oil-free moisturizers

Do you have oily skin that’s always shinier than a frying pan, riddled with acne, and slippery to the point it melts your makeup away during the way? I’d like to introduce you to your new BFF: oil-free moisturisers.

Before you say anything, I get it. I know how much you hate moisturisers. Your skin’s already greasy enough without adding another thick layer on top that never sinks in… Can’t you just do without moisturiser altogether?

Frankly, you could. In the morning, I only recommend a good hydrating or anti-aging serum and sunscreen. You don’t need the extra layer of moisturiser on top of all that too.

At night, it’s a different story. I do recommend you add some extra moisture to your skin to keep it hydrated, soft, and supple. But moisture doesn’t mean oil. It’s possible to add moisture to the skin without a drop of oil every touching it.

That’s where oil-free moisturisers come in. Oil-free moisturisers aren’t like other moisturisers. Like the name says, they don’t contain a drop of oil. Yet, they keep your skin soft, supple, and hydrated for hours on end. How do they do it? How is that possible?! Let’s find out:

The Anatomy Of A Moisturiser: What Your Traditional Creams And Lotions Contain

I’ll promise I won’t get too sciencey on you. This is just a quick overview of how traditional moisturisers are formulated for maximum moisturising power. Moisturisers are usually made up of 3 types of ingredients:

  • Emollients: Think of them as skin smoothers. They fill in fine lines and wrinkles, so your skin looks smoother. While they’re at it, they also help the moisturiser spread evenly onto your skin. Examples include Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Cetearyl Alcohol, Isostearyl Palmitate, and silicones. Natural oils have emollient properties too, although they have different properties that make them belong to a different category (more on that below).
  • Humectants: They’re moisture magnets. They attract moisture from the environment and bind it into the skin. When skin has all the moisture it needs, it plumps up so fine lines and wrinkles look smaller. Moisture also makes skin softer to the touch and gives it an as-if-lit-from-within glow. Common humectants include Hyaluronic Acid (it can bind to the skin up to 1000 times its weight in water!), Urea, and Glycerin.
  • Occlusives: These have big molecules that can’t penetrate skin. Instead, they create a protective barrier that slows down water loss and protects it from environmental aggressors. FYI, some emollients double up as occlusive. A few examples: Shea butter, Mineral oil, and Squalane. Natural oils also fall into this category.

Related: What The Heck Are Humectants And Why Are They In My Skincare Products?

Oils In Moisturisers: How Do They Benefit Skin?

The job of a moisturizer is to prevent dryness.

Some people have naturally dry skin. This happens when your skin doesn’t produce enough sebum. Yep, the sebum you love to hate so much is nothing more than your skin’s natural moisturiser, the natural oil that keeps it soft and supple. Without it, you’ll experience flakiness, redness, dryness, and irritation.

Even if your skin is oily or normal, it can still get dry. How? Your skin gets dry when its protective barrier gets damaged by UV rays, harsh weather, over-exfoliation, or irritating skincare products. The damage causes gaps in your skin’s protective barrier. Moisture evaporates through the gaps, leaving your skin all dry and flaky.

Most moisturizers fix this issue by using ingredients that create a protective barrier on the skin that patches up the holes in your own barrier and traps moisture in. That’s a job for occlusives. And a lot of occlusives happen to be oils. Oils – like mineral oil, coconut oil, and olive oil (to name a few!) – seal everything in, including moisture.

If you have oily skin, more oil is the LAST thing you need. Unless your protective barrier has been so badly damaged that your skin has changed skin type to dryness, you don’t need help in preventing dryness. That’s not a concern for you. Hence, you don’t need traditional moisturisers that rely on oils and other occlusives to prevent dryness.

Related: Is Mineral Oil Bad For Skin?

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes shine, pimples, and blackheads? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin” cheatsheet to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

How Do Oil-Free Moisturisers Work?

If a moisturiser job is to prevent dryness and the best way to do that is to use occlusive oils, what happens when you remove oils from a moisturiser? You have skin-friendly, oil-free moisturisers.

Oil-free moisturizers help skin retain moisture, too. But in a slightly different way. They only use:

  • Emollients: Remember when I told you that a lot of emollients are occlusive? Like oils, they create a barrier on the skin that holds moisture in. But they’re much lighter than oils, so don’t clog your pores or turn your face into a greasy mess. Phew!
  • Humectants: If your skin lacks something, it’s water, NOT oil. Humectants draw it from the environment, making sure your skin always has enough to be soft and supple for hours.

