By Clive Wright

Are Seed Oils Bad for Your Skin? The Science of Saturated Fats

When dreaming up our first product, it was important to bring something that was a net positive into the world. Yes, it's just skincare. But it's not just about skincare.

Along the way, we noticed that many skincare products contained high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). We discovered this was inconsistent with our own skin in a naturally balanced state. We turned to our favourite natural brands and found even they were loaded up with PUFA. Sunflower oil? Grapeseed oil? The ratios were completely off balance. It simply wasn't in harmony with skin and nature.

Skincare is most effective when it can mimic your own skin, because your body inherently knows what to do with it. This comes down to biocompatibility. We knew we needed to create products that were skin-identical to make a genuine difference.

While many synthetic formulas are designed to be biomimetic, that’s just the thing. Synthetic formulas are designed in such a way.

We also noticed that many natural brands skewed heavily to PUFAs and over-indexed on these when creating their formulas. Some of this comes down to the commercials of private label manufacturing for skincare, where you’re essentially furnished with a formula based on an existing set of recipes. It’s easy to be led down garden paths.

Somewhere along the way, modern life got co-opted. Industrial seed oils, high in PUFAs, took the place of centuries-old ingredients. Unfortunately, both our skin and health is paying the price. 

What is a seed oil?

Seed oils are a heavily processed, refined and industrialised subset of vegetable oils that are derived from seeds. They are typically higher in unsaturated fatty acids, which according to recent studies, may lead to poor health outcomes

Most seed oils are derived from the seeds of crops. In Australia, we commonly see seed oils in our food and skincare. Here are some seed oil examples, or a list of seed oils to avoid:

  • Corn
  • Canola oil (record production in Australia in FY21-22)
  • Soybean
  • Sunflower
  • Safflower
  • Grapeseed
  • Rice bran
  • Peanut

    What about vegetable oils?

    Vegetable oils are oils or fats derived from plant matter, whether it’s from fruits, grains, seeds, or nuts. 

    It’s a broad category that includes all plant-based oils. Vegetable oils vary widely in their saturated and unsaturated fatty acid contents. As such, some vegetable oils are good for you – such as coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil. Others may cause health and skin problems, such as sunflower oil, grapeseed oil and canola oil, which are largely unsaturated. Not to mention, some of the labelling on products today simply refers to ‘vegetable oil’ which can be a combination of highly processed varieties of vegetable oils. 

    Global production of vegetable oils has increased over 1600 per cent since the early 1900s and doubled in the last 20 years according to the USDA. They are now most commonly used as cooking oils.

    A chart showing the growth in worldwide consumption of seed and vegetable oils from 2013 to 2023. The chart shows a steady rise in consumption in all types of oils.

    Before plant-based oils came into our lives, we used animal fats. Our ancestors believed in using every part of the animal for cooking and salves, taking a nose-to-tail approach, with the animal honoured in its entirety and never sacrificed in vain. Then big business entered the market. Poof! Here come the PUFAs. 

    Painting a history of seed oils 

    In the 1940s, unsaturated seed oils including fish oil, soybean, safflower and linseed (flaxseed) were being used to make paints and varnishes. They worked a charm. In the article, Fish oil in the protective coating field, the author explains in 1948 how the most unsaturated oils were the fastest-drying, solidifying into plastic-like coatings that were more weather-resistant. Here's another article from Scientific American in 1869 discussing their fast-drying nature.

    To this day, these oils are referred to as ‘drying oils’, which begs the question around the real hydration factor of many skincare products.

    So, unsaturated seed oils dry quickly because of the oxidation process, or the tendency of an unsaturated fatty acid to turn rancid. All it needs is exposure to oxygen, heat or light. This is because of the composition of saturated fatty acids versus unsaturated fatty acids, which we’ll go into detail a little bit later. 

    Seed oils as a cheaper alternative

    Meanwhile, the industry moved along. Chemists soon figured out how to make the same products using petroleum, but for cheaper. Well-established oil farming and refining industries were forced to find another avenue for their products to continue turning a profit.

    Not too long later, these oils ended up in the hands of cattle, sheep and pig farmers, who started adding it to their feed. It was game-changing, especially for the growing number of subsistence farmers, trying to sustain a livelihood through the war years. Animals become fatter faster on a grain-derived diet, while it takes longer for them to gain weight on grass-fed diet. This was the beginning of the industrial seed oil era. 

