How to Clear Acne From Oil Cleansing

It's not always "purging."
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How to clear acne from oil cleansing

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Q: Hello! I came across a post where you said that you tried the oil cleansing method, as did I. I have a huge mess on my hands regarding what the OCM did to my face. I'm 31 and have never had acne before. This has been a skin nightmare! Any advice you may have for me on how to recover from this would be a true blessing. I, too, tried tons of natural remedies, and none have worked. Thank you! — Regina

A: Ah, the Oil Cleansing Method. It was a beauty trend that got massively popular from the internet a few years back, and shows no signs of going away.

In case you're not familiar with it... 

What is the Oil Cleansing Method?

The Oil Cleansing Method involves washing your face... with straight oil. 

The principle is that "like attracts like." So the oil you're rubbing around is supposed to be more effective than a regular cleanser at lifting away makeup, dirt and sebum. 

It's 100 percent natural and non-stripping, which I will admit are very compelling benefits. Plus, there are testimonials from loads of people who found it cleared their blackheads, clogged pores and even acne.

Shailene Woodley oil cleansing method

Shailene Woodley reportedly washes her face with sea buckthorn oil.

How Oil Cleansing Can Cause Acne

The problem is, there are some of us who just can't handle this method of cleansing. 

  • Oil sensitivity: I detailed my experience here, and to reiterate what my dermatologist, Dr. Nowell Solish, told me: some skin types are just so sensitive that even cleansing this way ONCE can cause a bad infection. And yes, that's even if you're doing it "right" by completely removing all traces of the oil afterward with a regular cleanser.
  • Improper removal: I do believe that many other people get breakouts from oil cleansing simply because they're not removing it properly. There seems to be a misconception that you can leave some of the oil on your face because it doubles as a moisturizer. But that means you're also leaving pore-clogging debris on your face, too, so it's better to wash it off completely and use a separate product to hydrate. By the way, proper removal means wiping away the oil with a warm, wet, steamy face cloth, rinsing and repeating up to five times. It's also a good idea to wash your face again at the end, with a mild, sulfate-free cleanser.
  • Comedogenic and rancid oils: When I've mentioned my bad oil cleansing experience, many people have said to me "Oh, you just used the wrong oil; it would work if you used _____." That may be true. In retrospect, I think lighter oils such as coconut and jojoba would've been safer on my skin than the rich, heavy castor and olive oils I used. But any oil can be comedogenic, so it's a hard thing to predict and really depends on the individual. I also think oil quality and freshness is important. A rancid oil is more likely to become sticky and cause clogging. Unfortunately, it's difficult to ascertain freshness when you're buying oils—another reason to stick with stable coconut and jojoba.
  • Over-massaging: The act of massaging in the oil for too long can cause problems in itself, by over-stimulating the skin and working the oil deep into the pores. I wouldn't recommend more than five seconds of massage before removing the oil.

Personally, I only tried OCM two or three times, didn't feel like it did anything, and then quit. Within a month, I started getting a strange rash on my chin and forehead, like small, under-the-skin bumps that were not acne. Within two months, that turned into a full-blown cystic acne infection. It was the WORST!

What to Do If Oil Cleansing Gives You Acne

If your skin is reacting badly to oil cleansing, I'd say to ignore advice about having to "purge" or that it "has to get worse before it gets better." 

In my case, that definitely was not true, and if I had continued with the oil, I would have caused even more severe acne, and possibly scarring! 

I think it's safest to back off all oils and let your skin heal as quickly as possible. You can always try OCM again at a later date with different oils or a different technique. 

I do NOT believe in making your skin suffer—especially when there are far better ways to clear up clogs. (More on those in a second!)

Here's what I recommend for recovering your skin:

1. Avoid ALL Topical Oils

If we've established that you can't handle OCM, then you really shouldn't be putting any other oils on your skin for the time being.

Switch to a gentle, sulfate-free and oil-free cleanser. I love Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser.

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser

Caudalie Instant Foaming Cleanser.

For hydration, choose something light and bland that you already know from the past won't cause you any problems. Personally, I love Consonant HydrExtreme, a light, watery serum, and find it's enough on its own to give me moisture. It only has two ingredients (!!), so it's not likely you'll have a problem with it.

Consonant HydrExtreme

Consonant HydrExtreme.

2. Try a BHA

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid are extremely helpful at clearing up blackheads and acne. Unlike alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble and able to penetrate more deeply to clean pores.

The best ones to try are either Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid:

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2 Percent BHA Liquid

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid.

Or COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, which is more hydrating:

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid.

For best results, apply a light layer of the BHA treatment all over your face (except for the eye area) once or twice a day. That way, you're not only treating the active spots but preventing blemishes before they happen. 

I never used to see results from salicylic acid spot treatments, but when I started applying the COSRX all over, I saw a huge difference!

Ultimately, I think adding a BHA to your routine is a far more effective way to clear up congested skin, instead of trying to do so with oil. It really works!

3. Wear Mineral Makeup

Opt for oil-free and silicone-free mineral powders during this time, to avoid further aggravating your skin. 

I like W3ll People Altruist Foundation Powder the best.

W3ll People Altruist Foundation Powder

W3ll People Altruist Foundation Powder.

There is also Jane Iredale PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation SPF 20, which has great coverage, although it does contain some silicone. 

Jane Iredale PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation SPF 20

Jane Iredale PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation SPF 20.

For spot coverage, Colorescience has an excellent Mineral Corrector Palette of powder concealers in various shades. This totally saved me when I had post-inflammatory pigmentation from OCM!

Colorescience Mineral Corrector Palette

Colorescience Mineral Corrector Palette.

4. Consider Antibiotics

I'm not one to use harsh medical interventions when you can do things the natural way. At first, I tried every home remedy in the book to clear my skin from the oil-induced breakouts.

Unfortunately, my reaction to oil cleansing was so bad—a deep infection—that I did finally resort to a six-week course of prescription antibiotics, on the recommendation of my dermatologist. I only regret I didn't get on them sooner!

So I'd suggest seeing a dermatologist (not just any MD) if you're finding the acne just won't go away. I can't remember the specific antibiotics I was prescribed (maybe doxy?) but I DO remember that I had to stay on them a full six weeks, and it was two weeks before I noticed my skin starting to clear. So be patient and stick with them!

You could also ask your dermatologist if he or she would recommend a topical antibiotic, although mine didn't, since my skin is too sensitive.

5. Do Laser Treatments

Depending on how severe your breakouts were, you may be left with a final reminder of the traumatic ordeal: purplish or reddish post-acne pigmentation marks. 

My derm did vascular laser treatments on me, which helped to fade the marks a lot more quickly. Vascular lasers are painless and seek out red and purple tones in your skin. I would suggest at least two or three sessions in order to see a difference.

I hope this helps you recover from a bad reaction to this controversial cleansing method!

Have you broken out from the Oil Cleansing Method?
What has helped to clear up your skin?