Everything You Need To Know About Non-Essential Oils

Instructions are overrated.

Author by Theresa Fisher
Art Credit: Amy Hunt

I quit washing my face in 2011.

For years, I’d been stuck in the same cycle: I’d go buy some silky, milky cleanser — engineered for super-sensitive skin like mine, priced for deep pockets not at all like mine — and lather up my face in the hopes of achieving dewy results. Instead, I’d wake up to a tapestry of itchy flakes and red papules all over my forehead or nose. My skin looked much better when I just let it stew in its own grease.

I needed to break the cycle. So I set out to find a new approach to skincare. When I found non-essential oils, I stopped looking. 

Everyone’s heard of essential oils, those aromatic little nostrums typically sold in tiny vials labeled “jasmine,” “lemongrass,” “balsam of Peru,” and so forth. Essential oils aren’t true oils; they’re highly concentrated liquids extracted from the leaves, root, or flower of a plant. And they’re “essential” because they are a distillation of plant essence, not because they’re mandatory for health and happiness. 

“Non-essential oil” might not be as familiar a term. That’s probably because I made it up. More commonly known as carrier oils, base oils, or fixed oils, NEOs are plant-based oils derived from nuts, seeds, kernels, and other types of fatty plant “meat.” As the workhorses of the oil family, NEOs are often used to “carry” essential oils, which are too intense for direct use, onto skin.

But NEOs aren’t only used to protect the delicate epidermis from corrosive flower water. They’re also multi-purpose salves with all sorts of beautifying, nourishing, anti-aging, and rash-tempering properties of their own. In fact, people have been putting NEOs on and inside their bodies for thousands of years.* NEOs are my EOs. 


I came home from my first oil-shopping trip with 1.7 fluid ounces of argan oil because a salesperson told me to buy it. It was packed with antioxidants, she said. It was gaining a serious cult following, she said. I want in! I said.

I loved my first-ever NEO before I even opened it, mainly because its dainty bottle looked like a tincture I might have picked up at an apothecary, if I lived in a time or place in which I picked up tinctures at apothecaries. I didn’t love that it cost $50. But, I mean, hasn’t everyone had a “treat yo’self and yo’inflamed skin” moment? (I’d like to point out that “treat yo’self” was a fresh and cool expression in 2011.)

The instructions on the argan oil bottle said to squeeze two or three drops of oil onto my face and carefully massage it into my skin. I did not follow the instructions. Instead, I squeezed many drops of oil onto my face. Then I rubbed more drops on my cuticles, and massaged still more into my temples, because doesn’t that sound like a fancy thing to do?

I also used my argan oil as a makeup primer. And as makeup remover. And as a cleanser — which felt mandatory, seeing as internet strangers told me the Oil Cleansing Method was a core part of the Oil Loving Life.

The OCM is based on the idea that “like dissolves like.” Rather than use cleansers to strip my skin of its natural oils, I was supposed to massage other oils into it, thereby removing hardened sebum from my pores without disrupting my face’s fragile ecosystem.  

But the OCM instructions were too complicated. I did not have a microfiber cloth. I did not have three oils to blend together, in a precise ratio, for ideal consistency. I did not have the patience for semi-circular motions. So, again, I did not follow the instructions.

Finally, I used the argan oil as a moisturizer. This is apparently a controversial thing to do. Some oil-ists feel strongly that oils don’t work as moisturizers. But a few experts told me that’s not quite right. 

There are three types of substances that perform moisturizing functions: 1) Occlusives form a sealant on top of the skin to prevent water from evaporating; 2) humectants draw water vapors from the environment into the skin; 3) emollients get in between skin cells to replenish natural fatty acids that are necessary to keep skin hydrated and resistant to inflammation. This is the most important function for long-term moisturization.

The oils-don’t-moisturize camp says oils aren’t true moisturizers because they aren’t humectants. But the issue isn’t so clear-cut, according to Vivian Shi, a professor of dermatology and Director of the Eczema and Skin Barrier Clinic at the University of Arizona. Shi says that natural oils basically perform all three moisturizing functions. 

Apple Bodemer, a dermatologist and director of the Integrative Dermatology Clinic at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, thinks the debate over whether or not oils are moisturizers is a mostly a matter of semantics. “Technically,” she said, “most things that pass as moisturizers are not moisturizers.”

And Bodemer concedes that, while oils are not true humectants, they still do a lot for skin hydration. She recommends applying oils over lightly damp skin to maximize their moisturizing effects. 

I didn’t know my humectants from my occlusives. But I thought my oil-slathered skin felt rather moist.

I ran out of argan oil within a few days. I knew I had to cut myself off; I couldn’t afford to develop a bottle-a-week habit. Luckily, I soon discovered much cheaper NEOs at the health-food store: Jojoba! Grape seed! Sweet almond! Coconut! 

