As the weather gets warmer, it becomes increasingly important to be mindful of what goes on your skin. We all know that sunscreen is crucial for protecting against the destructive effects of ultraviolet light. So put on some SPF and you’re set, right?
Actually, that might not be enough.
Even if you choose a natural, zinc-oxide based sunscreen, your best attempts at anti-aging could potentially be impeded by the oils in your favourite skincare products.
You might have heard about the dangers of excess polyunsaturated fats in your diet — but did you know that they can also be dangerous to your skin?
In this article, you will learn:
- Why polyunsaturated oils can damage your skin
- What this means for your summer skin care products
- Simple swaps to help you protect yourself
Table of Contents
- The dangers of polyunsaturated fats
- Sunlight and polyunsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats and your skin
- Monounsaturated fats: a safer option
- Saturated fats: the best option
- How to build a low-PUFA skincare regimen
- Low-PUFA SPF for face
- Low-PUFA SPF for body
- Low-PUFA facial oils
- Low-PUFA eye care
- Low-PUFA makeup
- Low-PUFA lip care
The dangers of polyunsaturated fats
What do oils like sweet almond, sunflower, argan, and rosehip have in common? Aside from being common in skin care products, they’re all composed predominantly of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs for short.
PUFAs, otherwise known as omega-6 and omega-3, are the most unstable fatty acids of all. These fatty acids are easily oxidized (or in other words, damaged) in the presence of light, heat and oxygen.
The reason PUFAs are so volatile is because their molecules contain double bonds, which are weak and easily broken apart. Oxygen has no problem sneaking into these double bonds, leading to oxidation.
When a fatty acid oxidizes, it creates a chain reaction of free radicals that chemists refer to as free radical cascades. Once set in motion, a free radical cascade goes on to damage normal, previously undamaged lipids.
Sunlight and polyunsaturated fats
If polyunsaturated oils are easily oxidized by light, heat, and oxygen, and going out in the sun guarantees that you will be exposed to high levels of light, heat, and oxygen — then you might understand how wearing your favourite facial oil outdoors could pose a serious problem.
To make matters worse, not only will the sun oxidize the lipids in the oil, but it can also extend this damage to the lipids in your skin. In fact, PUFAs have been identified as one of the main culprits that cause cellular damage in the presence of radiation. Sunlight = ultraviolet radiation.
In one study, two groups of shaved rabbits were fed diets containing either corn oil or coconut oil. After exposure to sunlight, the rabbits fed corn oil developed wrinkled, aged skin. Conversely, the rabbits fed coconut oil showed no such damage from the sun exposure.
What does this mean? On one hand, it mean that excess PUFAs in your diet are connected to skin aging (but more on that another time). On another hand, it means wearing a topical polyunsaturated oil out in the sun can also contribute to skin aging.
Not exactly what you signed up for when you bought that oil serum.
What about wearing PUFAs indoors?
PUFAs don’t need UV light to oxidize — though UV light will oxidize them faster, any light has the capacity. Also consider that many establishments use fluorescent lighting, and fluorescent lights emit UV radiation. Staying indoors does not guarantee safety.
Polyunsaturated fats and your skin
What this all means is that — if your goal is to have healthy skin — any product containing mostly PUFAs is not completely safe for outdoor wear, especially during the summer months. This goes for anything you put on your skin, whether it is a facial oil, sunscreen, or foundation. The more PUFAs a product contains, the more likely it is to oxidize.
Polyunsaturated oils include:
- Argan oil
- Black cumin seed oil
- Camelina oil
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Evening primrose oil
- Flax/linseed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Hemp oil
- Maracuja oil
- Peanut oil
- Pumpkin seed oil
- Red raspberry seed oil
- Rosehip oil
- Safflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Walnut oil
Now, if you’re looking at the ingredients of your favourite sunscreen or moisturizer in frustration, there’s no need to lose hope — there are other options.
Monounsaturated fats: a safer option
We know now that PUFAs have two or more double bonds in their molecules that make them susceptible to damage. On the other hand, monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) have only one place, or double bond, in which oxygen can react.
While oxidation is still a risk, it turns out that having one less double bond means that a reaction is billions of times less likely to occur. (See this book.) This makes MUFAs, like omega-7 and omega-9, a lot safer and more stable than PUFAs.
