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Olive Oil: Benefits for your skin

Olive Oil & Skincare

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First published: 25.Aug.2023


Olive oil is a mainstay in the Mediterranean diet, and has been used as food and as a cosmetic and in medical treatments for thousands of years.

It has been proven by different scientific studies and in clinical trials to have beneficial health effects when consumed as a food due to its high content of antioxidants and its omega 3, 6 and 9.

This article will look into the beneficial effects of olive oil on the skin, and its effects on acne.
We will provide some diy recipes for skincare that you can try out at home, and also look into the source of the oil, the olive tree, how it is obtained, the different grades of oil, its chemistry, a detailed list of skin health benefits, and of course its potential risks and adverse effects.

In this Article (Index)

The skincare properties and uses of Olive Oil

The skincare properties and uses of Olive Oil

An Ancient Cosmetic and Medicine

bottle with olive oils and some fresh olives
Olive oil, a natural ingredient in cosmetics. Source

The History of Olive Oil

Olive oil has been used for centuries not only as a food, but also in cosmetic and medicinal preparations as a vehicle and a lubricant.

Greek pharmacologist, botanist and physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40–90 AD) is known as "the father of pharmacognosy." He wrote about olive oil in his medical encyclopedia De materia medica (1) describing its medical properties mentioning that olives just befoe their maturity produced the healthiest olive oil, calling them omphá it could also be used to make perfumes. The older and more fatty oil was to be used for medicine, "In general, every [olive] oil is warming and softening the flesh, protecting the body from excessive cold and refreshing to work. It also has the ability to open body and soften."

Discorides' reference to perfumes is because the Greeks and Romans infused olive oil with fragrant herbs and flowers that extracted the essential oils and created natural botanical perfumes. They were oily and annointed on skin and hair as a fragrance.

In 2021 Littman et al., recreated perfume they dubbed Eau de Cleopatra. In the days of Queen Cleopatra VII it was known as a Mendesian Perfume after the city where it originated, Mendes, Egypt. They had found some remains of an ancient perfume at Tell Timai and with the help of specialists they recreated the perfume used by Queen Cleopatra VII. Using ancient texts and ingredients and analyzing the remains in perfume vials they identified ingredients such as camphor, balanos, date, cardamom and olive oil, myrrh, cinnamon, and pine resin. Herbs and spices were heated and macerated for ten days to make them. Oily, pungent and sticky, so were the perfume 2,000 years ago (2).

Olive Trees, the source of olives and olive oil

Olive trees (Olea europaea L.) originated in the Mediterranean region of Europe, Asia and Africa from where it spread globally.

The tree is evergreen short and grows to about 25 to 50 ft high (8-15 m) and is well adapted to dry, temperate climates.

It produces a rounded to oblong fruit, a drupe, called olive, with a diameter of roughly 3⁄8 to 1 3⁄16 in. (1.5 to 3 cm), green in summer and light red as autumn approaches.

Olives are composed of a thin, protective skin or epicarp; a fleshy mesocarp with a high content of edible oil; and an inedible, stony endocarp surrounding the seed or pit.

The name: Olive

Comes from the Latin word oliva, that means "fruit of the olive tree". It comes from the Classic Greek "ελαια" meaning "olive fruit" and "olive tree". Interestingly the word for oil in Latin was oleum and meant "olive oil" and in Greek, "ελαιον" that also means "olive oil".

How is Olive Oil obtained

Olive oil is produced by cold pressing and crushing olives to extract the oil from the pulp.

This mechanical method does not use heat, cooking, or chemical solvents to extract the oil. The words "Extra Virgin" "Virgin" or "First Cold Pressed" olive oil reflect the purity of this process.

The traditional process, thousands of years old, is the following: the fruits are taken from the olive trees either by hand picking or knocking the branches without harming them. The olives are separated from the leaves and washed. Then they are milled by grinding and crushing to produce a paste. In the past it was followed by a malaxation process that churned the paste and released more oil. However it implied heating the oil slightly and it oxidized the lipids and promoting the loss of antioxidants in the oil, reducing its quality. This step is now avoided as it does not allow the resulting olive oil to be labelled as "cold extracted".

