For years, dermatologists would pooh-pooh the idea of putting vegetable oil directly on the skin, citing that the skin was unable to absorb these oils, and therefore unable to derive any real moisturizing benefits.
In Ayurveda, certain oils have been emphasized for thousands of years as crucial nourishment for the skin—just one of the many Ayurvedic beauty secrets that result in the appearance of a healthy, radiant and lustrous complexion.
Now, a new understanding of how the skin functions sheds light and credibility on these ancient Ayurvedic techniques. Keep reading to learn three important Ayurvedic beauty secrets that are now enjoying ample scientific backing.
Most Commercial Moisturizers Fall Short
Most commercial skin moisturizers are made up of primarily water with only a small amount of active materials. When the skin is dry and cracked, it will quickly absorb the water in the product, and the tissues of the skin will noticeably expand. Like a deflated balloon, fine lines, wrinkles and dry skin fills with water and, for the moment, the skin looks great.
Shortly thereafter, however, the water evaporates or absorbs into the bloodstream—leaving the skin once again with a dry and aged appearance.
There’s another issue with water as an ingredient in moisturizers: water grows bacteria! Hence, any product that contains water as a filler has to have added preservatives, the last thing you want to be putting on your skin. This, unfortunately, applies to the vast majority of skincare products on the market.
According to Ayurveda, oil is the best choice for supporting healthy and radiant skin. For a long time, however, dermatologists have maintained that the phospholipid layer of the skin cannot absorb the oil, as vegetable oils have too large a molecule to be absorbed through this phospholipid layer of the skin. Not to mention the common conviction that oil ultimately clogs the pores.
The phospholipid layer of the skin is the waterproof layer that keeps our skin water repellant. Our hands, which dry out more quickly, do not produce as much oil as the facial skin and have a thinner phospholipid layer, and thus are not nearly as waterproof as the skin covering the rest of the body. That is why the hands and feet will start to prune up if you stay in the bath too long!
So why is applying oil to the face and body still considered one of Ayurveda’s most effective beauty secrets?
Interestingly, the Ayurvedic application of oil extends far beyond the modern idea of a moisturizer. The oil was used to support the skin in a totally different way! Read Beauty Secret #1 below to understand the philosophy behind Ayurvedic oil application.
Ancient Ayurvedic Beauty Secret #1: Feed the Bugs that Feed Your Skin
Our skin is the home of millions of beneficial microbes. Remember, the human body is made of trillions of cells. Only 10% of these are human cells and the rest of them are microbes—mostly good ones!
These microbes thrive on the surfaces of the skin on the inside and outside of the body. While our outer skin seems to be the skin we concern ourselves most with, there is no doubt that the most important skin lies on the inside, including and in particular the epithelium that lines the digestive tract.
The outer skin produces an oil called sebum. The sebum softens, lubricates and protects the skin. It prevents the skin from drying out and aging prematurely. In addition, it feeds the beneficial bacterial that live on the surface of the outer skin (1).
When the good microbes feed on sebum, the skin microbes produce new immune boosting fatty acids that create the skin’s protective barrier (1).
These fatty acids, as well as topical vegetables oils applied to the skin, provide many benefits to the skin. They protect the skin from exposure to bad bacteria which is abundant and constant (2,3,4). It is these fatty acids that allow mammals in the wild to heal from wounds. These fatty acids moisturize and nourish the skin in a way that water and most moisturizers cannot. It is the way we are designed to moisturize ourselves (1,2,3,4).
The vegetables oils that the dermatologist deemed too large a molecule to penetrate the phospholipid layer of the skin are actually not meant to penetrate the skin at all. As food for the good bacteria living on our skins’ surfaces, they are converted into free fatty acids in the same way the sebum and natural oils produced by the skin are transformed by the skin microbes. In addition, the application of vegetable oils without the microbial conversion has also been shown to support the immunity, health and integrity of the skin (2,3,4,5).
Beauty Secret #1: Feed the beneficial bacteria on your skin by cleansing and/or moisturizing with a gentle plant-based oil, or using a moisturizer that is oil-based, such as LifeSpa’s line of organic moisturizers.
Ancient Ayurvedic Beauty Secret #2: Over-Bathing Kills the Good Bugs
When bathing and showering with lots of soaps and shampoos, the healthy oils and free fatty acids are often washed off, leaving the skin too dry to support the health of the good bacteria that protect it.
Traditionally, light soap was used and plant-based oils such as sesame and coconut were applied to the skin after a shower to nourish and enhance the natural population of good bugs. These good bugs break down the plant oils into extremely active free fatty acids that support skins’ healthy radiance and youthfulness.
Beauty Secret #2: Use a light, natural and low-fragrance soap all over the body several times a week. On other days, use soap only in key places.
