The benefits to using natural oils versus those pre-made bottles of "moisturizing cream" are numerous: They're less expensive, they smell better (minimally or not at all), and most importantly, they are more effective.
These are strong claims, but I know how much I struggled for years when I was a young person with dry skin — at one point I was slathering one of those fake-smelling white liquid creams on my hands and arms a couple times a day, and not only did I smell like artificial scents, and was lathering my skin in potentially carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemical baths. (Seriously, check out the ingredients on most moisturizers. They are packed with questionable ingredients, so check yours against the Cosmetics Safety Database). And I've found that all those unpronounceable ingredients don't help my skin, so what's the point?
Along with oil cleansing for my face, I now exclusively moisturize with natural oils, and here's my big tip: different types of skin will "like" different oils on the list below. I have found that for my skin, coconut and olive oils are the most effective, quickly absorbing and pleasant to me. (I don't think it's any coincidence that my great-grandmother and grandmother also used olive oil for moisturizing.) So if you are new to using natural oils, check out a few different ones — many of these can be found in the kitchen, making sampling easy — and see which ones your skin responds to the best.
1. Avocado oil
Avocado oil is, obviously extracted from the popular fruit (yes, avocados are a fruit, not a veggie); though if you are a fan of natural beauty you know you can use straight-up avocado, mashed up, as a mask for hair or face. Avocado oil is particularly good for oilier skin types as it absorbs quickly. I prefer cold-pressed avocado oil that is less processed.
2. Shea butter
Extracted from the nut of the African shea tree (and the oil is used for cooking in Africa in areas where the tree is native), shea butter is extremely moisturizing (a little goes a long way), and it may be too rich for some skin types. "The moisturizers present in shea butter are some of the same moisturizers that the sebaceous glands produce," Jody Levine, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City told HowStuffWorks. Look for grade A shea butter, which is the most pure (and choose organic if you can find it). Shea butter combines well with other oils, so if you like it, consider warming and melting it and mixing it with another oil or essential oils for a lovely natural moisturizer with scent.
3. Coconut oil
This has become a popular natural moisturizer over the last few years, though it has a long history of use for both skin and hair in areas where coconuts grow. I use it to wash my face every morning (the like-attracts-like principle means that dirt and oils are attracted to the oil when you put it on your skin — and when you rinse it off, the dirty stuff goes down the drain with it, but your skin is left moisturized). Look for organic, fair-trade coconut oil that is fairly harvested — I like Doctor Bronner's (the company owns its own coconut plantation, ensuring quality and fairness for workers). I also use a smidge of coconut oil on my hair on frizzy-hair days and it's extremely effective without weighing hair down.
4. Mango butter
This butter is made from the kernel of the mango seed, and its extremely emollient and moisturizing. Because it is hard at room temperature, it is often mixed with other oils (often coconut oil) to make it softer and easier to use. It is high in vitamins C, A and E, and is particularly good at treating sunburns. It is used as a cooking oil in areas where mangoes are commonly grown (especially southeast Asia).
Buttermilk baths are an old-fashioned skin remedy that makes sense. Buttermilk contains lactic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid), which can slowly-but-surely clear up age spots and lessen minor scars (as from acne) via gentle exfoliation. While buttermilk won't moisturize by itself, it will help any moisturizer you do use to absorb better into skin. Try a bath of 2 cups organic buttermilk and a couple tablespoons of honey for a luxurious milk-and-honey experience (obviously not a vegan one, however).
6. Olive oil
This is an ancient remedy that has been used by women (and men) in Mediterranean areas for thousands of years (there's evidence for its use during the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians in both food and beauty). Since it is liquid down to about 37-40 degrees, it stays conveniently usable unless you refrigerate it. It mixes well with other oils and works on its own — it's a bit heavier than coconut oil, and takes a bit longer to soak into skin, but makes skin smooth and slightly sheeny. My great-grandmother, from Lebanon, soaked her hands in olive oil every evening, and then wore cotton gloves to bed, allowing it to soak in all night, and sometimes I do the same — or use olive oil as an overnight hair mask. Cold-pressed, virgin organic olive oils taste great in salads and with bread, and if you spill some, just rub it into your fingers (I always do when I'm cooking — I've noticed it really helps my hands from getting dried out during cleanup).
Not only great in cookies, tea and on toast, honey is an antibacterial substance and a wonderful natural moisturizer. Always look for local, raw honey so you can support your local apiaries and honeybee populations, which are under threat. Also, buying from a reputable local provider can help you avoid buying something that says it's honey, but isn't. You can mix it into bathwater, as above, or with coconut oil (or solo) as a moisturizing cleanser.
8. Cocoa butter
Made from the same part of the plant that we make chocolate from (the seed), cocoa is a favorite of pregnant women to avoid stretch marks, and is used to make chocolate candy. It also smells deliciously like chocolate, (which is why I love to use it as a lip balm). It's a very stable oil, which means that it can last some time without going rancid, and is packed with fats that are great in chocolate and make for great skin moisturizing. Look for organic, fairly harvested versions, and consider mixing it with peppermint or orange essential oils for a chocolate-mint or choc-orange aroma.