The paste is washed and an oil-water mixture is obtained. The oil is separated by centrifugation.

Grades of Olive Oils

There are many grades but the best ones, that ensure optimal flavor and properies are the Extra Virgin and the Virgin olive oils:

  • Extra virgin olive oil: it is obtained solely by mechanical processes, without heat that may alter the oil. The only treatments are : washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration. Its content of oleic acid (acidity) does not exceed 0.8%
  • Virgin olive oil: the same as above, but with a higher acidity (0.8 to 2%)

There are other olive oils known as "refined olive oil," "pure olive oil" or "olive oil." They are blends of extra virgin olive oil and olive oil obtained by additional heat or chemical processing, or cold pressed oil with too much acidity.

Just for the record, other oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower, and rapeseed (canola®) are extracted using solvents distilled from mineral oil such as hexane, a relative of gasoline. This process leaves hexane residues in the vegetable oil in very small proportions: less than 5 parts per million. So they are in comparison to olive oil not as natural.

Chemistry of Olive Oil

Olive oil is a blend of different tipes of fatty acids or lipids mostly monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs such as oleic acid that represents 70-80% and palmitic acid (10-11% ) of the total oil. Then there are smaller amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) such as linoleic acid (5-7%) and some saturated fatty acids (SFAs) in smalller quantities such as arachidic acid (less than 0.5%).

Until recently, the monounsaturated fatty acid part of the olive oil (MUFA) has been attributed the beneficial properties of olive oil. MUFA makes up 80% of its lipid content.

But there are over 200 chemical compounds present in the oil representing about 1-2% of it. And they include carotenoids, sterols and phenolic compounds. These minor phytochemical compounds have bioactive properties and act as antioxidants, for instance the hydrophilic phenols that are the most abundant antioxidants in the oil. Another potent antioxidant is hydroxytyrosol (HT) ((3,4-Dihydroxyphenyl)ethanol) a polyphenol that is found in extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and red wine.

So it is now belived that these minor components contribute to the healthy characteristics of olive oil. These components add up to not more than 2% of the total content of the oil, but have the antioxidant properties. Other types of seed or grain oils lack these components (13) (14)

Some diy cosmetics using olive oil

The following recipes and formulations are suggestions of the North American Olive Oil Association (3).

They recommed using undiluted olive oil from your kitchen and as part of your beauty routine, they add that it isis hypoallergenic, and provide some recipes. However, you should always test if your skin is sensitive before applying something on it, especially your face.

Recipes using olive oil for hair and skincare

Hand moisturizer

Rub a few drops of pure olive oil into your hands.

Eye-makeup remover

Regular eye makeup removers use oil because it dissolves waterproof mascara. Soak a cotton pad in olive oil and rub gently to remove eye makeup.

Hair treatment

Sooth hair, repair damage and fight frizz. Warm half a cup of olive oil by placing it in a bowl with boiling water for five minutes. Test the temperature carefully before applying the oil bath. It shoud be warm, not scalding. Apply it on your hair and cover with a plastic shower cap. Wrap with a towel to keep warm. Keep it on for 20 to 45 minutes. Shampoo and wash off.

Hair Conditioner

Mix 1 tsp. (teaspoon) of honey with 2 tsp. of olive oil. Apply on hair and wash off after 15 minutes.

Topical cream recipe with olive oil

Al-Waili (2005) (4) reported that a mixture of honey, olive oil, and beeswax is an effective treatment for psoriasis, and eczema. It acts by inhibiting the growth of microbes such as Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans.

The proportions of the ingredients are 1 part each of honey, beeswax, and olive oil (volume⁄volume).

Oil cleansing

This is not recommended for people suffering from acne. Oil cleansing dissolves oil-based cosmetics and is said to (we have not found evidence to prove it) dissolve sebum that clogs the pores based on the "like dissolves like" theory. Oil cleansing removes makup, dirt, and other impurities but does not strip the skin of its natural oils.

Place a hot -don't get burned! washcloth on your face for 20 seconds to open your pores. Massage olive oil into your skin and let it sit for 30 seconds. Use a hot washcloth to wipe oil and impurities away.

Shaving cream

Replace foam or gel with olive oil, it will lubricate, has antiseptic properties and avoid razor burn.

