If you think bread is the staff of life—think again. The true staff of life is fats. We’ve come full circle from regarding the low-fat diet as the healthiest diet to recognizing that fats, including saturated fat, play starring roles on the healthy diet stage. I’ve always suspected as much (the French never gave up their butter!) and was thrilled to have my loud and oft-spoken convictions upheld by Nina Teicholz’s findings in her book, The Big Fat Surprise. She delivers the good-news message in a way that’s difficult to refute. Basically all the studies that correlated heart disease with eating too much saturated fat were terribly flawed and just plain wrong. Those of you who know me, know that I’m a big fan of fats—also known as the less-loaded words, oils or lipids. They all stand for the same thing. When I talk about fats from a skin-care perspective, I will use ‘oil.’ First, though, let’s get a little background on what fats actually are.
Fats, aka lipids or oils, are mixtures of three types of fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. These compounds are called triglycerides. The fatty acids are classified according to chain length and the number of double bonds in the chain. A saturated fatty acid has no double bonds—it is saturated with hydrogen atoms. Fatty acids with one double bond are monounsaturated, and those with two or more double bonds are polyunsaturated. If a fat contains mostly saturated fatty acids it is considered a saturated fat. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature because they consist of straight chains that can pack together densely. Examples of saturated fats are coconut oil, cocoa butter and palm oil.
Monounsaturated fats like olive oil and lard have one double bond, and polyunsaturated fats (PUFs) have more than one double bond. Omega-3 and omega-6 are two types of polyunsaturated fat. They are considered essential fatty acids because the body cannot manufacture them. And they are crucially important to skincare, for reasons we’ll get to soon. Examples of omega-6s are soybean and safflower oil; examples of omega-3s are flaxseed oil and fish oils.
I should mention trans fats, which everyone has heard about by now. These do not occur naturally, but are made chemically by forcing hydrogen atoms onto polyunsaturated fats in a process called ‘hydrogenation.’ Once considered the healthy alternative to saturated dietary fats like butter, evidence has shown that they cause many more health problems than their natural coevals. Margarine and Crisco® are examples of hydrogenated fats.
“Fats don’t make you fat,” Teicholz tells us. She also makes a strong case for lack of fats contributing to illness—the very kind of illness low-fat diets are supposed to address. Now, I’d like to use her research to launch my own ‘big fat skin-care surprise.’ The small oily surprise is this: Just as eating fat does not make you fat, applying oils to the skin does not make you break out. Indeed, oils do just the opposite. Oils clear up congested areas magnificently because—big surprise—oils dissolve oils.
Avoiding oils is also a bad idea if you want to keep your skin youthful-looking, supple and healthy. However not applying the right oils to your skin will age it prematurely. I know these ideas will spark some controversy, so I plan to dedicate the next three blog posts to arguing my position. While you eagerly await them, I’ll leave you with thoughts to mull over and invite you to chime in with your own comments and experiences. When researching new territory and perfecting formulas, so much of my knowledge comes from you. To start the dialogue here are a few of my thoughts:
- Even now, approaches to skincare remain stalled in the ‘margarine’ era. How we address common conditions is based on thinking circa the 1950s.
- Acne sufferers are told that their problems stem from too much oil and that they’re better off using oil-free moisturizers with ingredients like dimethicone that give skin a slippery feel without oil. Silicones are the ‘margarine’ of skincare products. It’s not that they’re bad—it’s more that they have nothing nutritionally to offer your skin.
- People on low-fat diets who experience dry, flaky skin are told they need to exfoliate more. The range of products and gadgets you can use to peel away layers of skin are legion—ranging from glycolic acid peels to micro sanders. The problem with doing too much of this is somewhat analogous to lowering cholesterol levels with statins. Turns out we need cholesterol or our bodies don’t work. And, hold on, that top layer of skin is your environmental protection barrier—sand it away at your peril.
- To add insult to injury, exfoliating too often can actually accelerate skin aging due to a phenomenon known as the Hayflick limit. The researcher, Leonard Hayflick, discovered almost 40 years ago that fibroblasts in culture have a limited capacity to divide, and at a certain point they become senescent. The cell turnover rate for normal skin cells is around every 28 days. Kickstarting the cell turnover rate too often can push the envelope of the Hayflick limit, creating the appearance of wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and other signs of aging well before their due date.
The simple solution to many skincare problems is simply to welcome good fats back—both in what you eat and what you apply. I believe getting the right oils onto your skin is as important as sunscreen in keeping skin youthful and healthy. The operative word is ‘right’—as in The Right Oils, the subject of our next blog post.
Again, I encourage you to share your experiences and send us your comments. I am very interested in hearing what you have to say!