Monounsaturated oils include:
- Avocado oil
- Baobab oil
- Buriti oil
- Camellia oil
- Carrot seed oil
- Castor oil
- Crambe oil
- Jojoba oil
- Macadamia oil
- Marula oil
- Moringa oil
- Olive oil
While choosing a monounsaturated oil is a safer option, it’s important to note that these oils are not 100% comprised of MUFAs. They still contain some PUFAs, just in smaller numbers than predominantly polyunsaturated oils.
The percentage of PUFAs in any given oil plays a key role in its likelihood to oxidize. For instance, the PUFA content of olive oil can vary anywhere from 3.5% – 21%. In terms of oxidation, 21% PUFA is still a big risk to take.
Saturated fats: the best option
We know that MUFA molecules have one double bond at which oxygen can react, and PUFA molecules have two (or more) — so what about saturated fatty acids (SFAs)?
As it turns out, SFAs have absolutely no double bonds.
Thanks to the shape of these molecules, they have no room for oxygen to squeeze in — and even high heat (or sunlight) can’t force them to oxidize.
Saturated oils include:
- Beef tallow
- Capric/Caprylic triglycerides
- Cocoa butter
- Coconut oil
- Fractionated coconut oil
- Shea butter and shea oil
- Squalane oil
How to build a low-PUFA skincare regimen
Your best bet for a summer skincare regimen is to focus on products that contain predominantly saturated and monounsaturated fats. Ideally, to protect your skin, your regimen should be as low PUFA as possible.
Does this mean I recommend throwing away any skincare product that contains PUFA oils? Not necessarily — that would be wasteful and a tad obsessive.
If you love argan oil and it causes no issues for you, by all means keep using it. However, consider that it might not be helping your skin goals in the long run.
If you can’t bear to part with some of your PUFA-based products, you can start by using them less often. It’s also a good idea to save them for the nighttime, when you’ll be exposed to less light.
I don’t think it’s necessary to be a purist. I won’t denounce something just because it contains a little bit of PUFA towards the end of the ingredients list. But when it comes to outdoor wear, I do like to see saturated or monounsaturated oils comprising the bulk of a product.
Low-PUFA SPF for Face
Juice Beauty Oil-Free SPF 30 Moisturizer: This sunscreen is technically oil free, but contains saturated fatty acids in the form of capric/caprylic triglycerides derived from coconut oil. It also contains vitamins E and C, both potent sun protectors. Best of all, it has 20% non-nano zinc oxide as SPF, which is a safe, effective mineral sunscreen. This is my go-to moisturizer year-round, and I just make sure reapply it more frequently during the summer.
Devita Solar Protective Moisturizer SPF 30+: Like Juice Beauty, this sunscreen is comprised of capric/caprylic triglycerides derived from coconut oil. It also contains 19% micronized, non-nano zinc oxide and antioxidant vitamin E. I haven’t used it personally, but it’s on my list to try.
Low-PUFA SPF for body
Rocky Mountain Soap Co. Face and Body Natural Sunscreen SPF 31: This natural sunscreen is formulated with coconut oil and jojoba oil. It also contains a high 20% zinc oxide. But that’s not even the best part. It smells like a cross between vanilla cupcakes, coconut frosting and birthday cake. Did I mention it smells amazing? And my pale skin didn’t burn at all after wearing this for hours in full sunlight.
Devita Natural Skin Care Solar Body Moisturizer SPF 30+: This broad-spectrum sunscreen is made with a base of capric/caprylic triglycerides, shea butter, olive oil, and jojoba oil to nourish your skin while it protects. It even contains squalane and vitamin E for even more UV-protective punch.
Nine Naturals Natural Sunscreen UVA plus UVB SPF 32: This sunscreen looks very promising. The base is comprised of olive oil, jojoba oil, and shea butter. Not only does it contain safe fats, but it has a whopping 25% non-nano zinc oxide, which is even more than the minimum 20% required for adequate protection! It’s also worth nothing that it’s pregnancy safe.
Where to buy: Amazon
Low-PUFA facial oils
Not to be confused with shark-derived squalene, squalane is a cholesterol precursor found in human sebum. It’s completely saturated, so it’s not at all susceptible to oxidation. In fact, it appears to function as an antioxidant, protecting the skin’s surface from lipid peroxidation caused by UV exposure. While it shouldn’t replace your SPF, it can help protect you from sun damage.