    As we clever humans do, seed oil producers found a way to expand their market share and funnel seed oils through the food supply. They decided if seed oils were good enough for animals, then they were good enough for human consumption. It took less than a few short decades for seed oils, once regarded as industrial oils, to become a major part of our diet.

    The war against saturated fat

    With sights set on capturing a new customer, the market started getting flooded with mass advertising campaigns cautioning against saturated fat (found in high amounts in grass fed tallow, butter and lard) claiming it was artery clogging. This led to the rise of Crisco (high in unsaturated fat), hydrogenated liquid vegetable oils, and ultimately, the emergence of diet foods and processed foods.

    There was a flurry of research green-lit, funded and published in the 1950s connecting saturated fat and heart disease. In 1955, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack, adding further fuel to the fire. At the same time, as the seed oil industry was busy rebranding for consumption, there's a dearth of literature around vegetable oils and their use in diesel fuels, in particular, a gap between the 1940s and 1970s.

    The food industry for seed oils grew and saturated fats fell out of favour. In their place, a more 'suitable' candidate rose through the ranks. Industrial seed oils were the cheaper alternative, and started being used as a cooking oil in everything from baked goods to deep frying. As the 20th century advanced, along with the rise of third wave feminism, the beauty industry boomed, and we found yet another use for these industrial seed oils, too. 

    The science of low fat diet culture

    Globally, the ‘anti-fat' movement was the status quo until relatively recently. 'Low fat' diet culture has been stubbornly persistent, despite being built on the foundations of faulty science. Locally, the low-fat movement reached a fever pitch in Australia in the early 2000s, until the last decade, where we've started to see a healthy transition back to whole foods.

    In recent decades, this research has come under the microscope. The seed oil critics are being vindicated by new scientific evidence. Based on nutrition science, we now know that seed oils are higher in certain types of unstable polyunsaturated fats, which contain inflammatory compounds. Are seed oils toxic? Evidence suggests that seed oils may have a much stronger correlation to poorer health outcomes, including coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses, from diabetes and autoimmune diseases to cancer.

    Sunflower oil in skincare? No thanks.

    If you grew up as late as the 1990s, you most likely used animal-based skincare at some point. Tallow was present in many of the supermarket and drug store soaps. Cast your mind back, and at the same time, you may also recall a mass margarine campaign, encouraging the switch from animal-derived butter to a plant-based spread. As a kid growing up in Australia in the 90s, I distinctly remember the pretty sunflower on the tub in the fridge door. Who knew back then what this actually stood for?  

    Don't get me wrong. I love sunflowers on my dining table.

    But an over-refined, industrialised, oxidised version of their seeds? I'll stick to the original, thanks.

    Just because sunflowers are pretty, doesn't mean you should put them on your skin. There are better alternatives to seed oil in skincare.

    Why are people against seed oils?

    So, are seed oils bad? Unstable and unfriendly, high-PUFA seed oils are vulnerable to light, heat and oxygen through lipid peroxidation. As a result of this, PUFAs can cause premature ageing and melasma, worsening skin health.

    When consumed, PUFAs have been linked to slowing the metabolism, encouraging estrogen to trigger inflammation. That's just some of the reasons we don't love them. We could go on until the cows come home. It's any wonder what they may be doing to our skin health, considering skin is our body's biggest organ

    At TUTTOFARE, from food to skincare, we just want to make sure what we put on our skin and eat is appropriate.

    The science of fatty acids

    Here's the breakdown. In the diagram below, you can see that the saturated fatty acid molecule is fully saturated with hydrogen, leaving no double bonds (open spaces) for oxygen, heat or light to degrade the molecule. 

    A diagram showing the molecular differences between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The diagram shows the hydrogen and carbon composition of each.

    On the other hand, unsaturated means lacking a hydrogen atom. As such, unsaturated fatty acids have at least one double bond in the carbon chain. When oxygen, heat and light react with double bonds in unsaturated fatty acids, it results in lipid peroxidation. 

    There’s literally a missing link if your skincare routine when it's focused around unsaturated fatty acids. That's the breakdown of the breakdown.

    What are the 3 types of fatty acids?

    There are three types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In composition, these range from being fully saturated to unsaturated fats.

    Saturated fats are the most stable to consume and use on our skin. With a complete chain, they stay intact, and equally keep the health of your skin intact. Made up of strong single bonds, saturated fats are less penetrable to oxygen and light, and better able to withstand heat.

    This is why we turn up the saturation metre at TUTTOFARE to formulate low-PUFA skincare. It’s also consistent with what you’d find in nature. Because that’s how you maintain healthy skin.