In other words, instead of relying on oils to create a protective barrier that locks moisture into your skin (something your skin doesn’t need because your protective barrier is intact and working just fine), oil-free moisturisers attract and bind water from the environment into your skin.

The result? Your skin is perfectly hydrated, softer, and suppler WITHOUT the need for greasy, pore-clogging oils.

Are Oil-Free Moisturisers Really Oil-Free?

Technically, oil-free moisturisers are oil-free. If you see something like olive oil or marula oil, run a mile and leave that jar on the shelf. A brand that lies that much isn’t a brand you want to trust with your skin.

But, in practice, things are a bit more complicated than that… Oil-free is one of those unregulated terms that mean nothing. Brands can be as strict or loose with the term as they want to. When they’re strict, they remove everything that’s either oily or acts as an oil. All that’s left are humectants, like Glycerin and Hyaluronic Acid. This is what you want.

When they’re loose, they avoid every ingredient with the word “oil” in the name (cos we aren’t stupid and we’d call them out on that). But they still use ingredients that have the characteristics of an oil. Here are a few examples:

  • Dicaprylyl Carbonate
  • Dimethicone
  • Homosalate
  • Isopropyl Myristate
  • Octisalate
  • Octyldodecanol
  • Squalane

These are fine for people with mildly oily skin. But if your skin is so oily, you need to blot the excess oil away every couple of hours, you may want to steer away from them, too. Just in case.

Related: What Ingredients Are Comedogenic?

What Are The Best Oil-Free Moisturizers?

If you have oily skin and are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of oil-free moisturisers out there, opt for one of the options above. They’re what I recommend to my clients to keep their skin hydrated at night without leaving a greasy mess or causing breakouts:

  • Boscia Green Tea Oil-Free Moisturiser ($38.00): An oil-free moisturiser loaded with moisture magnet Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate skin and silica to absorb excess oil, so you won’t have to blog your face every 5 minutes. Available at Dermstore and Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Clear Oil-Free Moisturizer ($29.00): Ideal for acne-prone skin, it’s loaded with humectants to hydrate skin without adding oils, niacinamide to treat acne and fade away the dark marks it leaves behind, and a few antioxidants to slow down aging. Everything your skin needs is here. Available at Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
  • Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment & Moisturizer ($39.00): An oil-free moisturiser with exfoliant salicylic acid to unclog pores and both prevent and treat all kinds of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. The catch? I don’t recommend exfoliating daily, unless you have very oily skin. Everyone else, use it every other night only. Available at Ulta

Are Oil-Free Moisturisers Really Better For Oily Skin?

Oils are problematic for oily skin, there’s no doubt about that. The oilier your skin is, the higher the chance adding oils can cause another breakout. But every rule has its exception. Oils high in linoleic acid can help heal acne faster.

Here’s the deal: Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid that’s naturally present in your skin that has moisturising, anti-inflammatory properties. Plus, it plays a key role in your skin’s natural exfoliating process, getting rid of dead cells before they can fall into your pores and give you breakouts.

Studies show that acne sufferers have less linoleic acid than people without acne. So what happens when you add it back in? Again, research tells us that using linoleic acid every day for a month reduces spot size and incidence by 25%.

Every little bit helps, ladies!

So, what oils are high in linoleic acid? Here are the most common ones in skincare:

  • Evening Primrose oil (75%)
  • Grapeseed oil (72%)
  • Hemp seed oil (55%)
  • Rosehip oil (45%)
  • Safflower oil (68%)

NOTE: These are rough estimates. The exact amount of linoleic acid in each batch of oil varies depending on how the plant was grown (soil, climate etc).

So, should you still go for an oil-free moisturiser if you have oily, acne-prone skin?

It’s true some oils can help. But I do think it’s safer to stick to oil-free products. Why? Everyone’s skin is different. The right oils can work wonders for some people, but cause breakouts in other.

Unless you’re willing to experiment, I recommend you keep oils to a minimum. But if you want to give linoleic acid a go, your best bet is to mix a few drops of rosehip oil with your oil-free moisturiser. I especially recommend this if you have stubborn acne that won’t go away.

Related: Can You Really Fight Acne With Oils?

The Bottom Line

If you have oily skin, oil-free moisturisers are the way to go. They keep your skin hydrated without adding more oil to it. Just be careful check the label to make sure your moisturiser is really oil-free. And, if it must contain oils, make sure they’re oils high in linoleic acid. Very moisturising, linoleic acid helps you fight acne – one of the main plagues oily skin needs to deal with from time to time.