Oils and moisturizers are often some of the most misunderstood steps in a skincare routine, and many people want to understand whether to put an oil or moisturizer first. This is a great question, but the answer is not either-or. It’s situational and depends on what’s in your oil and moisturizer. But, before we get into this more complicated explanation, let’s make sure we understand the difference between moisturization and hydration. Although we use the terms interchangeably, hydration and moisturizers function differently throughout the layers of the skin.
How Moisturizers vs Oils work on the skin
Photocred: Cleveland clinic
For example, when we look at the skin, it has five different layers. The top layers or “the epidermis” is five levels thick. And at the bottom, you have the dermis which is broken down into two different layers. Technically speaking, the term hydrating means applying something to the skin and having it penetrate past these five layers and down to the dermis where it can nourish the cells in there. Whereas, moisturizers are protectors. They remain outside of the skin, they might soak into a couple of those top layers of the dermis, and they can lock in things. Think of moisturizers as a master lock. They lock everything in, and they also stop the good things in your skin from getting out. However, not all moisturizers are the same. Some are thicker (occlusive) and some are more lightweight (emollient). A few of them like the Watermelon Glow Recipe moisturizer even hydrate.
Watermelon Glow Pink Juice Moisturizer - $39
This one feels less heavy, and its consistency is more liquidy or watery.
Then, you have moisturizers like the Skinfix Barrier Plus with ingredients like shea butter, lipids, and peptides.
Skinfix Barrier Plus -$52
While both the watermelon glow and the barrier plus are moisturizing, the Skinfix moisturizer contains oils and has a much thicker consistency. When you turn and learn your ingredients, you might notice that a lot of moisturizers have oils in them. So, then the question begs - do you apply a moisturizer or oil first?
When a creamy moisturizer’s formula contains oils, does it then perform like an oil itself?
Well, this really depends on how the moisturizer's formula penetrates the skin or its “delivery system.” The term “delivery system,” refers to how active ingredients are combined in a formula. Formulas command how ingredients travel on the skin. Formulas enable ingredients to rest atop the top skin, or they enable ingredients to travel deeply and perform a function at a specific spot (Skininc, 2014). This has more to do with chemistry and consistency.
Generally speaking, most oils like to sit on top of that epidermis, the “stratum corneum.” There, it smooths over those dead, little keratinocytes, and they make the skin look glowy and smooth, but they really don’t penetrate into the skin deeply unless they get help from other ingredients within the formula’s delivery system. Sometimes oil does use the little pores that our hairs grow out of to travel (follicles) into the skin, but the oil just kind of hangs out. Most of the time, it doesn’t do actual work. So, that’s why oils are primarily meant to be surface-level barriers whereas moisturizers are meant to deliver moisture and also protect the skin from pollutants.
Let’s take a deeper look at moisturizers vs oils.
Some moisturizers may sit on top of the skin, but some like the Watermelon Glow are hydrators. Hydrators travel intracellularly meaning they go down inside of the skin to deliver hydration to cells. They saturate them like a sponge and reside in moisturizing formulas that travel downwards to do work. Then, you can use oil to prevent evaporation and seel this in.
However, some moisturizers don’t travel super deep and because of their thickness, you may want to apply an oil first. Think of carnauba wax, vaseline, paraffin wax, silicone wax, candelilla wax, and xanthan gum (a thickening agent). These are known as occlusive moisturizers, and they are primarily more protective than oils. Because of their consistency, texture, and the way they deliver on the skin, they’re still called moisturizers rather than oils though. Very thick moisturizers have the primary job of protecting the skin and preserving natural moisture. Some oils are also occlusive, but we call the aforementioned “moisturizers” because they trap the skin’s moisture so well that they do hydrate the epidermis and dermis.
If you have eczema, a specific skin condition, or you live somewhere extremely cold where the skin is constantly losing its own moisture, you would want to use an occlusive moisturizer (something with a thick consistency) to trap hydration and to prevent things from getting in. Whereas, oils primarily smooth over dead skin cells, lock in hydrating products, and support the acid mantle (thin film on the skin's surface composed of lipids from the oil glands mixed with amino acids from sweat). Additionally, given that oils cannot mix with water, they do not hydrate the dermis or preserve the skin’s natural hydration to the extent that moisturizers do.
So, should you ever put an oil on first?
To provide another example, if you’ve slathered something sticky and tacky like vaseline over the top layer of the skin, putting oil on top is not going to make any difference. The oil is going to sit on top of that thick occlusive film. It’s not even going to penetrate the skin. This means that any antioxidants, omega fatty acids, or helpful chains from the oil aren’t going to boost your barrier. So, in this case, you would put on the oil first so it has a chance to enhance your acid mantle.
So, as you can see, it doesn’t truly come down to oils or moisturizers first. It comes down to what kind of moisturizer you are using and what kind of effect you are looking to get. Generally speaking, oils do not hydrate and moisturize, but they can deliver antioxidants and fatty acids that build the skin barrier and acid mantle. For that reason, there are hydrating moisturizer formulas with oils built to penetrate the skin. Thus, they perform the dual task of barrier repair and hydration.
So, here is the general rule.
If you’re using a very thin moisturizer that penetrates deeply into the skin, use your moisturizer first, and then your oil. If you do have really dry skin, you’re worried about trans-epidermal water loss, and you use thick occlusive moisturizer, use your oils first. This is going to allow those lipids and antioxidants that are potentially in the oil to do their work on the skin. Then, apply your moisturizer, to seel it in.
Lastly, remember that there is no “one type fits” all skincare routine. Everyone’s skin is beautifully unique!