Important Chemical Components:
fatty acids (predominantly oleic acid with some stearic and linoleic)
sterols (mainly β-sitosterol, avenasterol, and campesterol)
This ingredient is natural, but organic forms are available.
Personal Care Category:
Occlusive and emollient, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant
Recommended for the following Baumann Skin Types:
DRNW, DRNT, DRPT, and DRPW
Olive oil is derived from the olive tree (Olea europaea) and has long been considered one of the most significant of the natural essential oils. In the Mediterranean diet, known as one of the world’s healthiest diets, it is the primary source of fat. It was also used for dermatologic purposes among ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
Olive oil is an effective hydrating agent and has been shown to confer anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties.1,4,5 In fact, topically applied olive oil has been reportedly used successfully to treat xerosis, pruritus, rosacea, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis (particularly in the diaper area), eczema (including severe cases on the hands and feet), seborrhea, and various inflammations, burns and other skin damage.1 In terms of additional potential cutaneous applications, olive oil has demonstrated promise as a photoprotective agent.5
Olive oil has been used for dermatologic purposes for thousands of years, since the times of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. A staple of the Mediterranean diet, known to be one of the healthiest around the world, 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 in the human diet, people have also used olive oil for its beneficial effects on the skin. Ancient Greeks bathed with olive oil,1 and the essential oil was also used in various ways – food, cosmetic, massage oil for athletes, anointing oil, salve for soothing wounds – by ancient Egyptians and Romans. In an interesting historical study, Nomikos et al. used a comprehensive study of Greek and world literature, including works attributed to Hippocrates and Aristotle, as a portal through which to assess the use of olive oil for the prevention and treatment of sports injuries in the ancient world. They found that olive oil was used in massage to diminish muscle fatigue, eliminate lactic acid, and promote flexibility, thus possibly preventing the occurrence of injury. The authors also noted that the ancient world openly acknowledged the therapeutic use of oils, which were distributed freely to athletes at sporting events.6
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.1
Various potent compounds, many of which display antioxidant properties, are found in olive oil, including polyphenols, squalene, fatty acids (notably oleic acid), triglycerides, tocopherols, carotenoids, sterols, and chlorophylls (Table 14-1).1,7 The primary phenolic compounds found in olive oil are simple phenols (hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol), secoiridoids (oleuropein, the aglycone of ligstroside, and their respective decarboxylated dialdehyde derivatives), and the lignans [(+)-]-acetoxypinoresinol and pinoresinol.8 The polar fraction of olive oil is composed primarily of the polyphenols oleuropein, tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol, and caffeic acid.9 The antioxidant characteristics of these phenolic compounds are well established.7 Studies have also demonstrated that these polyphenolic compounds in olive oil yield protective effects against inflammation.1,4 (See the introduction to the Polyphenols section.) Lignans are also considered strong antioxidants.10
The main components of the unsaponifiable fraction of virgin olive oil include erythrodiol, β-sitosterol, and squalene. Olive oil contains much more squalene than other edible oils.5,11,12 Assays evaluating the unsaponifiable and polar fractions of olive oil have revealed anti-inflammatory effects exhibited by both groups.9
TABLE 14-1Pros and Cons of Olive Oil ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 14-1 Pros and Cons of Olive Oil
May impair skin barrier
Rich in antioxidants
Olive oil is one of the primary and most nutritional cooking oils in current use. Olives and olive oil contain high levels of monounsaturated fats, which are believed to be important in ameliorating xerosis.
