Pros & Cons: Water Based vs. Oil Based Skincare Products



I walk into any beauty counter and it’s instant overwhelm. Even the smallest skincare store can become a confusing maze of product choices for me.

The beauty industry is so huge, with so many companies and more entering the market every month that choosing products can be really difficult.

Topical skincare products fall into two main categories: water based skincare and oil based skincare.

Water based skincare products contain mostly just that...water. Oil based skincare products contain no water and are made of oils.

You can tell which type of product it is by looking at the ingredient label. 

If water is listed as an ingredient in your product, it is a water based product. It also is considered a water based product if the ingredients list juice, aloe vera, or tea, or anything that is typically made mostly of water.

The FDA requires that ingredients in any skincare product be listed by volume - that means the largest ingredient is listed first and the smallest last. In the majority of cases, water based skincare products will list water in the top 3 ingredients. That means the product is made mostly of water. Even if it says juice - that means it is mostly made with water because juice is mostly water. 

Water Based Skincare Products: 

From a business standpoint water under another name such as “tea” is a great option because it leads the consumer to think they are getting something that is not mostly water. As consumers we really don’t know - for example if the label lists “juice” first - is it made with only the squeezed juice of a fruit or is it a tablespoon of concentrate mixed with gallons of water? There’s really no way for the consumer to know.

Because water is the main ingredient in water based skincare products, this can mean big savings for skincare companies because water as an ingredient is inexpensive. 

Big Brand Beauty companies have been telling us for decades that water based skincare is best for your skin using the theory your skin needs water to stay hydrated.

The truth is, the water in your product may actually evaporate before your body even has a chance to absorb the water, drying out your skin in the process.

While water based products are easy to use, widely available at a variety of price points, and are light on the skin, every water based formulation requires two things that can interrupt your skin health: Preservative and Emulsifier.

Preservatives can be synthetic or natural, but all preservatives, even the most gentle natural preservative can disrupt the microbiome of your skin. This is because current preservative systems not only target the bad bacteria that can make your lotion go rancid, but they also attack all bacteria and fungi that are on your skin. 

We are becoming more and more aware of the importance of a healthy skin microbiome as research is increasing in this area. Damage to your microbiome has implications for things like skin allergies, psoriasis, eczema, and general dryness. All of this speeds up aging.

Using a preservative on the skin on a daily basis will always disrupt the skin’s microbiome, and in the long term dry skin out, possibly leading to even worse skin problems.

Formulating for my family’s business, the number one complaint by far we would get would be reactions from preservatives. Sodium benzoate, an Ecocert approved preservative, is known to cause redness, but it’s still listed as one of the gentlest preservatives available. 

The other troublesome ingredient in skincare products is Emulsifier. Emulsifier is the ingredient that makes it possible for the oil and water in your cream to hold together. Emulsifiers can be synthetic or natural.

Emulsifiers themselves typically do not cause skin problems. The problem arises when the emulsifier makes it possible for other skin irritants to penetrate into the skin.

Emulsifiers disrupt the skin microbiome by penetrating through the skin barrier and disrupting the ability of the skin’s layers to hold onto moisture.

If you feel like you can never use enough moisturizer, and your face is always dry, then you may have what is called the ‘wash out' effect. 

When emulsifier is on your skin, it reduces or eliminates your skin barrier’s ability to hold in moisture. When you wash your face, the emulsifier actually washes away the moisture in your skin, even in the deepest layers that are not meant to be able to be penetrated. 

Nutrients are meant to be absorbed into the skin at a natural rate. Emulsifiers, even naturally derived emulsifiers, speed that up and disrupt that process, particularly in people who have sensitive skin.

Emulsifiers should only ever be used in a situation where you actually want to remove oil from your face, such as in a cleanser. But in water based skincare an emulsifier is required in every product to keep the ingredients from separating.

On top of this, water based skincare formulas often use chemical based emulsifiers, preservatives, alcohol, and fragrance - all of this can be highly drying to your skin.

In response to all of these common water based ingredients, your body can overproduce oil to try to compensate for the drying effect these ingredients have on your skin. 

Likely you started using facial products when you were in your early teens and hormones were causing shifts in your skin, most commonly extra oil. You get a few pimples, and immediately you jump on a cleanser for drying oily skin, and a moisturizer that won’t cause acne.

