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 body oil vs. lotion, what's the verdict for soft, healthy, supple skin? And what about body butter?
Meet the Expert
Read on to learn more about the difference between body oil and body lotion and determine which one’s right for you.
Body Oil vs. Lotion: What’s the Difference?
Both body oil and lotion are meant to moisturize the skin, so how exactly do they differ? For starters, oils help re-introduce lost moisture in the skin (think: post-cleansing or exfoliating). "Oils sink right into the skin," says Noto. "It's like food for your body." Lotions, on the other hand, are part water-based and come in various forms to treat different skincare concerns—for example, those who are eczema-prone would turn to an itch relief lotion while someone with textured skin might reach for a smoothing lotion that targets bumps.
The Benefits of Body Oil
- Oils regulate sebum production: Oils are touted for their absorbent properties 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 of reasons. For one, the similarities in structure can help repair and re-regulate your skin's moisture barrier, which is responsible for oil production.
If you have acne-driven or oily skin, try out a face oil. No matter how counterintuitive it seems, most dermatologists say the oil helps dial down your skin's natural sebum production since it no longer has to overcompensate for the lack of oil.
- Oils improve skin barrier function: 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.
- Oils tend to be cleaner: 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 Benefits of Lotion
- Lotions moisturize dry skin: Nazarian opines that lotion has the edge over oil if we're talking about moisturizing abilities. "Lotions are a mix of oil and water and typically work better for dry skin," she says. "Because they're partly water-based, they're often better at penetrating the skin, and can deliver ingredients that improve the ability of the skin to maintain moisture."
- Lotions often contain ingredients with long-term benefits: "Look for lotions containing hyaluronic acid and ceramides—both enhance skin's water-retaining abilities over time," says Nazarian.
- Lotions prolong the life of your self-tan: Self-tanning devotees know that hydrated skin means your tan will have a longer lifespan. Just make sure you don't lather on the lotion until you've let the tan develop (aka, after you shower off the tan).
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, as these products tend to dry skin more than ointments, lotions, or creams," warns Nazarian.
How to Apply Body Oil
If you're wondering how to use body oil, it's actually all about timing. Because of their occlusive nature, oils 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 the skin," advises Nazarian. "This will help lock in the maximum amount of hydration possible," she says. If you're looking for an extra dose of hydration for parched skin, you can layer a body oil underneath your lotion.
How to Apply Lotion
So, how does lotion work best? Like body oil, lotions should be applied to damp skin right after showering. This is especially helpful if you're the shower-in-piping-hot-water-type, as this can tend to dry out your skin even more. You can also choose to apply body lotion over an oil if your skin skews dry, and you can use it post-shaving to prevent the freshly exposed skin from getting dry as well as to calm any razor bumps or irritation.
Benefits of Body Butter
- Body butters hydrate parched skin: If you're of the dry skin camp (or the cold winter air is wreaking havoc on your skin), body butters may be more your speed. While body lotions are typically a mix of water and oils, body butters are a mix of butter and oils to hydrate parched skin and promote a smooth surface (think: shea butter combined with coconut or jojoba oil).
- Body butters offer long-lasting hydration: Because of their key components of butter and oil, body butters are heavier and thicker in consistency when compared to oils and lotions, and keep your skin hydrated long after you apply. They also tend to have more of an oily finish, so if your skin is chapped or cracked, body butters are better equipped to repair it.
The Final Takeaway
It really comes down to personal preference—and timing. And for that reason, it doesn't hurt to have both on hand. But because lotion already contains water, it can function as your "whenever" moisturizer. No matter which one you prefer, keep in mind that certain ingredients can give your formula of choice an additional boost. For example, according to Noto, if an oil is packed with other herbs and extra oils, these ingredients will do different things to repair and nourish based on the ingredient's special components.
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Mack Correa MC, Mao G, Saad P, Flach CR, Mendelsohn R, Walters RM. Molecular interactions of plant oil components with stratum corneum lipids correlate with clinical measures of skin barrier function. Exp Dermatol. 2014;23(1):39-44. doi:10.1111/exd.12296