Fats or oils are major components of cell walls, intracellular membranes. These are typically made up of a double layer of phospholipids. Cholesterol, so often painted as the bad guy, is fundamental to such membranes. It’s not surprising that oil is important in skin care.

The skin contains a number of fats and related substances. You would expect to find the following in “average” skin fats: Triglycerides 32%, Free fatty acids 28%, Waxes 14%, Cholesterol and esters 4%, Squalene 5%, Other hydrocarbons 8%, Steroids 9%.

Vegetable oils are among the oldest used health & cosmetic materials known to mankind. They are regularly used and chosen because of their low incidence of irritation, sensitisation and comedogenicity. They feel good for the skin and are good for the skin. Moisturising and skin softening are basic uses for the oils.

The skin used to be thought of only as a “barrier”, an envelope in which we live. Today we appreciate that it is both mechanically and biologically active. One of its extremely important but undervalued roles is to regulate moisture – the hydric flow.

On the skin surface is another forgotten layer perhaps more appropriately called a system. It is crucial to moisture retention, and is called the “skin acid mantle”. This skin acid mantle is also vital to skin health; it is our first line of defence against germs, and is therefore a part of our defence system. It is formed not only as a mixture of sweat and sebum, but also by a colony of micro flora (bacteria) unique to each individual. This mantle is not only part of the defence system of the body, but also contains elements that maintain crucial moisture. Massaging with vegetable oils supports this crucial system.

Science cannot see any obvious route that vegetable oils can be used beyond moisturisation. Yet shortly after the Second World War, as Leslie Kenton reports, Sunflower Oil was used to massage camp inmates in order to improve vitamin status (F) where the inmate’s digestion could not cope with ingestion. Other cases of topical application have since that time shown this to be possible.

Polyunsaturated oils are often rich in substances known as EFA’s (essential fatty acids). They have this special term “essential” because, unlike other fatty acids, they cannot be produced in the body, and because we need them to live and functions. You could liken them to vitamins. It’s crucial, therefore, that they are used at some point on the skin or taken as part of the diet. EFA’ cannot be obtained except from outside ourself so have special benefits for all manner of problems. One of the first signs of deficiency is a dry or flaky skin. The names to remember are confusingly similar. They are Linoleic and Linolenic acids.

Linoleic acid has been identified in helping to lower cholesterol, maintaining moisture levels, and helping to build a better skin. Linolenic acid is present in a whole range of biological activities. It is needed to stimulate the production of gut bacteria, which in turn produce B vitamins vital to skin health. It too helps control cholesterol. These two fatty acids seem to work in synergy.

The parent of the Omega 3 family of fatty acids is alpha Linolenic acid, whilst the Omega 6 family rises from Linoleic acid. Put them together, and you have activity that not only supports cell membranes, but is part of the formation of substances called “prostaglandins”. These are hormone-like substances that control and regulate many body processes. Omega 6 fats are converted by the body to gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is converted into prostaglandins.