Water Versus Oil-Based Skincare? Here’s What You Need To Know

Choosing a skincare product can give even the most decisive person a case of decision paralysis. You know the feeling: It’s that overwhelming sensation that you have so many options, it feels like you have no options

Luckily, sorting products into larger categories — like water-based and oil-based — can help you narrow things down. But what does it mean for a product to be oil-based or water-based? And which one is right for your skin? 

Here’s everything you need to know: 

Meet Your Oil-Based Products: Balms, Butters, and Oils  

As the name suggests, an oil-based product will have oil at the top of the ingredients list. They will mostly take the form of body butters, face or body oils, and ointments. Essentially, an oil-based product is anything you wouldn’t want to apply and then try to open a jar.  

As Dr. Lana Pinchasov, a dermatology-certified physician’s assistant, told Well + Good, an oil-based product is great if you need to “replenish the oil that serves as a protective barrier of the skin.” That said, oils only help moisturize the skin on one level. “It can help the skin recover in some ways but not all ways,” said Mark Chandler, skincare product formulator president of Adaptive Cosmetic Technology Solutions

Water-based products, on the other hand, can help moisturize on more than one level, which brings us to…

Meet Your Water-Based products: Serums, Lotions, and Gels 

On the list of water-based products are serums, gels, creams, or lotions — with the consistency depending on how much water they actually contain. The surprising thing about water-based products is that many of them actually contain oils. According to an article in The Derm Review, “It’s common for water-based moisturizers to contain oils or other occlusive emollients to lock in moisture.” 

And that, according to Chandler, is what makes many water-based products superior. “Water-based products can have those same oils as oil-based products but they also enable you to add beneficial ingredients into the water as well,” he said.  

For example, a water-based product would allow you to add a water-soluble antioxidant like vitamin C — which has been shown to stimulate collagen production and prevent sun damage — but also a beneficial fat-soluble ingredient, like CBD oil — which has displayed strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In other words, you get the best of both worlds. A good water-based product will leave your skin feeling soft but not oily. 

How to choose between an oil- or water-based product 

According to that same article The Derm Review, one of the most important things to consider when choosing between an oil-based or water-based product is whether your skin is dry or dehydrated. If you thought those two words were synonymous, you’re not alone. But there is a difference! 

Dry skin occurs when you don’t produce enough sebum, which is the natural oil in your skin. Dry skin will be flaky, cracked and can definitely benefit from an oil-based product. Dehydrated skin is usually due to a lack of water, which often causes the skin to produce more oil. Dehydrated skin typically needs a water-based product because it already has too much oil. 

Your body can also form a dependency on an oil-based product, especially if it’s really thick like in the case of lip balm. According to Chandler, this occurs because “The petroleum jelly completely seals off any moisture loss like saran wrap and your body gets the signal that there’s no need to replenish the lipids.” The next thing you know you’re addicted to your lip balm and your lips are totally dry without it. “A water-based product allows for some permeation so that doesn’t happen,” said Chandler.   

Want one last expert tip? If you’re choosing an oil-based product, looking for one that is “non-comedogenic,” which means that it’s made with oils that will not clog pores. Try hemp seed oil, neem oil, and sunflower seed oil. 

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