    Monounsaturated fat has mostly stable single bonds like saturated oils, while also containing one double bond. This double bond can be weakened by exposure to oxygen, temperature and light over time. Fresh and well-kept monounsaturated fats are healthy and beneficial for our skin and health.

    Polyunsaturated fats are made up of multiple double bonds. Unlike monounsaturated fat, they have more than one double bond. The more double bonds, the more susceptible to oxygen, temperature and light degradation.

    Is polyunsaturated fat good or bad?

    With respect to polyunsaturated fat, this should be evolutionarily consistent in an essential, not excessive, amount.  It doesn't matter if the PUFA is a cold pressed oil, raw or organic – this won't help improve its stability.

    Even the most controlled environments, such as a chemist's lab (or even a photographer's dark room!), can impact the molecule. PUFAs will begin to break down as soon as the oil is pressed from seeds, creating free radicals which can trigger inflammation.

    Seed oils are particularly rich in linoleic acid, something we didn't start consuming in high quantities until less than 100 years ago. Linoleic acid tends to promote inflammation. Now, Americans consume on average 3 tablespoons of vegetable oils daily and increasingly suffering from various health issues. Approximately 23 per cent or more of calories consumed come from vegetable oils. We'll let you be the judge.

    A chart shows how many tablespoons the average American consumes of vegetable oil daily and compares how much of the raw material is required to produce the oil from nature. Comparison of grapeseed, sunflower, corn and rice bran oils.

    What does PUFA do to the body?

    Polyunsaturated fatty acids oxidise quickly. Naturally, wearing them on your skin will encourage oxidisation, just by virtue of living your life.

    When PUFAs are exposed to oxygen, temperature and light they become reactive and promote harmful and inflammatory oxidation. This speeds up the ageing process and can create other skin conditions such as melasma. 

    Is my skincare routine ageing me?

    Maybe, if it contains too many polyunsaturated fats which are more likely to drive inflammation through oxidation.

    For starters, polyunsaturated fats are more susceptible to UV light. When light hits your skin, if your skincare is PUFA-heavy, this can lead to cellular damage. 

    Secondly, we run 'hot' as humans, even when we don't feel hot. At 37 degrees on average, we're all hot, tropical beings. That means extra heat is likely to trigger the oxidation process of your skincare on your skin. 

    Thirdly, it can be difficult to store your skincare products in optimal conditions. Our surroundings change and sometimes out of our control, depending on the season. Before that though, oxidation may already have happened in the manufacturing process or in the jar. 

    Can polyunsaturated fatty acids cause inflammation?

    Yes, according to the science. Research shows that high PUFA seed oils contain pro-inflammatory compounds. High PUFA seed oils and linoleic acid can be phototoxic when consumed. 

    Another study around consumption published in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology found a diet high in PUFAs was associated with an increased risk of developing atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema, which makes for sensitive skin. This suggests PUFAs can have a similar effect when applied topically to the skin.

    According to research from British Journal of Dermatology, applying PUFAs topically including linoleic acid can lead to increased trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) and decreased barrier function. This can lead to dryness, itching and a decreased ability to protect the skin from environmental stressors.

    Oxidation and free radical damage speeds up the skin ageing process. Specifically, it contributes to the loss of collagen and elastin fibres, resulting in fine wrinkles, sagging and texture changes. 

    What seed oils are bad for my skin?

    In skincare, high PUFA oils are prevalent. You may however like to avoid seed oils high in polyunsaturated fats, including:

    Grapeseed oil

    Safflower oil

    Sunflower oil

    Rapeseed or canola oil

    'Vegetable oil' (refined vegetable oils or unrefined vegetable oils)

    Note the high linoleic content of these seed oils, which is a reason why they may be damaging to the body. Linoleic acid intake can trigger inflammation. (See this for a comparison of popular saturated versus unsaturated oils.)

    Here’s the thing about seed oils. They seem natural. Aren’t they from nature? But just like you can’t milk an almond, these are otherwise naturally-derived ingredients processed in unnatural (industrial) ways. It's not as simple as growing sunflower seeds and squeezing the oil from the petals.

    Why the seed oil manufacturing process is toxic

    Let’s take canola (from the terrifyingly named rapeseed plant) as an example. The crude oil extracted from rapeseed is smelly and grey. On their own, seed oils have a strong, off-putting scent and aren’t appealing. 

