Woman applying moisturizer on face

How Do Oil-Free Products Work?

If your skin is naturally quite oily and acne-prone, then chances are that you already use, or have been considering using, oil-free products. 

Wondering how these actually work? 

Here is everything you need to know…

Why Do Skin Care Products Contain Oils?

Before explaining how oil-free products work, it is important for you to understand why oils are such a popular skin care ingredient to begin with. 

As you likely already know, oil and water do not mix. When you do try to mix them, the oil will settle above the water, forming its own layer. 

Why does the oil float to the top instead of sinking to the bottom like the water? 

Because the oil molecules are much lighter than water molecules, which are quite dense in comparison. 

When you apply oil to your skin, the same thing pretty much happens…

The oils work as an occlusive, sitting on the surface of your skin (on the stratum corneum) and forming their own layer. This gives the skin an extra barrier between itself and the environment around it.

Illustration of the different layers of human skin

This not only gives your skin extra protection from the environment around it, but also helps with moisture retention in a big way. 


Thanks to that extra barrier it forms. This basically seals your skin, preventing the moisture from within your skin from evaporating into the air. 

Why Are Oil-Free Products Necessary?

As you can see, oil really does have its place when it comes to skin care. 

However, oils aren’t ingredients that are suited for every skin type…

The way in which it forms a barrier over the skin does mean that you end up with more oil seeping into your pores. This isn’t really a problem for those who have dry skin, but it can cause issues for those who have oily skin. Extra oil on the skin, as well as in the pores, can quickly lead to clogged pores, resulting in breakouts. 

The Importance of Moisturizing Oily Skin

Since so many moisturizers do contain oils, many people with oily skin still give these a try. 

However, after experiencing the clogged pores and breakouts that come from this, it doesn’t take long before these products are thrown out. 

After all, oily skin is already so moist, so is an extra moisturizer even necessary? 

The answer is yes, most definitely. 

It’s already been established that oil is completely different from water, and it is water that your skin really needs in order to function properly. 

Moisture in your skin is important for a number of reasons, such as: 

  • Protection – your skin’s protective barrier will only work optimally if it contains enough water 
  • Preventing dryness – if your skin does not have enough moisture, it can become tight and dry. This can happen with oily skin too 
  • Skin cell regeneration – the skin cell regeneration process is key when it comes to a healthy complexion, but water is needed in order for this to be carried out properly 
  • Bacterial growth – moisture is important for the skin to remain balanced, which then helps to prevent the growth of bacteria, saving your skin from infections 
  • Skin elasticity – the flexibility and elasticity of your skin is heavily dependent on its water content

So, how should you be moisturizing oily skin? 

This is where oil-free products come in…

How Do Oil-Free Products Keep the Skin Moisturized?

As mentioned earlier, most oils are occlusives, meaning that they form an extra layer over your skin’s surface. 

However, there is so much more that makes up a moisturizer, meaning that occlusives aren’t necessarily needed. 

Two other key elements of a moisturizer are: 

  • Emollients – emollients work by softening and smoothing the skin, although many emollients also work as occlusives 
  • Humectants – humectants are ingredients that attract moisture from the air and draw this into the skin, significantly increasing skin moisture levels

So, even though a moisturizer does not contain oil, it can still contain emollients and humectants, as well as some occlusives, all of which come together to create an effective product. 

Specific Ingredients to Look Out For

Of course, not all oil-free products are created equally. 

You need to make sure that you really are applying quality to your skin, meaning that the products you use should contain ingredients that have been proven to be effective. 

Here are some humectants to look out for: 

  • Hyaluronic Acid – this is one of the most powerful humectants out there, able to hold up to 1000 times its weight in water. Keep an eye out for sodium hyaluronate, because this form of hyaluronic acid features a smaller molecular size, meaning that it can penetrate deeper into your skin 
  • Snow Mushroom Extract – this botanical extract features even smaller molecules than sodium hyaluronate, giving your skin some deep and intense hydration 
  • Glycerin – one of the most commonly-used humectants in skin care, and works well for all skin types 
Infographic on hyaluronic acid

All three of those humectants also contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, giving your skin numerous other benefits too. 

Wondering which Lionesse products contain high levels of hyaluronic acid? The Black Onyx Serum and Black Onyx Cream both contain substantial sodium hyaluronate to bind moisture to the surface of the skin and lock in all those water molecules, helping to keep the skin dewy and glowing.

When it comes to emollients…

Squalane is an ingredient worth keeping an eye out for. 

Never heard of squalane before? 

It comes from squalene, a natural emollient that penetrates deep into the skin. It not only hydrates, but it also increases the absorption rate of the other ingredients it is combined with. 

Wondering why you should be using squalane instead of squalene? 

While squalene is the original compound, it is quite heavy. Squalane is the hydrogenated version, making it much lighter, meaning that it won’t exacerbate oiliness or clog up the pores.

Are Serums Oil-Free?

Traditional serums are water-based, meaning that they used to mostly be oil-free products. 

However, facial oils are becoming increasingly popular, leading to so many more hybridized products out there. This means that many serums now also contain oil. 