They came in regular plastic containers that belonged nowhere near an old-timey apothecary. But they cost about as much as a latte and seemed to do the same thing as argan oil — meaning they didn’t anger my skin like most things did. 

So I built up a stable of NEOs. The inexpensive ones flowed freely while the pricier ones sat in their lovely glass bottles, waiting for special oil-ing occasions. 

I also made sure to amass the requisite NEO knowledge:

  • I got familiar with oil jargon. (The vague term “beauty oil” can apply to NEOs, NEO blends and NEOs infused with essential oils and other additives.)
  • I learned the basics of choosing NEOs. (Cold-pressed, extra virgin oils are the gold standard. Baby oil, which is made from petroleum, is not an NEO at all.)
  • I learned the basics of using NEOs. (It’s wise to patch-test oils before dousing your body in them, and also to throw out any oils that smell funny.)
  • I read tips for, and fun facts about, all my NEOs: (Jojoba oil is a lot like human sebum; coconut oil is an eczema patch’s best friend.)

But I applied my oil knowledge in a selective and cavalier manner. Because I didn’t want to play by the rules. I just wanted to play — and, you know, live my oil-y truth, or whatever. 

Since high school, I’ve found something soothing, even luxurious, about hovering over the bathroom sink, grabbing jars and tubes of this and that, and spending 20-or-so minutes in a trance, indiscriminately blotting, rubbing, and painting my face. It had become a ritual of sorts, if a ritual is something you do in an unmethodical way on an irregular basis. So maybe these trances were less a ritual than a “sometimes thing” that I’d done, sometimes, for years. 

Thanks to my increasingly reactive skin, however, I’d largely given up my sometimes thing. Instead, I’d taken up reading labels, heeding warnings, and generally using products as they were intended.

But NEOs, which didn’t rankle my skin, freed me from the chains of responsible skincare and let me resume my sometimes thing: I’d open the medicine cabinet, survey the row of half-filled oil bottles, and get to work. A little of this to take off mascara, a dab of that to exfoliate my lips, a blend of both to soothe an eyebrow waxing mishap.

I realized that my wanton approach to oil use made it tough to perform any kind of A-B product testing. I knew that I occasionally left the house with my face glistening like an onion ring caught in the deep fryer. But perfect skin wasn’t my goal. Shiny but rash-less was good enough. It still is. 

Last year, I learned that I have a fragrance allergy. As a result, I had to clear out my arsenal of personal-care products and start buying everything from an allergist-approved list. Essential oils — and anything with essential oils — topped my list of contraband items. But, as usual, NEOs were A-OK. 

The Most Essential Non-Essential Oils In My Medicine Cabinet

Jojoba oil
A light-golden oil derived from the seed of the Jojoba shrub. Due to its high wax content, jojoba oil is remarkably similar to human sebum. It can be used on all skin types for a range of cosmetic and dermatological purposes, including to lighten dark spots and exfoliate flaky skin. Jojoba also contains copper and zinc, which makes it helpful for treating viral skin infections. It’s pretty cheap and has a long shelf life. Alternative option(s): Luscious, ultra-absorbent Rosehip oil or Apricot kernel oil (just beware of its high rancidity).

Coconut oil
An uber-versatile cult-favorite oil that’s semi-solid at room temperature. It can be used for anything from making your hair shiny to shaving off your body hair to lubricating your body parts (says Patti Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker). Coconut oil’s antimicrobial properties and high cholesterol content make it a great salve for inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and rosacea. But it may be too thick for those with acne-prone skin. Very cheap, medium shelf life. Alternative option(s): Avocado oil

Argan Oil
A mildly nutty oil, is extracted from the kernels of the argan tree and native to, and only to, Morocco. It has a variety of skin-barrier-strengthening fatty acids, uber-moisturizing vitamin E, tons of antioxidants, and some anti-inflammatory properties. Overall, it’s a good, general-purpose oil. But it’s expensive, making it a better accent oil than an everyday go-to. Expensive, medium shelf life. Alternative option(s): Marula oil is like argan oil but more exotic, more expensive, supposedly more antioxidant-packed, and maybe even more beloved by beauty bloggers.

Grape Seed Oil
A light, nearly odorless oil extracted from the seed of a grape that can be used on even the most acne-prone or sensitive skin. Its high antioxidant count makes it a good choice for use after sun exposure (to minimize UV damage). It also has a lot of linoleic acid, which indicates strong anti-inflammatory properties. Very cheap, short shelf life. Alternative option(s): Sweet almond oil, which is commonly used in massage therapy and as a carrier oil.


*NEOs are food-grade oils, i.e., you can eat them, drink them, and oil-pull them. But you won’t learn anything about consuming or cooking NEOs from reading this.

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