Should I pat my face with water before applying oil?

Ida inquires: In another beauty-related forum, I read the following claim (from a member, not an “expert”) about applying a face oil: “Make sure your face and your hands are slightly damp when applying the oil. Rub the oil between your hands to emulsify slightly, then pat it on your face and massage it in. The oil will help trap the water in. ” Is this true? Can the skin really absorb water this way? And if so, is it beneficial in any way?

The Beauty Brain respond:

The quick answer is: it won’t hurt but it won’t really help much either.

How moisturizers work

The main moisturizing function of oil is to create a barrier that prevents the moisture in the deep layers of your skin from evaporating. The oil can only lock in the water that’s already absorbed by your skin. So, if you’ve just saturated your skin by taking a shower then you’ll lock in quite a bit of moisture with oil. But if your face is dry and then you just splash it with a little water before applying oil, you’re really not helping that much.

Creams and lotions are designed to deliver oil WITH water so you lock in the deeper moisture that’s already in your skin AND get a quick hit of surface moisture from the water in the lotion.

What is “emulsify?”

Also, just to clarify, you can’t really “emulsify” oil and water just by rubbing them together in your hands. There are many technical definitions of emulsify but to put it in layperson terms it means to disperse tiny droplets of one liquid in another liquid. Since oil and water water don’t naturally mix, you need a chemical known as an emulsifier (also called a surfactant) that allows the two to co-mingle without separating.