Don’t worry — squalane is cruelty-free and derived from olives or other plant sources. It’s my favourite oil at the moment. It’s light, soaks into skin quickly, and has never caused me to break out. I love to layer squalane under my SPF for extra moisture. It also soaks right into hair.
Skin Actives Squalane Oil
Where to buy: Skin Actives
This monounsaturated, golden oil has a slightly more viscous texture than squalane. A little goes a long way — it’s silky and very spreadable. It also contains more vitamin E than argan oil, which gets a lot of buzz. According to Dr. Ray Peat, topical or internal vitamin E has been found to reduce the damage caused by ultraviolet radiation.
Like squalane, marula oil also makes a nourishing hair oil.
Nilotica shea butter
Nilotica shea is typical Western shea butter’s softer, silkier, and more luxurious cousin. Its lighter texture makes it more suited for the face. For some people — me included — typical shea butter can be congesting. Rubbed on the backs of your hands, most shea butters will sit on top like a waxy film, whereas Nilotica shea butter will soak right in. Try it!
Contrary to typical shea butter, which is harvested from West Africa, Nilotica shea butter is harvested from the rare Nilotica trees in secluded regions of East Africa. It’s rich in soothing compounds like allantoin, which makes it great for those suffering from inflammatory skin conditions. It’s also richer in vitamins A and E than Western shea butter.
Shea Terra Organics Shea Nilotik Virgin Shea Butter: The Nilotica shea butter that I’ve been using and loving. According to their website, the butter is harvested by women in Uganda who are paid up to eight times the usual wage.
Where to buy: Amazon, Walgreens
LXMI Pure Nilotica Melt Nourishing Balm-to-Oil: This luxury option is on my list to try. According to LXMI, their shea is harvested by low-income women in the Nile Valley who are paid three times the local wages. Not sure how their wages compares to Shea Terra Organics, but both companies seem to have a great philosophy.
Where to buy: Amazon, Sephora
Low-PUFA eye care
I stopped using eye creams — most of them are high in PUFAs, or just have a high price tag. Instead, I’ve been using serums and layering my own oils or butters overtop.
The Ordinary Caffeine Solution 5% + EGCG: This light serum contains a high 5% concentration of caffeine with potent antioxidant EGCG, derived from green tea leaves. I’ve been using it to improve my puffiness and dark circles with great results so far. I love this product, and I also love its price!
Jeffrey James Botanicals The Eye Gel: This cooling, cucumber-infused eye gel is formulated with jojoba oil. Thanks to the inclusion of Cassia Angustifolia Seed Polysaccharide, a botanical form of hyaluronic acid, the gel forms a jelly-like layer under your eyes that locks in moisture. This particular form of botanical hyaluronic acid is the same one used by natural brand Consonant in their cornerstone luxury product, Hydrextreme. The Eye Gel is packed with amino acids that nourish the delicate eye area, and antioxidants that help protect from oxidative damage.
The right makeup should nourish your skin just like your skincare does. This is absolutely possible with the right products.
RMS Beauty Un Cover-Up Concealer/Foundation: This hybrid concealer/foundation of only 8 ingredients is formulated with coconut oil, castor oil, jojoba oil and cocoa butter. The smooth, melt-into-your-skin texture makes it more than worth the price. It wears like a second skin. I will never stop buying this.
BareMinerals BareSkin Pure Serum Brightening Foundation SPF 20: This oil-free liquid foundation is formulated with capric/caprylic triglycerides. It boasts a clean ingredients list free of parabens and silicones — in fact, I think it’s the cleanest liquid foundation on the entire Sephora site. It goes on a bit oily, but the formula dries to a smooth finish. A little goes a long way — you only need a few drops. Contrary to the negative reviews on the Sephora site, I liked the formula. However, their shade selection is off. The lightest shade, Bare Porcelain, was too orange for my skin.
RMS Beauty Living Luminizer: Another favourite from RMS Beauty, this gorgeous, mesmerizing cream highlighter is formulated with coconut, castor, and sunflower oils. (Since the polyunsaturated sunflower oil appears lower on the ingredients list, I don’t think it’s a big deal.) I’m a fan of dewy makeup looks, and this product doesn’t disappoint. This will make your cheekbones positively glisten with a subtle, silvery, translucent glow. It also gives you a wet finish that just isn’t possible with powder highlighters.
