Before we dive into the lotion versus oil debate, I feel compelled to preface my findings with a disclaimer: For the past several years, I have been staunchly Team Oil. As a longtime sufferer of keratosis pilaris—also delicately referred to as "chicken bump skin"—I have personally found that body oil (and in some cases, hair oil) has faded the redness and unsightly texture of this condition far more than any lotion I've tried. I slather myself immediately after stepping out of the shower, et voilà—I'm (relatively) bump-free.
But I'm not the only one who has a strong opinion in this arena: A quick polling of my Byrdie teammates proved that they're very passionate about their oils, whereas my friends prefer the creamy texture of lotion. So I had to put the call out to the experts to settle this once and for all: In the case of lotion versus oil, what's the verdict for soft, healthy, supple skin?
The case for oil
"Oils sink right into the skin," says Gloria Noto, makeup artist and founder of cult-fave (and Byrdie-beloved) natural skincare brand Noto Botanics. "It's like food for your body."
That's because many vegetable-based oils—avocado, jojoba, and almond, for example—mimic the natural lipids found in our skin, which is ideal for a couple reasons. For one, the similarities in structure can help repair and reregulate your skin's moisture barrier, which is responsible for oil production. (That's why many dermatologists recommend trying out a face oil when you have acne-driven or oily skin, no matter how counterintuitive it seems—the oil helps dial down your skin's natural sebum production since it no longer has to overcompensate.)
Beyond that, research shows that when these oils are absorbed by the skin, the top layers of our skin treat them as their own—resulting in a reparative, moisturized effect.
Most oils on the market also tend to contain less questionable ingredients and additives than lotions, though label-reading never hurts. "Make sure it is as pure as possible with clean ingredients," says Noto. "Toxic ingredients are of the past."
The case for lotion
If we're focusing solely on moisturizing abilities, however, NYC-based dermatologist Rachel Nazarian opines that lotion has the edge. "Lotions are a mix of oil and water and typically work better for dry skin," she says, though she adds that it's mainly a matter of timing. "Oils, although they may feel quite hydrating, are really best at locking in moisture due to their occlusive nature. After your skin has absorbed water from a shower or bath, an oil is best used to seal the hydration in. Lotions, on the other hand, are often better at penetrating skin because they are partly water-based, and can deliver ingredients that improve the ability of skin to maintain moisture."
And as mentioned, you'll need to be extra wary of phantom ingredients—or worse, ingredients that will dry your skin out more—when shopping for lotion. "Avoid gel-based products or those containing alcohol," she says. "These products tend to dry skin more than ointments, lotions, or creams."
It really comes down to personal preference—and timing. And for that reason, it doesn't hurt to have both on hand. Oil will work better when your skin is wet (since it helps lock in that water) so that might be your best option directly after showering. "Immediately upon exiting the shower, gently pat skin dry with a towel, and then apply your moisturizer, mixing with droplets of water still left on skin," advises Nazarian. "This will help lock in the maximum amount of hydration possible."
But because lotion already contains water, it can function as your "whenever" moisturizer. But no matter which one you prefer, keep in mind that certain ingredients can give your formula of choice an additional boost. "Look for lotions containing hyaluronic acid and ceramides—both enhance skin's water-retaining abilities over time," says Nazarian. And as for oil: "If it is packed with other herbs and extra oils, these ingredients will do different thing to repair and nourish based on the ingredient's special components," says Noto. This essential oil guide is a great place to start.