Sophie from Absolutely Pure worked in the beauty industry for a long time, before starting her own natural and Paleo skin care range. She’s an expert on what makes your skin look and feel good (just take a look at her!) and has some interesting advice on why you should avoid ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ skincare that’s high in PUFAs. Just take a look…
PUFA stands for Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acid (or PUFA for short), which means that the fatty acid has more than one (poly) double bond in the carbon chain.
They’re unsaturated fats because they’re missing what saturated fatty acid has – hydrogen atoms.
That makes the bonds incomplete.
So picture a chain of links that is missing a joint or two on every single link – it wouldn’t be very strong or stable, and because of this instability PUFAs are prone to oxidation. This basically means their molecular chain is easily broken, which causes problems with how your body reacts to it.
When exposed to heat, light or moisture, PUFA reacts with oxygen and produces toxic, free-radical particles that are harmful both internally and externally.
Unlike olive oil and beef tallow, which have been eaten and used on the skin since antiquity, industrial seed oils like soy and cottonseed have only been in widespread use for the last 100 years or so. In fact, oil can only be extracted from most seeds through a pretty complicated industrial process involving hydraulic presses, high heat, and extreme pressure. You can get oil from olives, in contrast, through simple cold pressing, a far simpler and more traditional technique.
If people didn’t historically consume something or use it on their skin, it should give us pause for thought. Yet seed oils are everywhere today—in fast food, restaurant food, supermarket ready meals, and even the majority of ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ skin care products.
The problem is that despite widespread use in food and cosmetics, seed oils high in PUFA are far from good for you.
Why are saturated fats superior?
There are essentially two types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats, like butter, lard, tallow and coconut oil, are solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and come in two sub-types: monounsaturated (e.g. olive oil, macadamia oil) and polyunsaturated (e.g. hemp, rapeseed, sunflower and flaxseed). It’s this last sub-type of fats that are highly chemically unstable. Unlike the more stable saturated fats, they have an incomplete hydrogen bond, which means they oxidize—combine with oxygen when exposed to heat and light —very easily.
(Our bodies are warm – and the perfect environment for oxidation to occur and create havoc in our cells!)
The higher an oil is in PUFA, the more prone to oxidation it is. Coconut oil, for example, is made up of over 90% saturated fat, with only a tiny percentage of PUFA. Its chemical composition makes it far less prone to oxidation than something like safflower oil, which is almost 80% PUFA.
All this talk about oxidizing is important, because it’s oxidation that makes PUFA so bad for our health. Oxidation produces free radicals—the nasties that cause our cells to age—meaning that the higher oil is in PUFA, the more likely it is to cause free radical damage to your body and your skin.
Endocrine physiologist Dr. Ray Peat explains that eating too much PUFA can increase many health risks:
“The food-derived polyunsaturated fatty acids play important roles in the development of all of the problems associated with aging—reduced immunity, insomnia, decreased learning ability, substitution of fat for muscle, susceptibility to tissue peroxidation and inflammation, growth of tumors, etc., and are probably involved in most other health problems, even in children.”
If PUFA is so unhealthy, why is it in everything?
So how did PUFA come into such widespread modern use? The answer is a whole system of promotion, advertising, and profitability. According to Dr. Peat:
“In the 1940s paints and varnishes were made of soy oil, safflower oil, and linseed oil. Then chemists learned how to make paint from petroleum, which was much cheaper. As a result, the huge seed oil industry found its crop increasingly hard to sell. Around the same time, farmers were experimenting with poisons to make their pigs get fatter with less food, and they discovered that corn and soy beans served the purpose, in a legal way. The crops that had been grown for the paint industry came to be used for animal food. Then these foods that made animals get fat cheaply came to be promoted as foods for humans, but they had to direct attention away from the fact that they are very fattening.”
In other words, the seed oil industry is making a huge profit from selling us these unhealthy, PUFA-heavy oils, and they’ve put a lot of time, money and effort into making sure that they’re seen as healthy and nutritious instead. Seed oils actually used to be seen as a waste product: it was not until the invention of the hydraulic press that it even became possible to sell them to the public as food, at an enormous profit to Big Agriculture.
Avoiding PUFA in cosmetics
To make matters worse, PUFA is found not only in the foods we eat, but also in the cosmetics we put on our skin. When was the last time you rubbed soy oil on your face? Probably never, right? Yet industrial seed oils are often marketed in beauty products as ‘natural’.
And they’re just as prone to oxidation (and the resulting free-radical damage to our cells) when found in a lotion as they are in a frying pan.
This means that even cosmetics that advertise themselves as natural and free from harmful chemicals can contain damaging PUFA that causes sagging, wrinkles, liver spots and prematurely aged skin. Cosmetic oils like argan, rosehip and grapeseed may be organic and cold-pressed, but they’re still high in PUFA and best avoided.
Learning to be savvy about reading food and cosmetic labels will help you to avoid PUFA. Ingredients are usually listed in descending order, so the closer to the top of the list a high-PUFA oil is, the higher the PUFA content of the product.
Our friends at Absolutely Pure make low PUFA, paleo-friendly cosmetics, using oils that are mostly saturated and monounsaturated like babassu, macadamia and jojoba combined with grass-fed UK beef tallow. Beef tallow is a stable, saturated fat that has been used for centuries and is chemically similar to sebum, the natural oil produced by our own skin. It’s also a more effective moisturiser than high-PUFA seed and nut oils, kinder to your skin and better for your health.
Check out our range of Absolutely Pure Paleo friendly and LOW PUFA skincare products here.
Thanks so much Sophie.