This is drying your skin out, and when your skin dries out, it actually sends a message to your body to start making more oil. So you continue to use harsher cleansers until eventually you're not a teenager anymore and you start getting wrinkles and dry skin. So you start using an anti-aging cream...but it’s not working because after years, even decades of water based skincare, non-stop application of preservatives and emulsifiers has your natural skin barrier messed UP!

If we remove the water, emulsifier and preservative from a water-based skincare formula, the remaining ingredients would be considered "active" ingredients. These ingredients are the reason you bought the product to begin with. These will typically be the ingredients highlighted on the label, like Argan oil.

Active ingredients are ingredients like seed oils, collagen, ceramides, and essential oils. They are the ingredients that actually do things to help your skin.

In the case of many water based products, only 2% to 25% of the water-based skincare product is made of active, skin loving ingredients. This means you are mostly paying for water when you purchase water based skincare.

Water based products include a wide range of products including cleansers, serums, gels, toners, treatments, and moisturizers. They do not bind to skin as tightly as oil based products so they often do not feel greasy. And they can be light and creamy to put on your skin.

Water based products can be found to treat every type of skin issue, skin type, skin need. It’s by far the more commonly produced type of skincare product.

Oil Based Skincare Products:

The other main type of skincare product is oil based skincare. Oil based skincare products have been experiencing a lot of growth in the industry as consumers learn more about them.

Oil based skincare is not just for certain skin types. Often those with oily or blemished complexions avoid face and body oils out of fear that added oil will further block their pores or result in a greasy complexion. This fear is really unfounded. 

Oil based skincare products actually help regulate your body's natural oil production. They can help oily skin become balanced over time and reduce break-outs. By putting oil on your skin you send the message to oily skin types that it’s okay to slow down natural oil production because your skin has enough oil now.

Well formulated oil based skin care products help dissolve debris and unwanted oils. They also support a healthy pH and can help correct oil balance for an absolutely glowing, luminous complexion that cannot be achieved by other types of products. This makes oil based skincare products especially appealing.

Delicate and gentle oils are an essential part of any effective, high quality skin care product - whether its a water based product or an oil based product. They gently cleanse, nourish, and moisturize while maintaining a proper oil balance that supports skin’s battle against aging and environmental damage. BREAK

Oil based skincare products need NO emulsifier and can use natural preservatives to extend their shelf life. These natural preservatives actually pull double duty as an active ingredient. For example, vitamin E is great for your skin and also helps an oil based formula last longer.

This means most oil based skincare products can contain 100% active ingredients. So in the case of oil based products you are paying mostly for skin-loving active Ingredients that support skin health.

From a value only stance, oil based products are the better value as long as they are made with quality ingredients. We will get into ingredient specifics and which oils are best for which skin types in future podcasts.

Oil based skincare products have a much heavier texture or weight than water based skincare products. That can take some getting used to. But you can offset this heaviness by applying oil based products over damp skin to help them spread on more lightly.

Oil based products can include cleansers, face oils, serums, and balms. They can also include oils for exfoliation and spot treatments. Advancements in ingredient additives for oil based products have really boomed in recent years, making oil based products much more competitive to water based products.

So let’s sum it up. 

Water based skincare products are more readily available and lighter to apply but are made mostly of water and are required to include emulsifiers and preservatives that can be harmful to your skin.

Oil based skincare products are made entirely of active, skin loving nutrients and do not include potentially harmful preservatives and emulsifiers but are heavier to apply and can cost more.

Personally I’m a huge proponent of oil based skincare - just from the standpoint that it's so much better for your skin and such a better value. 

7 Day Glow products are entirely oil based so if you are interested in giving oil based skincare a try I highly recommend checking out the 7 Day Glow Get Glowing Sampler Set. It comes with an online course to teach you how to use it and free shipping and even a 20% off coupon at the end of the course. 

Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast! In our next podcast we are going to talk about why we sometimes confuse self care with selfish, we will review skin biology and we are going to conquer cold weather with our best cold weather skin care tips!


I'm Alyssa Van Doorn.

I am the natural skincare formulator, biologist, certified clinical aromatherapist, and obsessed self-care advocate who founded 7 Day Glow's holistic, simple skincare approach. I'm on a mission to empower women with the tools they need to find and maintain their Glow simply and with confidence.

Notice: These statements and blog content have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information in our articles and podcasts are not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and are not intended as medical advice. The content of these blogs, podcasts and associated products is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition, consult your physician before using products or following blog/podcast advice.