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Clean oils for clean skin

Dry skin is as much a facet of midwinter life as snow days and face-biting chills. There are many ways to address this: experimenting with moisturizers, opting for gentle, nondrying cleansers, even switching on a humidifier, which can aid skin by adding moisture to dry air. Or, trying single-blend body oils.

What makes single-blend oils a better choice than premade department store ones? The answer is simple: clean curation.

Branded lotions and creams often come with preservatives, dyes, and artificial fragrances — all of which may lead to heightened skin sensitivity. Armed with essential oils, you can tailor your body oils to target stretch marks, sun spots, wounds — changing up your routine daily, if desired.

You may be giving up pretty packaging, but with this DIY aesthetic you’ll gain greater control over ingredients and application.

As to how to use them? This part’s as easy as it gets. In most cases, you’ll want to smooth a thin layer over wet (not dry) skin. While you don’t want to leave too much excess on your skin, try to let the oil soak in for as long as possible — you’ll soon notice the difference.

Gentle sweet almond oil is usually safe even for sensitive skin types (though you should always test before committing to a treatment). It has a lovely, soft smell, which means that this oil is particularly adept at doing double-duty as a subtly sweet fragrance. Once skin is no longer dry or irritated, consider mixing with some brown sugar to create a general, cleansing body scrub.

Boost your oil: Mix cinnamon, clove, rose, and lavender oils for an anti-cramp blend. Lavender and rose oils are known to help alleviate pain.

Another sweet, lightweight oil that can be used on the body — and hair! — apricot kernel oil is rich in vitamins like A, C, E, and K. To avoid clogged pores and acne, be sure to rinse it off your skin with warm water and gently dry with a clean towel. Apricot kernel also does wonderful double-duty for dry, damaged hair — add a few drops to a warmed-up carrier oil like almond oil, and then apply to damp hair, wrapping in a towel for at least 20 minutes. (Overnight is fine, too.)

Boost your oil: Add a few drops of tea tree oil to your apricot kernel oil for an anti-acne blend.

Sunflower oil is hugely soothing, thanks to an array of monounsaturated fatty acids and their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (In one 2008 study, sunflower oil even helped prevent sepsis and mortality in premature infants versus a petroleum-based moisturizer.) That means that it may help skin irritation — not just dry skin, but chronic acne and eczema as well.

Boost your oil: Add a few drops of lavender to boost the healing properties and add a divine, relaxing fragrance. Lavender is known to help combat stress, which can be a trigger for skin irritation.

This light, vitamin-rich oil is used in a myriad of skin products — even those meant to be used on the face, as its polyphenols may have some anti-aging properties. Unlike some heavier oils, grapeseed oil is even safe on skin prone to breakouts. It’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and a great wound-healing oil if you’re prone to knee scraps and cuts.

Boost your oil: A few drops of anti-aging sandalwood will help promote soft skin and ease the appearance of wrinkles.

Maybe the most counterintuitive choice here, olive oil — that staple of every Mediterranean pantry — is also an ancient beauty tool (and probably available in your kitchen right now). It’s the ultimate in all-purpose skin salves: Use it to gently remove makeup, soothe cracked heels, deep-condition hair, or just to moisturize dry skin. Use a light touch and wipe off any excess to prevent irritation or clogging.

Boost your oil: Add a few drops of rosemary essential oil for stronger hair. Clinical reviews show that rosemary may restore hair loss and support hair growth.

Jojoba oil, another pantry staple, shares many of the same moisturizing and protective qualities as olive oil. Add a bit of sugar and lemon for a lip scrub, and apply it after sun damage as a balm. While its role in preventing hair loss is debated, research does suggest that treating the scalp with jojoba oil can prevent dandruff.

Boost your oil: Add a few drops of pomegranate essential oil or green tea extract to help tackle further sun damage. Licorice extract may also help with lightening dark spots, or hyperpigmentation.

Just as you can tailor your body oils for you, there’s no one way to apply them either. The best way to avoid skin reactions is to follow a certain set of rules. Shop for single-blend essential oils just like you would any other organic good:

  • Patch test by dabbing a drop on your inner wrist and waiting at least 24 hours to see if there’s a reaction.
  • Buy local when possible, from trusted suppliers.
  • Fewer ingredients and preservatives often mean a lower chance for developing irritation.
  • Skip preservatives and chemicals, when possible.
  • Avoid added fragrances, otherwise listed as parfum.
  • Purchase extra amber (sun-proof) containers for your own blends to avoid exposing the oils to sun too much.

Remember, many of the most effective oils aren’t available at the mall, unless yours has a health food shop. They are, however, a checkout-cart click away, and available at a steep discount, relative to the $100 department store brands. So which hydrating oil is your skin thirsty for?

While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with your doctor before you begin using essential oils and use caution when choosing a quality brand.

Diana Keeler has written for outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Marie Claire, NYLON, and other magazines. She’s based in Brooklyn. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.