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Cosmeceutical Critique: Olive Oil

Volume 35, Issue 8, Page 38 (August 2004)

A staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has long been considered one of the most important of the natural essential oils.

For as long as it has been a component of the human diet, olive oil (Olea europaea) has also been used for its beneficial effects on the skin.

Ancient Greeks bathed with olive oil (Phytother. Res. 17[9]:987-1000, 2003), and the essential oil was also used in a variety of ways by the ancient Egyptians and Romans, including uses as a food, cosmetic, anointing oil, massage oil for athletes, and salve for soothing wounds.

In contemporary times, the topical application of olive oil has reportedly been successful in treating xerosis, rosacea, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis (especially in the diaper area), eczema (including severe cases on the hands and feet), seborrhea, and various inflammations, burns, and other skin damage (Phytother. Res. 17[9]:987-1000, 2003).

Abounding With Antioxidants

Olive oil contains a variety of potent compounds, many with antioxidant properties.

Those compounds include polyphenols, squalene, fatty acids (particularly oleic acid), triglycerides, tocopherols, carotenoids, sterols, and chlorophylls (Phytother. Res. 17[9]:987-1000, 2003). The phenols in virgin olive oil are known to scavenge reactive oxygen and nitrogen species active in human disease. Whether the influence of these compounds extends beyond the extracellular environment is unknown, however (Life Sci. 69[10]:1213-22, 2001).

The chief components of the unsaponifiable fraction of virgin olive oil include erythrodiol, ?-sitosterol, and squalene. The major components of the polar fraction include the polyphenols oleuropein, tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol, and caffeic acid (Z. Naturforsch. [C] 55[9-10]:814-19, 2000).

The antioxidant characteristics of these phenolic compounds are well established (Life Sci. 69[10]:1213-22, 2001).

A study of the topical application of olive oil revealed anti-inflammatory effects (Z. Naturforsch. [C] 55[9-10]:814-19, 2000). Other studies have also demonstrated that polyphenolic compounds in olive oil yield protective effects against inflammation (Phytother. Res. 17[9]:987-1000, 2003; Inflamm. Res. 50[2]:102-106, 2001).

Olive oil is a very weak irritant, and adverse side effects from topical use are rare (Contact Dermatitis 36[1]:5-10, 1997).

The primary phenolic compounds found in olive oil—all of which exhibit significant antioxidant activity—are simple phenols (hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol), secoiridoids (oleuropein, the aglycone of ligstroside, and their respective decarboxylated dialdehyde derivatives), and the lignans acetoxypinoresinol and pinoresinol (Lancet Oncol. 1:107-12, 2000).

High consumption of extra-virgin olive oil, which is laden with antioxidants from these polyphenols as well as other compounds, may offer protection against oxidative stress and its effects, such as aging and skin and other cancers (Lancet Oncol. 1:107-12, 2000).

A subsequent study also found that the high consumption of olive oil, along with vegetables and legumes, conferred protection against actinic damage (J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 20[1]:71-80, 2001).

Counter to Skin Cancer?

Researchers recently examined the capacity of extra-virgin olive oil to combat reactive oxygen species and skin tumors induced by UV light exposure.

Topical application of the oil to mice before or after repeated exposure to UVB resulted in delayed onset of skin tumors, compared with control mice. As UVB exposures increased, differences between control mice and mice pretreated with olive oil diminished.

Mice that were treated with olive oil after UVB exposure, however, showed significantly fewer tumors than mice in the control group.

Researchers concluded that topical application of olive oil following UVB exposure is effective in mitigating murine skin tumors caused by UVB exposure (Carcinogenesis 21[11]:2085-90, 2000).

Similar results were obtained in another study. Researchers set out to determine if topical application of olive oil delays the onset and reduces the number of UV-induced skin cancers.

The authors speculated that extra-virgin olive oil, but not regular olive oil (which neither delayed nor reduced skin cancer development), may work by reducing free-radical-induced 8-hydroxy-deoxyguanosine formation, known to be responsible for gene mutation (J. Dermatol. Sci. 23[Suppl. 1]:S45-50, 2000).

Marketing Beyond the Mediterranean

Olive oil is now found in most types of over-the-counter skin care products, including soaps, lip balms, shampoos, and moisturizers. There are even a few lines that feature o live oil as the primary active ingredient.

The Macrovita Face Products with Olive Oil line includes Olive Oil and Calendula Cleansing Milk, Olive Oil and Calendula Tonic Lotion, Olive Oil and Propolis Deep Cleansing Liquid Soap, Olive Oil and White Tea Beauty Peel-Off Mask, and various other products such as hydrating cream, eye-contour cream, skin-reinforcing oil complex, and shampoo for dry scalps. The 7 Wonders Miracle Oil and Lotion line also contains olive oil as the primary active ingredient in various oil formulations (body, bath, baby, tanning, massage, cuticle, and hot oils).

The abundance of glycerides and fatty acids in olive oil render it gentle enough to use even on sensitive skin, according to the manufacturers of the Jardin de l'Olivier products. This diverse line includes Bath & Shower Crème, Bath Oil, Body Lotion, Hand Cream, Crème Shampoo, Tonic Lotion, Cleansing Cream, and Dry Skin Cream, with olive oil as the chief component.

MedAssist Therapeutic Skin Cremes is a line of products made from all-natural ingredients. Their varied line of olive oil formulations includes Olive Branch Moisturizing Crème, Olive Branch Hydrating Lotion, Olive Branch Soothing Oil, Olive Branch Revitalizing Cleanser, Olive Branch Hair and Scalp Treatment, Olive Essence Hand and Body Lotion, Olive Essence Silky Moisturizing Body Spray, and Olive Essence Gentle Cleansing Herbal Shampoo.

Country Rose Soap Co. uses blends of olive, coconut, palm, castor, and jojoba oils, with all of the products containing a high percentage of olive oil (such as 100% Olive Oil Castile Soap). Besides these specific lines, there are numerous companies featuring olive oil as an active ingredient in select products.

The wider benefits of olive oil, like many other botanical ingredients, were known in the ancient world and are just in the process of being rediscovered.

As is the case with the plethora of herbal ingredients, olive oil has been incorporated into a wide array of topical products.

The presence in olive oil of several compounds with known antioxidant activity, along with the results of a few studies suggesting anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic effects, provide a rationale for further research.

As is often the case with herbal products, however, there is a dearth of randomized, double-blind, controlled trials on the topical application of olive oil.

Olive oil is highly regarded as a healthy food and cooking oil. If it turns out to be even half as well regarded as an antioxidant ingredient in topical formulations, it might leap to the head of the growing list of potent herbal antioxidants being used and studied in medicine.

DR. LESLIE S. BAUMANN is director of cosmetic dermatology at the University of Miami. To respond to this column, or to suggest topics for future columns, write to Dr. Baumann at our editorial offices via e-mail at

© 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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