Oil cleansing sounds like a cardinal sin to a sensible skin care regimen. We’ve all heard the warning that only oil-free products will keep our skin clear and gorgeous.

But researchers are starting to uncover the incredible benefits of oils for skin, and soothing, healing ingredients that have been used for hundreds of years are seeing a resurgence in popularity.

Now, cleansing the face with oil is going mainstream. Even well-known companies like Neutrogena have an oil cleanser in their product lineup. Many women have turned to oil cleansing as a way to gently remove makeup, soothe sensitive skin, and tame unrelenting breakouts. Using oils instead of traditional soap or detergent cleansers can also help protect the natural lipid layer of the skin and the good bacteria that live there.

While we still have a lot to learn about the microbiome in our bodies and on our skin, recent research shows that the bacteria that thrives on our skin can help protect against infection like acne.

How does oil cleanse your skin?

For many people, “cleansing,” brings to mind foamy lather and rinsing.

Oil cleansing can include both, but for the most part it’s done with pure oils and a washcloth dampened with warm water.

Some women, particularly those who adhere to a K-beauty regimen, will also follow their oil cleanse with a gentle face wash to remove any oil residue. K-beauty is short for Korean beauty, an umbrella term for Korean skin care products and techniques that have become popular in the United States.

The basic idea behind slathering your face in oils in the name of cleaning is that “like dissolves like.” In other words, putting clean, nourishing oils on your skin is intended to:

  • lift excess sebum, the oily substance produced by glands your skin
  • clean out clogged pores like blackheads and whiteheads
  • remove dead skin, pollutants, and makeup

Makeup removers often include oil because it’s well-suited for lifting oil-free, oil-based, and waterproof formulas off the skin and lashes.

Traditional cleansers can irritate the skin, cause excessive dryness, exacerbate acne, and ultimately result in the skin overproducing oil after washing. Oil cleansing, on the other hand, can help balance the skin and lock in hydration. Oils used for cleansing may also have healing properties, important nutrients, or other skin-boosting benefits.

While there is currently little research on oil cleansing, a small 2010 study found that cleansing oil was good for dry, mature skin. More currently, another small study found that adults and children who used a bath oil every other day for a month had better skin barrier function and fewer symptoms of dry skin than those who used oil-free cleansers.

How to choose a cleansing oil

Now that so many brands have added an oil cleanser to their line, you have the option of buying a premixed version formulated for your skin type or making your own. Premade oil cleansers are easy to find online and in most drugstores and beauty stores. If you have acne-prone skin, look for products that say they are noncomedogenic to ensure that they won’t clog your pores.

The oils most commonly used in DIY recipes are olive oil and castor oil. Most recipes recommend starting with a 1:1 ratio of these two oils. Then increase the amount of olive oil for dry skin or castor oil for oily, acne-prone skin. Olive oil is rich in vitamins and antioxidants and is important for hydration. Castor oil is antibacterial and acts like an astringent cleaner.

That said, you can use other oils in the basic recipe above, depending on your skin’s needs. For instance, you may want to use jojoba oil if you have oily or acne-prone skin, instead of olive oil, since it’s been shown to help reduce acne and balance oil production. Or you may add avocado oil for extra moisture if you have dry skin.

Great oils to use for oil cleansing:

  • olive oil
  • castor oil
  • sweet almond oil
  • grapeseed oil
  • avocado oil
  • sunflower oil
  • apricot kernel oil
  • argon oil
  • jojoba oil

You can also buy brand-name oil cleansers, such as:

Regardless of what oils you choose, it’s important to buy high-quality oils and cleansers that don’t have any scents or dyes added. Look for cold-pressed, unrefined virgin oils when possible.

How to oil cleanse

There are two ways to oil cleanse. One involves removing the applied oil with warm water or a wet washcloth. The other, popularized by K-beauty, follows oil removal with a gentle cleanser to remove any residue. Before you try either, test the cleansing oil on a small patch of your skin for a couple of days to see how your skin reacts.

Basic oil cleanse

  1. Put 1 to 2 teaspoons of oil in the palm of your hand. For dry skin, start with a 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of castor oil. For acne-prone or oily skin, start with a 1/2 teaspoon of jojoba and a 1/2 teaspoon of castor oil.
  2. Apply the oil to your dry face. Use your fingertips to gently massage the oil into the skin for a minute or two to remove impurities like makeup and dead skin cells and let it penetrate the skin.
  3. Use a damp, warm washcloth to gently wipe away the oil. Be careful not to press too hard or scrub at your skin since this can irritate the skin and cause breakouts. A smooth, soft washcloth is best. You can also just rinse with warm water if you want some of the oil to stay on your skin. Your face should be hydrated when you’re done, but not greasy or overly irritated from wiping it down.
  4. Pat dry with a towel and apply moisturizer if you feel you need it.

K-beauty double cleanse

If you’re prone to acne or oily skin, you may want to follow this method. You’ll still get the cleaning and hydrating benefits of the oil cleanse, but you won’t have to worry about any oil being left behind to clog your pores.

  1. Follow the first three steps above for a basic oil cleanse.
  2. Wash with a mild face wash that won’t strip your skin of its new hydration (like Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser or Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser).
  3. Pat dry with a towel and apply moisturizer if you feel you need it.

Some cleansing oils like Neutrogena Ultra Light Cleansing Oil and Juice Beauty Stem Cellular Cleaning Oil include surfactants in the formula so that the mixture foams slightly once you add water and rinses off cleanly.

How often should you oil cleanse?

You should oil cleanse no more than once a day, but you can also do it infrequently as a special treatment. It’s best to do this at night so your skin is well-hydrated for bed.

What to expect after you oil cleanse

Your skin should feel supple and be free of makeup and other products after you oil cleanse. Depending on your skin type, you may not need to moisturize afterward.

Oil cleansing can cause an allergic reaction, irritation, or clogged pores, which is why it’s important to do a patch test before applying an oil cleanser on your face. Women with cystic acne should talk to their dermatologist before trying an oil cleanse to prevent aggravating their skin.

Very few studies exist on oil cleansing, but there is anecdotal evidence that it may take a week or two for your skin to adjust. “Purging,” or breakouts that are caused by new products bringing bacteria to the surface of your skin, isn’t normal in oil cleansing. However, if you’re getting an increase in breakouts, especially after you’ve been oil cleansing for a couple of weeks, you may need to use a gentle face wash after, change the oils you use, or stop oil cleansing altogether.