RMS Beauty Magic Luminizer: Warmer, bolder and more opaque than the Living Luminizer, RMS Beauty’s Magic Luminizer graces your complexion with a metallic, champagne opalescence. The formula is thicker than the Living Luminizer thanks to a higher percentage of coconut oil and beeswax. It feels drier on your skin, almost like a powder, but without the overly matte finish of a true powder highlighter. It’s also more heavily pigmented. The result is a dramatic, buildable glow that looks lit from within. I like to layer the Living Luminizer over the Magic Luminizer for the perfect combination of pigment and dewiness.
RMS Beauty Champagne Rosé Luminizer: RMS Beauty’s latest highlighter creation is a blush-pink luminizer that imparts a pinkish opalescence to your skin. Based on the ingredients, it looks similar in texture to the castor oil-based Living Luminizer. I can’t yet justify another highlighter purchase, so for now this one is on my wishlist.
Where to buy: Sephora
bareMinerals Blush: This natural mineral blush has a clean formula of just pure minerals — that’s it. It’s also very economical. A jar of this will last forever!
bareMinerals Faux Tan All-Over Face Color: This natural mineral bronzer is my go-to for contouring. Like the bareMinerals blush, it’s economical and the formula is clean.
RMS Beauty Buriti Bronzer and RMS Beauty Contour Bronzer: These cream bronzers are formulated with coconut, jojoba, and buriti oils, along with cocoa butter. I haven’t yet tried them, but I already know I love everything from this line. As soon as my bronzer of choice runs out, I know what I’ll be trying next.
RMS Beauty Lip2Cheek: This multitasking cream blush and lip colour is on my wishlist. Like all of RMS Beauty’s makeup, it’s based on safe, stable fats, and boasts a short, natural ingredients list. The creamy formula is highly buildable, providing a subtle flush or a pop of colour depending on how much you use.
Low-PUFA lip care
Shea butter: Pure shea butter is, in my opinion, the best natural lip balm. It’s a saturated fat that is safe even when ingested (which is important, since ingestion is inevitable with any lip product). Nilotica shea butter is too thin for lips and will rub off easily, but Western shea’s thicker, richer texture is perfect.
My favourite shea butter is Out of Africa’s Wildcrafted Shea Butter in Vanilla. The scent is intoxicating, and it doesn’t have the crumbly texture of some other brands of shea butter. Instead, it’s smooth and rich, which also makes it perfect for incorporating into a cleansing balm. Bonus: their huge tubs will last you forever.
The only caveat with using shea butter as a lip balm is that it does not contain enough SPF to prevent DNA damage on a sunny day. Which leads me to my next recommendation…
Green Cricket SPF 30 Lip Balm: This natural lip balm is made with a combination of shea, coconut, avocado, jojoba and castor oils, with 20% zinc oxide as SPF. Most lip balms that claim to be SPF 30 have a far lower percentage of zinc oxide. It also has vitamin E as antioxidant. I use it by itself or underneath my lipstick if I’m going to be outside. Due to the nature of lip products, this must be reapplied often to ensure adequate protection.
Where to buy: Well.ca
Bite Beauty Amuse Bouche Lipstick: While their lipstick contains some PUFAs, Bite Beauty is still one of my favourite brands for lip products. Their products are free of silicones and glycols, and contain beneficial antioxidants like resveratrol. Since you will inevitably ingest some of your lipstick, it better be one of the cleanest products in your makeup bag. I also love their Matte Crème Lip Crayon.
RMS Beauty Lip Shine: Yet another product from my favourite line. It’s made with castor, coconut and buriti oils, along with cocoa butter. It’s intensely hydrating and gives your lips a gorgeous sheen. I love it in Honest, which is a flattering pink. It’s described on the Sephora website as a “nude, dusty rose,” but on my colouring it shows up as a pink with a hint of coral.
There you have it! These makeup and skincare options can be worn to the beach without inflaming or aging your skin. Let me know if you try anything on the list, or if you find something else that I should know about. I’d love to hear your discoveries.
This post wouldn’t be complete without thanking Michelle Vilett of my favourite beauty blog, Beautyeditor. I already knew about the dangers of dietary polyunsaturated fats, but her blog posts on the subject opened my eyes to the risks of using them on your skin. Many of the products mentioned in this post were initially discovered through her recommendations. Thank you, Michelle!
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