Acne and olive oil

On the internet there are posts suggesting that oil cleansing is effective for acne because it cleans the pores without the overdrying effect of regular acne-prone skin cleaners. They also argue that oleic acid in olive oil is similar to the sebum of human pores and based on the principle that "like dissolves like" it will remove the sebum. Science disagrees.

The UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) committee gave skin care advice for people with acne (2021) (5), and gave the following answer to the question What skin care advice is appropriate for people with acne vulgaris?:

"... they recommended that people with acne vulgaris should be advised to avoid applying oil-based and comedogenic (i.e. likely to block pores) products whenever possible as these could worsen their acne vulgaris. They agreed that oil-based and comedogenic skin care products (moisturisers and sunscreens) should be avoided. They also recommended that people with acne vulgaris using make-up should be advised to avoid oil-based and comedogenic products and to remove make-up at the end of the day. They discussed that in their experience oil-based and comedogenic products can make acne vulgaris worse because acne is typified by excessively oily skin and skin prone to blockage of pores."

Take-home point

If your skin is greasy, or prone to acne, consider avoiding facial creams that contain }oils.

Comedogenic scale

The NICE committee mentions "comedogenic products", lets explain this concept: cosmetic ingredients are ranked according to a comedogenic scale that rates how they clog pores, a comedone is a blackhead or whitehead. Originally designed to safeguard the workers in the chemical industry, whose skin could touch nasty chemicals, in 1979 Dr. Albert Kligman (6) applied the concept to skin care and created the comedogenic scale. The ingredients were tested on animals (rabbit ears!) and then checked to see if the developed comedones rating the chemicals according to the degree of outbreak.

Using this comedogenic scale that uses a numbering system from 0 to 5 you can rank olive oil with a 2:

  1. Will not clog pores
  2. Very Low chance of pore clogging ← Olive oil
  3. Moderately low likelyhood it will clog pores
  4. Moderate likelyhood
  5. Fairly high probability of clogging
  6. High likelyohood of clogging pores

So olive oil has a comedogenic rating of 2 and is mildly comedogenic, it means that olive oil can clog your pores but it is less likely to do so than other oils with higher ratings (for instance coconut oil rates with 4).

Sebum and Olive oil

It is true that virgin olive oil's composition is similar to sebum (7) and in the "lipid penetration within the epidermis follows the order: olive oil > coconut oil > grape seed oil > avocado oil," (9) suggesting a strong moisturizing effect.

Olive Oil's skin benefits

Some of its properties are:

  • Antioxidant activity due to its phenolics content: hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol & oleuropein (8).
  • Antimicrobial effects against bacteria involved in respiratory and intestinal infections due to the presence of hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleuropein (8) .
  • Oleic acid, that acts as a skin softener (7).
  • Olive oil's squalene, oleic acid and antioxidants "makes it particularly able to directly protect the skin. When applied to the skin after sun exposure, olive oil has an inhibitory effect on sun-induced cancer. (7) (9).
  • Apart from oleic acid, it contains squalene which is an antioxidant, moisturizer and is used as a treatment for seborrheic dermatitis, acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis (8).
  • In mice, topical application of olive oil on pressure ulcers reduced inflammation and improved skin repair and wound healing (9).
  • Burns in rats reduced their size quicker with olive oil in comparison to the normal treatment using silver sulfadiazine. Another randomized trial showed that a mixture of olive oil, sesame oil and honey was "a useful treatment for burns, by preventing infections, accelerating tissue repair, and facilitating debridement" (9).
  • Its phenolic antioxidants act upon the skin's fibroblast cells and stimulte wound healing and tissue regeneration (10).
  • Stretch marks (striae) and non-keloid scars. There is conflicting evidence. Three studies using olive oil found no significant evidence of improvement however a study by Bielfeldt et al. (2018) reported that a body oil composed of 55.9% safflower oil, 42% olive oil, 2% grapefruit essential oil, and 0.1% tocopherol (as an antioxidant) "demonstrated efficacy in helping to improve the appearance of scars and striae" (12).

Olive oil risks and side effects

Danby (2013) (11) reported irritation and damage to the skin barrieer after studying the effect of olive oil applied topically on the skin and compared it to sunflower seed oil. Six drops of oil were applied on the forearm, twice a day, for 4 and 5 weeks.