In 2001, Moreno et al. examined the effect of a diet rich in olive oil on key inflammation mediators, specifically oxidative stress and prostaglandin production. The investigators compared the effects on rats of an olive oil-rich diet to those of corn-oil rich and fish oil-rich diets. Both olive and fish oils were found to reduce arachidonic acid (AA) release and the ensuing synthesis of AA metabolites, but olive oil was more efficient in reducing oxidative stress. Prostaglandin E2 levels were found to be lower in the rats fed the olive oil or fish oil diets as compared to the corn oil diet.13 A different 2001 study, by Purba et al., also found that the high consumption of olive oil, along with vegetables and legumes, imparted protection against actinic damage.14 Indeed, the high consumption of extra virgin olive oil, which is laden with antioxidants from these polyphenols as well as other compounds, is thought to protect against oxidative stress and some of its manifestations, such as skin and other cancers as well as aging.8
Of note, the study by Purba et al. implied that diets high in monounsaturated acids may raise the levels of monounsaturated fatty acids in the epidermis, which resist oxidative damage, unlike epidermal polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are more vulnerable to oxidation.15 They theorized that this may explain their observed association between monounsaturated olive oil and less wrinkling as well as the higher level of wrinkling linked to the consumption of polyunsaturated margarine.14
In 2012, Latreille et al. conducted a cross-sectional survey of 1,264 women and 1,655 men between the ages of 45 and 60 years to ascertain a link between the risk of photoaging and monounsaturated fatty acids intake. Using estimates of dietary monounsaturated fatty acid consumption in at least ten 24-hour diet records completed during the first 2.5 years of the follow-up period, and baseline facial skin photoaging assessments by trained investigators, the researchers found that higher consumption of olive oil, in both sexes, was linked to lower risk of severe photoaging.16
Olive oil is currently used in topical applications for the treatment of several skin conditions, including xerosis, pruritus, and inflammation as well as disorders such as rosacea. A study by de la Puerta et al. in 2000 of the effects of topically applied virgin olive oil on edema in mice induced by AA or 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol acetate (TPA) revealed that the unsaponifiable fraction of the oil more strongly inhibited AA, and oleuropein was found to be a strong inhibitor among the polar components. The researchers concluded that the anti-inflammatory activity attributed to both groups of compounds may be important in delivering the health benefits ascribed to virgin olive oil.9 The polyphenolic components of olive oil have been shown in other studies to play a role in protecting against inflammation,1,4 which is a key mediator in dermatologic disorders, not to mention other conditions.
In a 2012 randomized controlled clinical trial of 100 nulliparous pregnant women conducted at various health care centers and hospitals affiliated with Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Soltanipoor et al. evaluated the effects of olive oil in preventing striae gravidarum (stretch marks). The treatment group, to which 50 women were randomized, received 1 cc of topical olive oil for twice daily gentle application to abdominal skin, not massaging it into the skin until after delivery. The control group of 50 women received no treatment. The investigators did not find a statistically significant difference between the groups, though they noted that olive oil lowered the incidence of severe striae gravidarum but was associated with an increase in the incidence of mild striae.17
Although olive oil is increasingly considered an anti-inflammatory agent, it is also considered to be a weak irritant. There have been occasional reports of adverse side effects to its topical use, and it is considered unsuitable or contraindicated in patients with venous insufficiency and related eczema on the lower extremities.18 In a recent study, Danby et al. recruited 19 adults with and without a history of atopic dermatitis (AD) into two randomized forearm-controlled mechanistic studies. One group was instructed to apply, twice daily, six drops of olive oil to one forearm for five weeks. Over a four-week period, the second group applied, twice daily, the same amount of olive oil to one forearm along with six drops of sunflower seed oil. The investigators found that olive oil precipitated a decline in stratum corneum (SC) integrity as well as well mild erythema in the subjects regardless of AD history. Conversely, sunflower seed oil supported SC integrity, improved hydration, and did not provoke erythema. In light of these results, the investigators concluded that olive oil exhibits the potential to aggravate AD and they recommend against its use for dry skin or infant massage.19
Olive oil is generally recognized as safe, but as a weak irritant.18 It has a high content of oleic acid, which likely accounts for the “decrease in SC integrity” reported in studies.
As in the case with any plant that is cultivated for food and industrial uses, positive and negative effects on the environment are not uncommon. Considerable care must be taken to ensure environmental sustainability, which has become increasingly important to growers particularly in the European Union and the four main olive-producing countries (i.e., Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal).20 Optimal disposal of olive mill waste water is a key consideration.21 It is also necessary to monitor the impact on olive cultivation of European Union subsidies leading to the intensification of olive production.22
Olive oil is lipophilic. It can be successfully made into stable oil-in-water emulsions or used as a pure oil.23
Olive oil has significant amounts of oleic acid, which has been shown to increase skin penetration by disturbing the barrier.24,25 Its use may increase penetration of other ingredients. Extra virgin olive oil is the product obtained from the first olive pressings and is much higher in polyphenols than the oil obtained during further pressings.
