March 7, 2014 at 10:30 AM ET
Here is your made-for-Internet headline: This woman hasn’t washed her face with soap in nearly a year.
That’s Jennifer Nervo, who last spring she stopped using her usual castile soap and started cleansing her face with something that will sound completely nuts if you haven’t already heard of it: Nervo now “washes” her face with oils, currently a combination of castor, grapeseed and pamanu oils. Since making the switch, she says, “I’ve never gone back to using soap.”
It’s called the oil cleansing method, and it’s the kind of thing that’s taken over certain corners of the Internet, mostly Pinterest and natural or “clean” beauty blogs. As Nervo phrased it in a post she wrote for one popular natural beauty blog, Mommypotamus, “I think many of us who try oil cleansing for the first time are either of the crunchy adventurous variety or desperate for a skin fix.” In Nervo’s case, it was a little from column A, and a little from column B.
"Crunchy" is a word that you hear a lot when you're talking about oil cleansing, but this isn't something that originated among those with earth-mother tendencies; plenty of cultures, even ancient ones, have used face and body oils. But it's become something of a beauty trend lately. A wee bit of evidence: When most bloggers talk about oil cleansing, they talk about Crunchy Betty, a blogger whose real name is Leslie Erin. Three years ago, Erin wrote a post about oil cleansing, and it's still one of her most popular pages. She says that though her posts usually lose visibility within a week or two, that this one has stayed consistently popular, getting between 600 and 1,200 page view per day, since the blog became more popular in January 2012.
Blogger Katie Frost first learned about oil cleansing on Pinterest. "I wish I had some interesting, crunchy, granola-y tale to tell, but it was just a pin I randomly came across," Frost said in an email. "I have struggled with acne since I was 10 years old (over 20 years! UGH!), so I am always looking for a miracle cure."
Frost says her skin initially freaked out a little, and got a lot worse — and then, a month into it, it got better. "It wasn't perfect, but my breakouts were minimized," she says.
Nervo says she changed her diet around the same time she stopped using soap, which she largely credits with the dramatic improvement in her skin. But she also thinks the OCM, as its believers call it, has helped calm redness and irritation on her face, and helped clear away the dark marks that linger after her cystic acne flares up. “If I’m using the OCM consistently, those completely disappear within a week at the most,” she says.
Mostly, though, she says cleansing with oil has made a difference in the way her skin feels. As she's gotten older (she's 35), she's noticed her skin getting a lot drier, especially in the winter, and that's where oil cleansing has made the biggest difference. She says she doesn't even use a moisturizer now; she doesn't need to. "And I'm in Michigan, and this is our harshest winter since 1950," Nervo says.
Dr. Heather Rogers, a dermatologist, said she’d never heard of the idea of cleansing your face with oil — until she moved to Seattle a few years ago. “Seattle is a pretty crunchy town,” says Rogers. (That word again!) “Several of my patients use it.”
She says that scientifically speaking, the OCM does make some sense. “The concept is that like dissolves like,” she said. “If you put oil onto your skin, it will then combine with the oils that are layered on your skin. ... It will also cut through some of the dirt, and the grease.”
People who use the OCM use all kinds of different combinations of oils, but the one that usually makes up about 50 percent of the potion is castor oil. And for good reason, Rogers said. “Castor oil, it’s actually closer to a surfactant than the other oils,” she said, explaining that surfactants are a compound found in most cleansing products. In castor oil, as in surfactants, there’s a “hydrophilic” component and a “hydrophobic” component. “So there’s a part that likes oil, so it connects to the oil on your skin, and there’s a part that likes water, so it allows the oils to be carried away by the water,” Rogers said.
But the fan favorite step of the OCM is the last one: run a washcloth under (bearably) hot water, and give yourself a mini steam treatment by draping the cloth over your face. Wait until it cools, and then wipe the oils from your face.
But there's a catch! (There's always a catch.) This is not for everybody, and it's especially not for those with acne-prone skin, Rogers said. "I think it can lead to a great occlusion of their pores," she said. "Their pores are supposed to be draining sebum, but if the pore is blocked by oils," then that can't happen. And acne-prone or not, she suggests using the OCM just once or twice a week.
Frost cleansed with oil for about six months, and she even wrote a piece for XO Jane raving about it. But then, she stopped. "Unfortunately, a lot of my acne problems are hormonal in nature, not topical, so after a couple of months my hormones started acting up and the OCM stopped working," Frost said. "I watched my skin get worse and worse, and I just couldn't stand it anymore. I think OCM is something that requires constant adjustments depending on your skin, hormones, the season, etc, and, frankly, I don't have that kind of patience!"