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In many ways, oil has shaped the way we live in the 21st century. Oil is everywhere, and it comes in a multitude of forms. We ingest oils for health and palatable pleasure, beautify our skin with oils, heat and cool our homes with oil, fuel our cars with oil and burn glowing candles made from oil.

Fat and oil are also essential components of the human body. Take the skin, our largest organ. It is made of oil, needs oil and even loves oil. The body’s connective tissue stores fat in the form of triglycerides1, which contain saturated and unsaturated fatty acids (see page 22) in varying ratios.

Single unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids—oleic acid2, linoleic acid3 and linolenic acid4—are particularly important to support the skin’s functions. The skin’s outermost layer, the epidermis, must replace close to 100 mg of lipids (fats) every day. These lipids are lost as the skin naturally exfoliates, shedding its fine epidermis cells. Due to the skin’s impressive reabsorption abilities, it can be supplemented with fatty acids internally via nutrition and externally through the upper skin layer. These fatty acids are then incorporated into the skin’s cell membranes.

Fat cells also make up the skin’s innermost layer, the hypodermis. Not only are these oils essential to our skin’s long-term health and protection, they also help conserve the body’s heat and act as a shock absorber, protecting other organs from injury.

Along with its daily loss of oil, the skin as it ages begins to lose its ability to quickly reproduce oils. These vanishing oils must be replenished to keep the skin in healthy balance. Just as the type and quality of ingredients we ingest internally is paramount to our health, those substances “ingested” externally by our skin also affect our well being. It is with this in mind that we explore the different types of oils and their effect on us and our world.

When Oil ≠ Oil

Not all oils are created equal. Oil comes from three main origins, each corresponding to a kingdom of nature: minerals, animals and plants. The source of oil alone can tell us a great deal about the substance’s key properties, its environmental impact and its compatibility with the human organism.

Minerals: Unearthing Oil

Crude oil, commonly known as petroleum, is a fossil fuel made from decaying plants and animals. This oil is chemically comprised of energy-rich hydrocarbons. Gasoline, diesel fuel and paraffin wax are just a few key derivatives of crude oil.

As a fossil fuel, petroleum is nonliving. Our skin, in contrast, is a living organ. Because of this difference, mineral oils don’t penetrate but rather create a layer atop the skin, potentially blocking the pores and disturbing moisture and oxygen regulation. Without oxygen, the skin cannot regenerate and maintain a natural, healthy balance. These oils therefore prevent growth and development. Just as our bodies cannot readily use heavily processed or chemical-laden foods, our skin reads these nonbiodegradable oils as “foreign substances” and is unable to use them to replenish itself. Delving beyond the skin, analysis of the liver and other organs has found sediments of mineral oils, deposited there because they cannot be broken down. While mineral oils may be recommended for some skin conditions, they are generally not ideal for daily use.

The European Union (EU) bans the use in cosmetic products of more than 300 petroleum-based ingredients. These substances have been classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (CMR). In the U.S., the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that works to safeguard public health and the environment, lists more than 90 types of petroleum classified as “petroleum distillates.” According to the EWG’s personal care safety guide “Skin Deep,” these ingredients earn a score of “high” concern. “Many petroleum distillate ingredients have impurity concerns such as polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination,” states EWG researcher Hema Subramanian. “These chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens.” Petrolatum, another petroleum derivative restricted in the EU, is widely used in the U.S. in skin care products such as lip balms, moisturizers, deodorants and face powders.

Animals: Breeding Oil

A variety of fresh and processed foods are comprised of animal fats, such as butter, cheese, whole milk and meat, derived from cows, sheep, pigs and other animals. These fats are often high in saturated fat (see sidebar).

Because the cell make-up of animals can be similar to that of humans, some animal fats are compatible with human skin and provide it with protection. However, plant-based oils are generally milder, lighter and more skin-compatible. Lanolin, a natural component of the wool of sheep, is an exception. While chemically categorized as a wax, it comes from natural oils found in the wool of sheep. This fatty wax has a similar composition to that of the human skin.

The efficiency in using animal fats, even though they come from natural sources, is questionable, as animals heavily rely on other energy sources such as plants to develop and thrive.

Plants: Regrowing Oil

Plants are rich in much-touted unsaturated fatty acids (see previous page sidebar) that cannot be produced by the body itself. They are considered healthier than the saturated fatty acids primarily found in animal fat. Unsaturated fatty acids provide myriad important functions for the skin: they support natural metabolic processes, help build a protective layer, regulate healthy balance and prevent drying. If the skin is lacking in unsaturated fatty acids, it often becomes dry and scaly. Additionally, because these essential vegetable oils are compatible with the skin’s fine lipid layer, they are easily absorbed by the skin and provide lasting nourishment and protection. Pure plant oils recommended for the skin are rich in unsaturated fatty acids and are generally the same as those favored in the kitchen, including oils from almonds, olives, sesame seeds and sunflowers (see next page).

Oils derived from plants preserve the earth’s resources when grown using sustainable and organic farming methods. Plant oils, extracted from seeds, nuts and fruit, are both renewable and biodegradable.

At closer glance and touch the prolific use of oils is, in fact, vital. The recipe for reaping real and nutritious vitality lies, like all good cooks know, in the quality of the ingredients. Air, sunshine, rain and all the living ingredients of nature form the stock of pure oils that nourish the body inside and out. jb

1Triglycerides: The chemical form of what is commonly referred to as fats and oils, they are taken in through food and made by the body from energy sources such as carbohydrates.

2Oleic Acid: This Omega-9, single-bond unsaturated fatty acid naturally occurs in greater quantities than other fatty acids. It is present in animal and vegetable sources, such as olive oil.

3Linoleic Acid: This shortest chain Omega-6 essential, polyunsaturated fatty acid is made up of multiple double bonds.

4Linolenic Acid: This essential Omega-3 fatty acid is made up of double bonds and is found in fish oil and vegetable sources such as sea buckthorn, walnuts, flax and hemp.

5Double Bond: These bonds occur in fatty acids between carbon atoms and result in unsaturated fatty acids. Kinks are formed in the chains of atoms that prevent the molecules from fitting together. As a result, unsaturated fatty acids are liquid at room temperature.