Olive oil has been found to be an important ingredient in some botanical combination therapies and for various conditions.
In multiple studies, Al-Waili has shown that a honey, olive oil, and beeswax mixture (1:1:1) can be used effectively for multiple conditions, including AD, diaper dermatitis, psoriasis, anal fissures, and fungal as well as bacterial infections. In 2003, Al-Waili performed a partially controlled, single-blind study to evaluate the effects of the mixture on 21 patients with AD and 18 patients with psoriasis. Most of the AD patients exhibited significant improvement in the evaluated symptoms (i.e., erythema, scaling, lichenification, excoriation, indurations, oozing, and pruritus) after two weeks as did a majority of the psoriasis patients (i.e., redness, scaling, thickening, and pruritus).26 In 2004, Al-Waili tested the same ointment in 37 patients as treatment for the cutaneous fungal infections pityriasis versicolor, tinea cruris, tinea corporis, and tinea faciei. Three daily applications on the lesions for up to four weeks resulted in observed clinical responses (i.e., reductions in erythema, scaling, and itching) in 86 percent of pityriasis versicolor patients, 78 percent of tinea cruris patients, and 75 percent of tinea corporis patients, with mycological resolution achieved in a significant percentage of patients (75 percent, 71 percent, and 62 percent of patients with pityriasis versicolor, tinea cruris, and tinea corporis, respectively).27
In 2005, Al-Waili evaluated the effects of the honey/olive oil/beeswax mixture on the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans isolated from humans and found that while the mixture as well as honey alone were effective in inhibiting bacterial growth, mild-to-moderate growth occurred on media containing olive oil or beeswax.28 Also that year, Al-Waili assessed the mixture for its effects on 12 infants with diaper dermatitis. Four daily treatments for seven days yielded significant declines in mean lesion scores. Further, Candida albicans was isolated in four patients before treatment began, but only two patients after the one week of treatment, leading to Al-Waili’s conclusion that the honey/olive/beeswax ointment is safe as well as clinically and mycologically effective for treating diaper dermatitis.29 The ointment was found to be clinically effective in a pilot study to treat anal fissures and hemorrhoids in 2006.30
In 2008, Kiechl-Kohlendorfer et al. reported on their randomized controlled trial to test the cutaneous effects of two topical ointments on the skin of 173 premature infants conducted between October 2004 and November 2006. Researchers prospectively enrolled the infants (between 25 and 36 weeks of gestation) admitted into a neonatal intensive care unit, and randomly scheduled them for daily treatment with a water-in-oil emollient cream, an olive oil cream (70 percent lanolin, 30 percent olive oil), or a control ointment. Statistically less dermatitis was noted in the infants treated with the olive oil cream after four weeks as compared to the emollient cream and control.31
In 2012, Panahi et al. conducted a randomized double-blind clinical trial in 67 Iranian injured war veterans to determine the clinical efficacy of a topical cream combining Aloe vera and olive oil in comparison to β-methasone 0.1 percent cream. Thirty-one out of 34 subjects randomized to the botanical combination completed the regimen of twice daily application for six weeks and 32 out of the 33 randomized to β-methasone finished the trial. A pruritic score questionnaire and visual analog scale were used for assessment. Significant decreases in pruritus frequency, burning, scaling, and xerosis by the end of the trial were seen in both groups. The rate of amelioration in pruritus severity was comparable between the groups; reductions in fissures and excoriations were observed only in the A. vera/olive oil group. The investigators concluded that the botanical cream was as effective as β-methasone 0.1 percent in treating sulfur mustard-induced chronic skin complications and displays potential as a therapeutic option for such patients.32
In 2006, Battinelli et al. found that the aliphatic aldehydes in olives [hexanal, nonanal, (E)-2-hexenal, (E)-2-heptenal, (E)-2-octenal, and (E)-2-nonenal] exhibited antifungal effects against T. mentagrophytes and M. canis and concentration-dependently inhibited elastase activity.33