One thing to keep in mind is that these oil-based serums are designed to be used a little differently to traditional serums…

They are designed to be layered over the top of a moisturizer, rather than underneath, in the way that you would use a traditional water-based serum. 

Are the traditional water-based serums better than oil-based serums? 

Everyone will have their own opinion on this, but most experts would say yes, traditional water-based serums tend to be more beneficial. 

Since they are applied underneath your moisturizer, they have direct contact with all of your skin. They are also lighter in consistency and feature smaller molecules, meaning that they can penetrate deeper into your skin than an oil-based serum. This makes them extremely effective at moisturizing and hydrating the skin, while also nourishing it with a variety of nutrients. 

Wondering if you can use a water-based serum instead of a moisturizer? 

It depends on your skin type, as well as the time of year…

If your skin is excessively oily, then yes, a serum on its own may be more suited to you. However, you do need to make sure that the serum contains plenty of humectants, as these are key for adding moisture into your skin. 

In the summer months, you may also find that a serum is really all you need. 


Because the warmer temperatures trigger your skin’s sebaceous glands into producing more sebum. This is why acne breakouts are more common in the summer. If this is something that you relate to, try using a serum instead of a moisturizer. Again, make sure it contains a range of humectants in a high enough concentration. 

What About Oil-Free Cleansers?

There are two types of cleansers out there – oil-based and water-based. 

While oil-based cleansers are highly effective at dissolving makeup, and are known for being very gentle on the skin, water-based cleansers are pretty great too! 

Unknown woman using clear cleanser

How do water-based cleansers work? 

They contain cleansing agents known as surfactants. These are similar to detergents, in the sense that they dissolve any water-soluble particles that are lying on the surface of your skin. Water-soluble particles usually consist of dirt and pollutants, but the way in which a water-based cleanser washes the surface layer of skin also helps to clear away excess oil.

Water-based cleansers are available in various strengths. 

The stronger cleansers out there often contain a family of ingredients known as sulphates. 

What do sulphates too? 

They are extremely powerful when it comes to clearing away all of the unwanted particles on your skin. However, their potency can also mean that they can cause quite a bit of irritation to some skin types.

Another popular form of water-based cleansers is micellar water. 

Wondering what micellar water actually is? 

It consists of tiny micelles that are suspended in soft water. Micelles are little balls that are made up of cleansing oil molecules, and these are fantastic for pulling impurities out of the skin.

You are probably thinking…

If the micelles contain an oil, how can micellar water be considered an oil-free product? 

Because the micelles don’t actually penetrate into your skin at all. Instead, they attract all of the impurities and enable them to be washed away, without leaving any sort of greasy residue behind on the skin. When you touch an oil-based cleanser, you will notice its oily texture, whereas micellar water feels so similar to water. 

Oils That Are Suitable for Oily Skin

Did you know that there are some oils that can actually be beneficial for oily skin? 

Research has shown that those with oily, acne-prone skin tend to have a lack of linoleic acid in the sebum that their skin produces. Therefore, applying linoleic acid to the skin helps to re-balance the skin’s natural sebum production, as well as the consistency of the skin’s sebum. 

Oils that are high in linoleic acid also provide the skin with several other benefits too. Some of the best oils to look into include:

  • Evening Primrose Oil – helps to hydrate the skin while preventing acne breakouts 
  • Red Raspberry Seed Oil – contains more linoleic acid than any other fruit oil, making it a great anti-inflammatory ingredient too, along with some powerful antioxidants
  • Rosehip Oil – penetrates deep into the skin, adding moisture and boosting collagen production, making it a great anti-aging botanical
Small vial of rosehip oil, surrounded by loose rosehip seeds

In addition to those oils that contain a high concentration of linoleic acid, there are other non-comedogenic oils that you could use too. 

Non-comedogenic means that these oils will not clog up your pores, meaning that even those with excessively oily skin could benefit from the properties of these oils: 

  • Jojoba oil – the molecular structure of jojoba oil is so similar to the skin’s natural sebum. When you apply jojoba oil to your skin, it tricks your skin into thinking that it has already produced enough sebum, meaning that you can slow down how much sebum it actually produces in the end 
  • Geranium oil – this is another oil that helps to regulate how much sebum the skin produces. It also boosts blood circulation, which not only gives the skin a healthy glow but also promotes skin healing, including the fading of acne scars
  • Ylang ylang oil – a moisture-balancing oil that also regulates sebum production, tackles acne and even promotes collagen production. This makes it a popular oil for those looking to reduce the visible signs of skin aging
  • Myrrh oil – a powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient that is so effective when it comes to speeding up skin healing. It is also a great anti-aging ingredient, thanks to the way in which it increases skin firmness and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles 
  • Roman chamomile oil – a great oil for soothing and calming the skin, while also promoting skin cell rejuvenation

While some may think that oil-free skin care products are not effective, this isn’t the case at all. In fact, oil-free products can be just as beneficial as those containing oil – it all depends on your skin type and your skin’s individual needs! 

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