential oil of star anise (they go very well together), and this way I can blend it with just about any essential oil, without it making me feel like I smell like a squirrel’s breath. I apply it after using witch hazel and leave it for five to ten minutes, then wipe any excess off.
My skin is very prone to acne by nature but this is also accentuated by medication. I mix the oil with ylang-ylang to ease the sebum production, sage oil to prevent breakouts and calm the skin, chamomile to also calm it, but also help the other oils penetrate deeper into the skin. And I also spot-treat with undiluted tea tree oil directly on the skin when I see a breakout coming.
Lately, I’ve experimented a bit with a homemade balm of the same oils, mixed with a bit of bee’s wax. It works just as well, I think, but is easier for me to apply to the face.

4 years ago

Well I have sensitive skin so my guestion is can I mix olive oil in my eucerin ootion

4 years ago

Great article……came here looking for something on seaweed ….thank you
M. Liechtung

3 years ago

Great article, these COVID 19 masks are causing me problems with my skin. Thank you