The Best Emollients to Use in Natural Skincare

If you are seeking that feeling of baby smooth skin, what you’ll need to focus on is finding the right combinations of emollients.

In a series of posts on moisturizers, we’re looking at how moisture occurs, how it works, and how we can use the power of plants to help protect and nourish our skin. There are three components of creating moisturized skin — humectants, emollients, and occlusives.

In this post, I’ll talk about emollients.

What are emollients?

Emollients help to soften and smooth the scales of the skin by filling in tiny gaps where skin may be flaked or cracked.  Emollients work great on their own, but if you really covet a dewy, glowing complexion and baby-soft skin, combine them with humectants and occlusives for the ultimate skincare triple threat.

If you’re a nature lover, you’ll be happy to hear many of the best emollients come from plants. In fact, they come in the form of many oils and butters you’re already familiar with including oils like sweet almond, sesame, coconut, and olive oils and butters from shea and cocoa.

Although I recommend plant-derived emollients, there are also other popular emollients like lanolin extracted from the wax found in sheep’s wool, alcohols, which can be plant-derived like stearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol, petrolatum derivatives like petroleum jelly and mineral oil, and synthetics including silicones like dimethicone and cyclomethicone.

Plant-based emollients

The magic of plant oils

Sophia Loren once famously stated her secret to ageless beauty was using olive oil used on her skin. What most of us don’t know is why olive oil is such a great oil for aging skin.

Plant oils are excellent emollients and help soften the skin and contribute to achieving the coveted glowy skin.

When I talk about “plant oils,” I am referring to the oils extracted from plants that are liquid at room temperature. These oils are pressed from nuts, seeds, and fruits.

When you look more closely at the chemical makeup of an oil extracted from a plant, you’ll see it’s actually a mixture of a number of natural fatty acids. It is the distribution of these fatty acids that make particular oils better suited for different purposes and different skin types.

A few of these fatty acids found in plant oils that are great for the skin are oleic, linoleic and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) acid.

 

Best plant oils emollients for dry/mature skin

Plant oils high in oleic acid are blessing for dry, aging skin since they penetrate easily into the skin’s surface, replenishing lost moisture that naturally comes with age. Oleic acid helps make oils richer and heavier and are perfect for night creams by helping to seal in moisture.

Examples of oils high in oleic acid
  • Sweet almond oil (62-86% oleic acid)
  • Olive oil (60-85% oleic acid)
  • Avocado oil (36-80% oleic acid)
  • Argan oil (44.8-55% oleic acid)

Best for sensitive or inflamed skin

If you or someone you know suffer from psoriasis, eczema, or atopic dermatitis, science has found a solution that may help tame the redness and itchiness.  GLA-rich oils may be the answer you’ve been waiting for to treat inflammatory skin disorders. A 2007 double-blind clinical trial found borage oil to be an effective treatment for atopic dermatitis with — get excited — no side effects!

Examples of oils high in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
  • Evening primrose oil (9-10% GLA)
  • Borage oil (25% GLA)

Best for oily or acne prone skin

Forget everything you’ve heard about not using oils on acne prone skin. Yes, excess sebum —the oil your skin produces naturally — can cause breakouts, but not all oils are created equal.

All skin — even oily or acne-prone skin requires proper hydration. In fact, without proper moisture, your sebaceous glands, in an effort to help quench the skin can go into overdrive and produce more sebum, leading to breakouts. Dehydrated skin can also create microscopic cracks in the skin, the perfect home for bacteria, which also contribute to breakouts.

For people with either acne-prone or oily skin, look for oils high in linoleic acid. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, says that acne patients have been shown to have low levels of linoleic acid in their sebum. In one study, rubbing 2.5% linoleic acid on helped relieve the symptoms of people with mild acne.

For those with oily skin, linoleic acid makes for a lighter oil with a thinner consistency. These oils will still nourish and protect the skin without feeling too heavy.

oils high in linoleic acid (good for acne-prone and oily skin)
  • Safflower oil (70-80% linoleic acid)
  • Evening primrose oil (70-75% linoleic acid)
  • Sunflower oil (20-75% linoleic acid)
  • Red raspberry seed (52.1% linoleic acid)
  • Argan oil (37% linoleic acid)
  • Rosehip seed oil (35-40.9% linoleic acid)

Plant butters

Plant butters are essentially the same as plant oils with one very obvious difference — plant butters are solid at room temperature. Cocoa butter has a melting point very close to the temperature of the human body so it not only melts in your mouth but also on your skin.

The reason why plant butters have a higher melting point boils down (pun intended) to the specific breakdown of fatty acids. Each plant oil has a unique distribution of fatty acids that make particular oils better suited for different purposes and different skin types.

Plant butters have more saturated fats, it’s these saturated fats that give plant butters a more solid consistency at room temperature. This is easy to remember because butter used in cooking behaves the same way even though the fats come from animal sources.

Butters serve double duty. They are great emollients but also help to thicken creams and lotions giving them a richer and more luxurious feel on the skin.

Best butters for Dry or Mature skin
  • Shea butter (40-55% oleic acid)
  • Cocoa butter (35% oleic acid)

Because they have a thicker consistency, butters are excellent emollients for dry or mature skin. But, even if your skin leans to the more oily or acne-prone side, there are butters for you too.

Best butters for oily or acne-prone skin
  • Mango butter (1-13% linoleic acid)
  • Kokum Butter (0-8% linoleic acid)

Squalane/Squalene

This non-greasy powerhouse emollient has a distinct ability to penetrate the human skin and help to increase the absorption of other active substances (think botanical goodies).

Although squalene is a bit of a miracle worker, it’s history is sordid. Historically, squalane was harvested from the livers of small, deep-sea sharks. In 2012, an investigation concluded that the cosmetic industry was still being largely supplied with animal squalane corresponding to 2.7 million deep-sea sharks caught every year for the 2500 tons squalane used in the global market.

Fortunately, today squalene can also be derived from plant-sources like sugarcane,  olives, and amaranth seeds. But, in the commercially available products, there is a shockingly high percentage of squalene coming from shark liver oil (as of 2012 that number was at 44%).

Squalene, and it’s hydrogenated cousin, squalane both make great skin moisturizers and are rich in antioxidants. Anyone can use either version, but squalene is heavier, making it helpful for extra-dry or mature skin, while squalane is great for acne-prone or oily skin.

Squalene vs Squalane Cheat Sheet
  • SquaLENE = The O.G. version. This compound is naturally found in human sebum. Heavier and better suited for dry or mature skin.
  • SquaLANE = A  hydrogenated version of squalene that is lighter and better for oily or acne-prone skin.

If you use squalene or squalane, please make sure it is plant-derived. 


 

Sources

Mango Butter Emulsion Gels as Cocoa Butter…
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf502658y?src=recsys&journalCode=jafcau

Biological importance and applications of squalene and squalene.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22361190

Clinical effects of undershirts coated with borage oil on children with atopic dermatitis: a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18078406

Digital image analysis of the effect of topically applied linoleic acid on acne microcomedones
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2230.1998.00315.x

Catalytic Hydrogenation of Squalene to Squalane
https://www.academia.edu/14200386/Catalytic_Hydrogenation_of_Squalene_to_Squalane