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Makeup removers does oil cleansing really work?

Meg’s facial cleansing inquiry: Here’s a question for your lovely blog. The Internet is full of recommendations for the “oil cleansing method” which involves washing the face with various oils such castor, olive, jojoba, almond, emu, corncrake, and engine oil. There are all kinds of claims made for this method, one of them being “oil dissolves oil.” I guess that means that castor oil will remove sebum. It undoubtedly works for many people, but is that claim true? It seems an extraordinary one to make.

The Right Brain’s response:

Thank you Meg, it’s lovely to have our blog called lovely! While we’ve never tried corncrake or engine oil, we do know that the oil cleansing is a legitimate way to dissolve dirt and oil and remove it from your skin.

Solving dissolving

For one substance to dissolve another it has to break apart the chemical bonds that hold it together. (We call the chemical that’s being dissolved the “solute” and the chemical that’s doing the dissolving is the “solvent.” Chemists are good at coming up with clever names like that.) Generally speaking, there are two kinds of chemical bonds: ionic and covalent. Not to get too geeky on you, but ionic bonds are formed by the attraction of two oppositely charged atoms and covalent bonds are formed by two atoms sharing a pair of electrons.

Like dissolves like

When you use oil to remove oily dirt you’re employing the chemical principle called “like dissolves like.” In other words, oils will dissolve other materials that have a similar chemical structure. As an example let’s look at emu oil just because the emu is a silly looking bird and it always makes us smile. The atoms in emu oil (the solvent) are held together by covalent bonds. Now, if the solute is greasy makeup or skin oils (aka sebum), it also consists of atoms that are hooked together with covalent bonds. So that means that emu oil is similar enough to dissolve all the gunk on your face. Cool, huh? What? You want to learn more? What are you, some kind of chemical sadist? Ok, far be it for us to deny you chemical knowledge – click here to read more dissolution theory.

Cleansers that dissolve

Cosmetic chemists use the “like dissolves like” principle to formulate oil-based cleansers in liquid and cream form. (Water based cleansers that use detergents to remove oil use an entirely different chemistry so we’ll save that discussion for another day.) The liquid cleansers are pure oil while the creams are oils mixed with water, emulsifiers and thickners. The classic example of a “cold cream” type cleanser is Noxema. Here are some other examples.

Examples of oil based cleansers

1. Max Factor For Long Lasting Makeup

  • Type of cleanser: Oil
  • Primary cleansing agents: Mineral oil, Isopropyl Palmitate

2. Pond’s Deep Cleanser & Make-up Remover with Cucumber Extract

  • Type of cleanser: Cream
  • Primary cleansing agents: Mineral Oil, Isopropyl Palmitate

3. Physician’s Formula Makeup Remover For Dry, Normal skin

  • Type of cleanser: Cream
  • Primary cleansing agents: Mineral Oil, Petrolatum

4. Kiehls Oil Based Cleanser and Makeup Remover

  • Type of cleanser: Oil
  • Primary cleansing ingredients: Isopropyl isostearate, isopropyl myristate, squalane

What’s your favorite facial cleanser? Oils, creams, or water-based? Share your secrets with the rest of the Beauty Brains community.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • robyn January 24, 2015, 9:50 am

    Ok. I’ve heard that simply applying oil to your face will stop the skin from over-producing oil and becoming oily. This seems like crap to me. If the skin had that ability, then no-one would have oily skin in the first place. Am I wrong in thinking this? Is there any scientific evidence in what they are saying?

  • Yun February 11, 2015, 7:19 pm

    I keep hearing oil cleansing being recommended as necessary to remove sunscreens, even chemical sunscreens. Now, sunscreens vary quite a bit so I was wondering if this is recommendation holds for all sunscreens or just ones with specific ingredients?

    • Randy Schueller February 12, 2015, 6:01 am

      I could see that oil cleansing is one effective way to remove sunscreens but I don’t see any reason why a traditional soap/body wash wouldn’t get the job done as well. Have you seen this reported from a credible source and if so can you share a link so I can look into it? Thanks!

  • Naomi January 9, 2017, 9:46 am

    I has having trouble understanding how both “like attracts like” (molecular attraction) and “water seeks equilibrium” could be true. It didn’t make sense to me how water was attracted to more water, but it would also try to equalize across a permeable membrane (like the cause of Winter dryness). Luckily my husband is a biomedical engineer, and he explained that these two phenomena are forces, not laws. Basically, the equilibrium force is stronger than the molecular attraction force, meaning dry air will eventually win out over moisturizers and hydrators over time. This will inform my skin care choices in the future.

    • Randy Schueller January 10, 2017, 8:13 am

      Actually the principle we referred to is “Like dissolves like” which is a little different. Fortunately you have a smart hubby who helped you sort it all out.