    The extracted oil is then put through a heavy refining, bleaching and deodorising process to finally achieve a neutral scent and golden hue. This chemical process also creates trans fats. When heating liquid vegetable oils, the process incorporates harsh chemicals such as petroleum-based solvents and hexane to maximise the amount of oil extracted. This is another reason why many seed oils cost so little (to manufacture, but not always to purchase).

    Finally, the process may also incorporate synthetic antioxidants in an attempt to stop oxidation and help with shelf life. These synthetic antioxidants, like TBHQ, BHA or BHT, are known carcinogens and banned as additives in some parts of the world, such as Europe. Synthetic antioxidants attempt to mimic natural antioxidants. 

    Canola oil contains PUFA, MOFA and harmful trans fats too, all of which are very unstable at high heats and contribute to pro-inflammatory imbalances within the body. 

    What survives the volatile process is then bottled, which due to the hot and heavy process undertaken, is likely to be damaged by oxidation. The process leaves your skincare so prone to oxidation, the moment you’re exposed to light, heat or chemicals (yep, that includes makeup), is the moment you should probably just start living your life in dark mode. 

    Take a look how canola oil is made. (Thanks to In on Around for sharing this clip!)

    Why your skin needs more saturated fats

    Choose stability over instability. Skincare not just with essential fatty acid, but saturated fatty acid. Unlike ultra-processed, high-PUFA industrial seed oils, tallow's origins mean that it naturally contains the same fats found in healthy human skin. This makes it capable of absorbing easily and penetrating deeply, providing intense skin restoration at the cellular level. It naturally mimics your skin. 

    A comparison chart of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acid levels found in popular oils and fats used in skincare and cooking.

    In fact, tallow resembles our natural sebum so much that in Latin, tallow is translated to sebum. By mimicking the skin, tallow helps maintain the skin’s structural integrity and supports the natural production of cell turnover and collagen. 

    Is tallow actually good for skin?

    Yes, because tallow is primarily a saturated fat, which means it won't oxidise when exposed to oxygen, light or heat. Tallow is incredibly stable at room temperature, eliminating the need for synthetic preservatives, and retaining its vitamin-rich properties for longer.

    It contains the optimal balance of fatty acids beneficial to our skin: oleic acid (37-43%), palmitic acid (24-32%), and stearic acid (20-25%), with linoleic acid only at 2-3%.

    Wondering exactly why tallow is good for skin? Brush up on the benefits of beef tallow skincare.

    What is tallow balm good for?

    Grass fed and grass finished tallow balm is rich in vitamin E, A, D and K. These are fat-soluble nutrients difficult to find elsewhere in plant-based nature in a balanced combination with their activators. They're essential for maintaining clear, healthy skin.

    A high-quality tallow balm also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This is found in very few other stable ingredients in nature. This reduces skin inflammation, redness and dry, flaky skin. It helps with barrier function in all skin types, from irritated skin to restoring sensitive skin, and even through to balancing acne prone skin.

    TUTTOFARE Tallow Balm is full of saturated fatty acids to help lock in moisture. Unlike their polyunsaturated fatty acid counterparts, saturated fatty acids also won't immediately oxidise on contact with the skin.

    Saturated fatty acids are unique in their ability to nourish, protect and soften your skin, while gently repairing your skin barrier function.

    TUTTOFARE Tallow Balm has the benefit of also containing fat-soluble, naturally-occuring vitamins A, D, E and K, along with their activators, making it a complete skincare product.

    Zero PUFA tallow balm? Zero chance.

    While some tallow balms will claim to be zero PUFA or PUFA free skincare, we're here to tell you that's just marketing. So, why do we say ‘low PUFA' not ‘no PUFA'? 

    In composition, tallow balm must contain some PUFA. 

    Tallow has some PUFAs at appropriate levels for humans to absorb and consume. We like to refer to this as being evolutionarily or ancestrally consistent. A big problem with most skincare is the high PUFA levels, which is simply not consistent with our skin.

    As modern humans, unless we live entirely off the grid (and even then), we must be realistic about our toxic load. There's no such thing as a toxin-free life in the 21st century. The best way to think about this is you want to live and consume in a way that is consistent with how our ancestors thrived for thousands of years. Remember, this is what got us here.

    Your body needs saturated and unsaturated fats to function. But historically, PUFAs have only ever been present in fats and oils in trace amounts. Grass fed tallow, ghee, butter, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and other traditional fats don't have high PUFA content like many seed oils found in food and skincare today.

    At TUTTOFARE, we're focused on formulating skincare and beauty products in harmony with your skin and nature. While the science can be complicated, it's as simple as that.

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