Data over the last decade suggest the potential of anticarcinogenic properties in olive oil. In 2000, the topical application of olive oil following ultraviolet (UVB) exposure was found to be effective against photocarcinogenesis in mouse skin models.5 That same year, Ichihashi et al. found that topically applied extra virgin olive oil may diminish the formation of the free radical-induced 8-hydroxy-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG), which is known to be involved in gene mutation, and thus has the potential to slow the development of UV-induced skin cancer in humans as it appears to do in mice.34 In a more recent study in humans on the effects of various topical agents on the transmission of UVB radiation therapy, Fetil et al. found that olive oil did not affect the minimal erythema dose and was therefore appropriate to use before phototherapy.35 Olive oil may also exhibit activity against UVA. Hydroxytyrosol, one of the key polyphenolic components of the polar fraction of olive oil, has displayed a capacity to suppress cell proliferation in human leukemia (HL60) cells,36 and to prevent UVA-induced protein damage in melanoma cells.37
Various compounds in olive oil with known antioxidant activity, as well as evidence suggesting anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties, suggest reasons to consider further research to establish what appears to be an important ingredient in skin care formulations. That said, the salutary effects of dietary olive oil are much better researched and understood. There is a paucity of evidence, particularly from randomized, double-blind, controlled trials, establishing the efficacy of topically applied olive oil. While there appears to be emerging data suggesting a role for olive oil in the topical dermatologic armamentarium, particularly in relation to photoprotective, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant activity, more research is necessary to elucidate whether the increasing inclusion of olive oil in over-the-counter products is warranted and, if so, whether the botanical can be harnessed for more effective use in dermatologic treatments. The high amounts of oleic acid in olive oil can disturb the skin barrier, which would affect the efficacy of olive oil in dry skin conditions. It seems certain that the utility of olive oil in treating dry skin conditions depends upon the other ingredients with which it is combined.
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et al. Effect of olive and sunflower seed oil on the adult skin barrier: implications for neonatal skin care. Pediatr Dermatol
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et al. The environmental implications from olive industry in Albania. BALWOIS (Water Observation and Information System for Balkan Countries). 28 May–2 June 2012.
et al. The impact of changing olive cultivation practices on the ground flora of olive groves in the Messara and Psiloritis regions, Crete, Greece. Land Degrad Develop. 2006;17:249.
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et al. Cosmetic emulsion from virgin olive oil: Formulation and bio-physical evaluation. Afr J Biotechnol. 2012;11:9664.
et al. Mechanism of oleic acid-induced skin penetration enhancement in vivo in humans. J Control Release. 1995;37:299.
et al. Evidence that oleic acid exists in a separate phase within stratum corneum lipids. Pharm Res
NS. Topical application of natural honey, beeswax and olive oil mixture for atopic dermatitis or psoriasis: Partially controlled, single-blinded study. Complement Ther Med
NS. An alternative treatment for pityriasis versicolor, tinea cruris, tinea corporis and tinea faciei with topical application of honey, olive oil and beeswax mixture: an open pilot study. Complement Ther Med
NS. Mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil inhibits growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans. Arch Med Res
NS. Clinical and mycological benefits of topical application of honey, olive oil and beeswax in diaper dermatitis. Clin Microbiol Infect
et al. The safety and efficacy of a mixture of honey, olive oil, and beeswax for the management of hemorrhoids and anal fissure: A pilot study. Scientific World Journal
R. The effect of daily treatment with an olive oil/lanolin
emollient on skin integrity in preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatr Dermatol
et al. Efficacy of Aloe vera/olive oil cream versus betamethasone
cream for chronic skin lesions following sulfur mustard exposure: A randomized double-blind clinical trial. Cutan Ocu Toxicol
et al. In vitro antifungal and anti-elastase activity of some aliphatic aldehydes from Olea europaea L. fruit. Phytomedicine
et al. Preventive effect of antioxidant on ultraviolet-induced skin cancer in mice. J Dermatol Sci
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et al. Effects of some emollients
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et al. Cancer chemoprevention by hydroxytyrosol isolated from virgin olive oil through G1 cell cycle arrest and apoptosis. Eur J Cancer Prev
et al. Hydroxytyrosol, a natural antioxidant from olive oil, prevents protein damage induced by long-wave ultraviolet radiation in melanoma cells. Free Radic Biol Med