  • Olive oil-induced reddening of the skin (erythema) and affected the integrity of the skin's outer barrier (stratum corneum), damaging the skin barrier.
  • Sunflower seed oil preserved the stratum corneum integrity, did not cause erythema. and improved hydration.

Danby cautioned that "...olive oil ... therefore has the potential to promote the development of, and exacerbate existing, atopic dermatitis. The use of olive oil for the treatment of dry skin and infant massage should therefore be discouraged", concluding that "these findings challenge the unfounded belief that all natural oils are beneficial for the skin and highlight the need for further research."

This has been supported by other research that highlights that "topically applied olive oil has a detrimental effect on SC integrity and skin barrier function" (9).

Natural does't mean safe

"Natural", "Organic" or "Botanical" ingredients used in homemade or industrial cosmetics are not necessarily safe. If you have sensitive or sensitized skin test the effects of olive oil on your skin as it may provoke irritation.
Don't use on baby's skin.

Closing Comments

Olive oil is a natural oil, obtained by traditional cold press mechanical methods without using heat or solvents. This ensures it has a high content of potent bioactive botanical antioxidants.
It is a healthy addition to your diet and skin with proven health benefits in wound healing, stretch marks, and burns. It penetrates the skin and is a moisturizer; however its comedogenic effect advises against using it on greasy or acne prone skin. It may cause irritation on sensitive skins (babies or elder people).

References and Further Reading

(1) Pedanius Discorides. Aloe. De Materia Medica.

(2) Robert Littman, Jay Silverstein, Dora Goldsmith, Sean Coughlin, and Hamedy Mashaly. (2021). Eau de Cleopatra Mendesian Perfume and Tell Timai. Near Eastern Archaeology 2021 84:3, 216-229

(3) North American Olive Oil Association. Should you put olive oil on your skin?. Accessed Aug 24, 2023

(4) Al-Waili NS, (2005). Mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil inhibits growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans. Arch Med Res. 2005 Jan-Feb;36(1):10-3

(5) National Guideline Alliance. (2021). Skin care advice for people with acne vulgaris: Acne vulgaris: management: Evidence review B. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE); 2021 Jun. (NICE Guideline, No. 198)

(6) Kligman A and Kwong T. (1979). An improved rabbit ear model for assessing comedogenic substances. British Journal of Dermatology, 100: 699-702

(7) Publio Viola, Marzia Viola, (2009). Virgin olive oil as a fundamental nutritional component and skin protector . Clinics in Dermatology, Vol 27:12, 2009, 159-165, ISSN 0738-081X,

(8) Zhaoyang Cui, et al., (2015). Topical use of olive oil preparation to prevent radiodermatitis: results of a prospective study in nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients. Int J Clin Exp Med. 2015; 8(7): 11000-11006. 2015 Jul 15

(9) Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL., (2017). Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Dec 27;19(1):70. doi: 10.3390/ijms19010070. PMID: 29280987; PMCID: PMC5796020

(9) González-Acedo A, et al., (2023). AThe Benefits of Olive Oil for Skin Health: Study on the Effect of Hydroxytyrosol, Tyrosol, and Oleocanthal on Human Fibroblasts. utrients. 2023 Apr 25;15(9):2077. doi: 10.3390/nu15092077. PMID: 37432217; PMCID: PMC10181161

(11) Danby SG et al., (2013). Effect of olive and sunflower seed oil on the adult skin barrier: implications for neonatal skin care. Pediatr Dermatol. 2013 Jan-Feb;30(1):42-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1470.2012.01865.x. Epub 2012 Sep 20

(12) Bielfeldt, S., et al., (2018), Observer-blind randomized controlled study of a cosmetic blend of safflower, olive and other plant oils in the improvement of scar and striae appearance. Int J Cosmet Sci, 40: 81-86.

About this Article

Olive Oil Benefits for your Skin, A. Whittall

©2023, 20 Aug. 2023. Update scheduled for 23 Aug. 2025.

Tags: olive oil, olive oil in diy cosmetics, olive oil risks, acne, antioxidants, burns, sunburn, wounds

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