Choose soaps and shampoos that are free of the following chemicals:
- Cocamide DEA (diethylalomine) TEA, MEA
- Propylene Glycol
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Flouride
- Benzyl acetate
- Benzyl alcohol
- Ethyl acetate
- Methylene Chloride
Ancient Ayurvedic Beauty Secret #3: Employ Plant-Based Oils as Carriers for Powerful Skin Nourishing Herbals
According to Ayurveda, is was traditional to slowly cook specific herbs into the plant-based oils to make them even more beneficial to the function of the skin. These herbs are impregnated into the oil, enhancing the benefits and lending specific properties to the oil depending on the herbs used. These active herbals are carried to the phospholipid layer of the skin by the oil. From here, the active herbals can cross the lipid barrier as they are smaller in size than the oil molecules themselves.
At LifeSpa, we use six different oils for the face and body (some of these are appropriate for both, others are more appropriate for one or the other—see key below):
- Tri-doshic Massage Oil is cooked herbs that support the health of all body and skin types. Best used for Ayurvedic self-massage (Abhyanga), either in or out of the shower. Learn how to do an Abhyanga here.
- Lymphatic Massage Oil is cooked with special herbs that penetrate the lymph layers just below the skin and help the lymph circulate and flow freely. Best used for Ayurvedic self-massage (Abhyanga) either in or outside of the shower.
- Pure Grade Organic Coconut Oil which is pressed immediately after harvest. Delivers medium chain fatty acids directly to the skin, providing extra protection from undesirable bad bugs on the skin surface. Uses include taking it as an internal supplement (2 teaspoons a day), washing or applying to moist skin on the face and/or all over the body.
- Luscious Mango Body Butter is a shea, avocado and mango butter mix cooked with herbs to support the radiance and function of the skin. May be used for Ayurvedic self-massage (Abhyanga) in or out of the shower, or applied to moist skin all over the body or—in the case of dry skin—on the face.
- Royal Glow Facial Moisturizer and Fountain of Youth Serum contain active and moisturizing herbals suspended in natural squaline, one of the natural moisturizing oils the body produces to maintain healthy skin. Best used on a moist face. Fountain of Youth Serum has a high content of nutrients and is to be used particularly on wrinkles and problem areas of the skin, whereas Royal Glow is intended as an all-over facial moisturizer.
Beauty Secret #3: Rehydrate, clean and rejuvenate your skin with herbalized oil. Here is a skin-nourishing routine you can try:
1. Start by taking a hot shower and apply an herbalized oil deeply into the skin while the shower is running.
2. Get into a hot bath, steam or sauna and sweat for 5-15 minutes. (If none are available just stay in the hot shower for a little longer.) This will allow the oil to begin to pull impurities out of the deeper layers of the skin.
3. Once out of the bath, steam or sauna, vigorously rub off all the oil from your skin with a dry towel. This is a vigorous exfoliating rub that not only removes the oil but any dried surface layers of the skin as well. The skin should feel stimulated and appear reddish in color.
4. Go back into the shower where you apply a very thin coat of the herbalized massage oil all over the body. The oil is applied when the water is running. The amount of oil needed to cover the whole body is minimal.
5. Pat yourself dry. No need for a moisturizer. You have just detoxified your skin, exfoliated it, rehydrated it, deeply moisturized it and created the ideal environment for the skin microbes to protect and produce your very own moisturizing fatty acids.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, in order to nourish the radiance and beauty of our skin, we must consider the bugs first! We now know that the good oils made by the body and the natural plant-based oils applied to the skin daily literally feed the good bugs on the skin, and these bugs in turn change the oils into extremely active and beneficial free fatty acids that support the health and radiance of the skin.
What we don’t know yet and the topic of ongoing research is how the microbiome on the skin supports the skin in other ways. Massaging the skin with fresh and herbalized oils—which has been practiced in Ayurveda for thousands of years—and thereby feeding the good bacteria may be offering the body more health benefits that are yet unknown.
With a little less soap,
1. The Skin Microbiome. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011 April;9(4):244-53
2. Seminars in Immunopathology, April 2007, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 3-14, The skin barrier as an innate immune element, Peter M. Elias
3. An analysis of sebum excretion rate, bacterial population and the production rate of free fatty acids on human skin, J. H. COVE1, K. T. HOLLAND1, W. J. CUNLIFFE2. Article first published online: 29 JUL 2006. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.1980.tb07260.x
4. Healing fats of the skin: the structural and immunologic roles of the ω-6 and ω-3 fatty acids. Clinics in Dermatology, Volume 28, Issue 4, Pages 440-451, Meagen M. McCusker, Jane M. Grant-Kels
5. In Vitro Activity of Olive Oil Polyphenols against Helicobacter pylori J. Agric. Food Chem., 2007, 55 (3), pp 680–686 DOI: 10.1021/jf0630217
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