Trend-Mapping The Rise Of Face Oil

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While “squeaky clean” might be the ideal state for some things in life (kitchen counters, teeth, criminal records), it’s not a useful endgoal when cleansing your face. Dewy, glowing, supple…you’ve seen the commercials (and you've read it on this very site)—your complexion should be on a constant quest for the plushest adjectives. To that end, there’s the tried-and-true moisturizer route, with Embryolisse and Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream leading the hit parade, while the last decade has brought no shortage of face oils to smooth on day, night, or whenever else a dry patch nags you. And though Linda Rodin’s Olio Lusso possesses both the reputation and packaging to make it feel like a Fellini-era classic, its relatively recent arrival in 2007 was preceded by millennia of face oil usage. Here’s a quick look at those immemorial emollients:

Down Under, emu oil is thought to have been used by aboriginal tribes as a moisturizer for an almost-inconceivable length of time—more than 40,000 years. From burial sites and hieroglyphics, archaeologists have determined that ancient Egyptians used a variety of plant-based oils on skin including castor, olive, and sesame oils (the latter two being reputed favorites of Cleopatra). Though people rarely lived beyond age 40 in those days, damage from sun and sand was still considered undesirable. Such woes may have been treated with fenugreek and moringa oils, which boost circulation and deliver antioxidants. Oils were so valuable in ancient Egypt that records suggest they may have been used as a form of payment for labor.

A cautionary tale of over-oiling comes from the annals of one lone female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, who suffered from a severe dermatological condition. She may have caused her own premature death by slathering herself with a proprietary concoction of palm and nutmeg oils mixed with super-carcinogenic benzopyrene (a kind of tar). Suddenly, squeaky clean doesn’t seem so bad.

Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder had a lot to say about oil in his Natural History. It’s not exactly leisure reading, so here’s the Cliffsnotes version: Almond oil “effaces wrinkles on the skin, improves the complexion, and, in combination with honey, removes spots on the face.” (FYI: It will also treat the small worms that breed in the ears—here’s hoping that stays a #firstcenturyproblem.) Like the Egyptians, Pliny touts the use of castor oil for the complexion. Later on in Italy, the crafty Dominican monks at Santa Maria Novella mixed up a Nourishing Night Oil with avocado and macadamia oils that’s still being sold today.

Galen, an early Greek physician, is credited (among many other great accomplishments) with making the move from oil to cream to mass-marketed beauty product. The famed “ Galen’s Wax” is considered to be the world’s first cold cream and was a blend of olive oil, beeswax, and rosewater. It was a sensation, and its essential recipe is the forebear of modern-day Pond’s, Nivea, etc.

From the Middle Ages on, things leaned mostly creamy and waxy in the world of facial moisturizers—they also got a little bit gross (see: Empress Elisabeth of Austria's Crème Céleste made with spermaceti and Queen Elizabeth I’s ceruse, made of white lead and vinegar). Mineral oils had their day in the sun in the burgeoning cosmetics industry of the late-19th/early-20th century with the advent of petroleum-based creams (aforementioned Pond’s), jellies (Vaseline), and baby oils. Such products dipped in popularity when widespread (and eventually unfounded) rumors suggested they could be pore-clogging (i.e. comedogenic) and cancer-causing. In truth, cosmetic-grade mineral oil is safe, moisture-locking, and found in many beauty products beyond your beloved Johnson’s.

The organic obsession of the last 10 years has likely revived collective interest in plant-based oils for face and body. With the advent of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, there is suddenly a plethora of nicely packaged oils to easily introduce oneself to. The artisanal movement likely spurred on interest in at-home mixology; Google’s always there in a pinch for a recipe.

Of course, there are pioneers and royalty to be mentioned in the high-end face oil revolution. Shu Uemura, for one, introduced a cleansing oil to Japan in the late '60s—a move that spawned a number of contemporary variations for different skin needs. In 2007, model-turned-mogul Josie Maran brought argan oil from Morocco (by way of the South of France) to America with her eponymous, all-natural skincare and cosmetics line. And of course, there’s the inimitable Linda Rodin and her holy grail, Olio Lusso. She concocted the brew with a coffee cup in her bathroom, just for herself. But there’s no denying hers is a face (and a bottle) that would launch way, way more than a thousand shipments.

—Lauren Maas

Photo by ITG.

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