To know me is to know that I hate oil. I hate that it reminds me of pizza grease and the stuff you fry chicken in. I hate that my skin is already full of it and often results in acne. And I hate that in order to beat oil, you have to accept feeling oily. For the past five years (as long as I've worked in beauty), I've embodied the old adage, "I'm trying to get rid of my own oil—so why would I want to add any more to the party?" Alas, I am very well-aware that oils are no longer the enemy. There are even oils that claim to fight acne! Sounds like marketing spin to me, but part of my job is to throw a wrench in my painstakingly curated skincare routine of cleanser + mask + oil-free serum so I can report back to you about whether or not it works.
The Sparknotes of that report is this: It works! Or at least it worked for my pretty mild, non-cystic, non-hormonal breakouts. Another thing I learned is that the nomenclature of oils, serums, spot treatments and basically everything in skincare can get very confusing. What started as a search for clarifying oils ended up as a medicine cabinet full of serums, oils, and spot treaments that all changed the way I'm thinking about my anti-acne routine. Both oils and serums pull their weight when it comes to defeating the bad oil—the serums are usually the lighter option, but not always! There are no rules! As long as the product worked, I listed it here. Read on:
The Time Savers
Dr. Hauschka Clarifying Day Oil was the first I tried because it’s the one I’d heard the most about and seen most often. I fell in love quite quickly. At first I was worried it was too oily (I looked very shiny), but it sinks into your skin quickly and ends up feeling more like a traditional moisturizer. Hence the time saving: Using this meant that I didn't have to treat AND THEN moisturize. One product was all I needed.
Joanna Vargas' Daily Serum I’d lump in this category as well. It’s not explicitly marketed for oily skin, but the bottle says it's "clarifying." (Joanna also told me that in person.) On skin, it feels easy and soothing. It’s green too, which, like my favorite Skinceuticals Phyto Corrective Gel, makes me think it’s helping fight my redness with color theory.
The Really Serious Ones
Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil is green, too, and you can feel it working the minute it touches your skin. Scratch that—you can feel it working the minute you open the bottle and smell it. In the words of Isabelle Bellis, "It's quite charged." But for my skin, that works just fine. I put it on in the morning, and by the end of the day, I could tell I had produced less of my own oil. (Gross.)
Uma is not a brand for those afraid of essential oils. These very fancy oils are full of very fancy botanicals—and for me, that's fine. The Deeply Clarifying Face Oil is STRONG though, enough to get creative with how you apply it. I used it almost like a mask: I'd massage it onto clean skin when I got home and then wash off before bed. Go for this one if your skin (and wallet) can take it.
The Gentle Guys
The Pai Copaiba and Zinc Perfect Balance Blemish Serum is probably the one I’ll keep in heaviest rotation, especially this summer, but it’s not standalone. Using this I definitely needed a moisturizer after, and there’s nothing oily about it. It feels very matte and smells quite sciencey—not exactly pleasant but, damn, does it work. My skin stayed super matte and I definitely felt it clearing up small breakouts. Glossier Super Pure is similar to this for me, it’s more liquid than oily for sure, and definitely won’t make your skin tingle. Wear it under a cream, though. Moisture is important, even if it makes your face a little slick. How does the saying go again? Moisturized is the new matte? Something like that.
Photographed by the author.