Video: Skincare Oils and Free Fatty Acids: The Science

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If you’re a skincare nerd, you may know that different skincare oils have different fatty acid profiles – that is, they differ in terms of which fatty acids they contain e.g. linoleic, linolenic, oleic and lauric acid.

The fatty acids have interesting properties. For example, lauric acid is strongly antibacterial, and works better than benzoyl peroxide against Propionibacterium acnes bacteria. Oleic acid is a barrier disruptor, while linoleic acid can fade pigment. So it sounds like skincare oils could be interesting active ingredients or irritants, alongside moisturisation!

Related post: Do oils make your skin less oily? The myth of rebound oil

But there’s a catch: in oils, these fatty acids aren’t actually acids at all. They’ve undergone a chemical reaction to form new substances called triglycerides. These triglycerides can be broken down to form the free fatty acids again under the right conditions: during digestion, and in the process of saponification in soap-making. But does this happen on the surface of your skin?

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, and I’ve had a few chats on and off with fellow nerd Stephen of Kind of Stephen over the years but we never really came to any firm conclusions. I finally sat down recently and dug up all of the papers I could find on fatty acids and combed through them all to try to make some sense of it (there were literally about 400 papers that I sorted through, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to do it earlier… I probably didn’t need to go through so many, but I like to be extra thorough to convince myself thrice over before trying to convince anyone else!).

Video: Skincare Oils and Free Fatty Acids: The Science
(Secretly also a Lana Del Rey hair tutorial)

A disclaimer: I don’t recommend trying to sift through the literature to “discover” new things in research-heavy areas (e.g. acne and other skin disorders) because rest assured, researchers who know a lot more about this stuff and have a ton more training have already done this and published it in a review, and if you manage to find something new it’s probably not supported by the research. But whether skincare oils break down into free fatty acids is not the sort of topic that gets funded, so I feel safe(ish) making my own conclusion here, although I welcome review!

Related post: Are unsaturated oils bad for your skin?

Here’s the video, in which I go through the chemistry of fatty acids and triglycerides, the key studies, and explain the (sort of, kind of, tentatively convincing) conclusion I came to: triglycerides in oils are not broken down to give significant amounts of free fatty acids on the skin’s surface. In other words, we can’t rely on oils for the properties of their free fatty acids except when the FFAs are effective at very low concentrations.

Studies on Oil Hydrolysis to Free Fatty Acids on the Skin

Key Studies

The studies I talk about in depth in the video:

Nicolaides N, Wells GC, On the biogenesis of the free fatty acids in human skin surface fat (open access), J Invest Dermatol 1957, 29, 423–433.

  • 0.5 mg of tripalmitin was applied over 300 cm2 skin on the back of a single individual
  • 2 hours later, 6% was hydrolysed to palmitic acid

Mack Correa, MC et al., Molecular interactions of plant oil components with stratum corneum lipids correlate with clinical measures of skin barrier function (open access), Exp Dermatol 2014, 23, 39–44.

  • Mixtures of free oleic acid and glyceryl trioleate were applied to skin
  • TEWL and penetration were proportional to oleic acid content after 24 h
  • There was no change with glyceryl trioleate compared to the control

Conti A et al., Seasonal influences on stratum corneum ceramide 1 fatty acids and the influence of topical essential fatty acids, Int J Cosmet Sci 1996, 18, 1–12. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-2494.1996.tb00131.x

  • Cream with linoleic-rich oils and placebo cream applied on skin for 4 weeks
  • Lipids in stratum corneum were analysed
  • Less free fatty acids were present in the treated area compared to placebo, but levels of ceramide 1 linoleate were nearly doubled, while ceramide 1 oleate levels were lower

Other relevant studies

Some of the other relevant papers that I came across in my search:

Shalita AR, Genesis of free fatty acids (open access), J Invest Dermatol 1974, 62, 332–335.

  • Review of experimental evidence for bacterial lipases hydrolysing triglycerides in sebum – the key species is P acnes

Anderson RL et al., Individual and site variation in composition of facial surface lipids (open access), J Invest Dermatol 1972, 58, 369–372.

  • Triglyceride hydrolysis happens faster in nose follicles than the nose surface than the forehead surface
  • There was a lot of variation between individuals
  • Less oleic and linoleic acid in sebum at surface compared to in triglycerides at sebaceous gland

Bomar L et al., Corynebacterium accolens releases antipneumococcal free fatty acids from human nostril and skin surface triacylglycerols (open access), mBio 2016, 7, e01725-15.

  • Study on bacteria in nose that hydrolyse triglycerides, and discusses how colonisation varies between different people

Fierer N et al., The influence of sex, handedness, and washing on the diversity of hand surface bacteria (open access), Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2008, 105, 17994–17999.

  • Gender differences in bacteria on skin surface

Hall GS, Mackintosh CA, Hoffman PN, The dispersal of bacteria and skin scales from the body after showering and after application of a skin lotion (open access), J Hyg 1986, 97, 289–298.

  • Impact of skincare products on skin surface bacteria


And in case you’re wondering, my favourite skincare oils are rosehip oil, hempseed oil and sunflower oil.

Related posts: Why Linoleic Acid and Rosehip Oil Might Fix Your SkinReview of Oils for Oil Cleansing


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14 thoughts on “Video: Skincare Oils and Free Fatty Acids: The Science”

  1. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for this incredible article.

    Have you heard about Korean cosmetic ingredient company Labio’s fermented oil series? Supposedly the process increases the amount of free fatty acids. I can see how this (might?) be desirable if targeting for linoleic acid but get this…

    Most ingredients in the series have an olive oil base with, according to their own literature, dramatically increased free oleic acid. Huh?

    Their promotional material:


      • So oils containing oleic acid are safe to use? I was so worried because I’m an oil junkie and very obsessive I was so close to throwing out everything conating oleic acid! Does the same go for polyunsaturated oils?

  2. Hi Michelle,

    This is an amazing post, thank you so much! This debunks (or implies debunking) of so much shoddy skincare quasi-science.

    Quick questions – must a triglyceride always be composed of the same three fatty acids, or can it be mixed? From the last study, it appears as if triglycerides could be used to change the balance of ceramides in the skin – is there a desirable balance?

    Thank you!

  3. Really interesting and informative read/video!!!
    One thing that I’ve always wondered about is how much of the skincare is actually absorbed and how much evaporates when we apply it. I have the feeling that most of it actually evaporates and it doesn’t sink in…

  4. This is why I could never attempt to be a proper INCI blogger: I would feel the need to go through all the papers myself, and I just can’t be bothered to do that along the reads I need to do for my job that is not beauty related. So thank you for taking the time and presentin your conclusion here.

  5. Brilliant as always, Michelle! I have a question. The studies that showed high linoleic sunflower oil helped restore barrier function, and high oleic olive oil reduced barrier function…if the fatty acids aren’t free, what could the likely mechanisms of action be here?

    • The triglycerides would be hydrolysed after absorption into the skin and immediately converted to something else, so there’s no significant amount of free fatty acids anywhere.


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