Treating Seborrheic Dermatitis with Olive Oil: A Poor Idea

During my time researching seborrheic dermatitis, olive oil kept coming up as a potential treatment approach. However, digging deeper, the majority of peoples suggested that olive oil would only fuel the problem.

This article examines the subject in detail and aims to get to the bottom of whether or not olive oil (and products that contain it) should really be used by seborrheic dermatitis prone individuals.

What makes olive oil a seemingly good candidate

Olive oil has a long history of use for a variety of skin issues.

Around 1000 BCE, the use of olive oil really began to spread throughout the world. Poor quality oils were the primary lamp fuel, while the more fragrant oils found use in spiritual ceremony, skin treatment, and as a nourishing hair oil [1].

More recently, the popularity of the Mediterranean diet has re-sparked the popularity of olive oil. Very quickly, it became one of the most commonly used food oils among health oriented communities.

A bottle of olive oil held in hands

Along-side this rise in use, olive oil also found growing interest as a universal skin moisturizer and olive oil containing skin formulations began to make an appearance. Being an oil, olive oil naturally provides excellent skin emoilience and can reduce moisture loss from the skin surface [2].

Compared to other oils, quality olive oil is exceptionally rich in phenolic compounds [3]. This finding in-turn lead some researchers to theorize that this is where most of the benefit of olive oil comes from [4, 5].

Quick reference to the cause of seborrheic dermatitis

To understand the controversy with olive oil usage for seborrheic dermatitis treatment it makes sense to briefly review the specifics of the condition.

Malassezia yeasts have long been the primary explanation behind seborrheic dermatitis. These are yeasts that live on the skin of humans. They naturally feed on lipids (oils) present in the sebum that our skin produces/uses to build it’s moisture barrier. For most people, these yeast are harmless and their presence has not negative consequences.

In those of us unfortunate enough, the presence of these yeasts may indirectly trigger the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis. Why this is so (issues for some and not for others) is still under heated debate.

The primary theory of the past decade goes as follows:

  • Malassezia consume the lipids in our sebum and extract certain saturated fatty acids.
  • The remaining fatty acids are left behind in their more volatile free fatty acid form
  • Oleic acid is one of these and it’s presence damages the skin in prone individuals (due to an immune reaction)
  • The skin barrier breaks down and seborrheic dermatitis symptoms appear
Diagram of how malassezia degrade the sebum layer and irritate the skin

Alternatively, there are other more recent studies (which I believe are far closer to being correct) that suggest completely different mechanisms at play. Nonetheless, the theory outlined above still dominates the discussion.

What makes olive oil a poor candidate

From the above, you see that oleic acid free fatty acids are likely integral part of seborrheic dermatitis. So much so, that even application of these fatty acids directly to the skin can cause the same symptoms – despite the lack of malassezia presence [6].

As the primary fatty acid in olive oil is oleic acid, this very quickly raises a big red flag. After all, applying a rich source of oleic acid doesn’t really seem like a great choice for someone who sensitive to it (granted there is a difference between oleic fatty acid in it’s triglyceride form and in it’s free fatty acid form).

To add further caution:

  • Olive oil is frequently used in the lab to promote malassezia growth [7]
  • A small scale study showed olive oil can cause stratum corenuem (top layer of the skin) integrity issues and eventual leads to irritation with constant application [8]

Take together, these potential concerns with using olive oil quickly begin to outweigh the few vague positives.

The minor components and quality of the oil may be the determining factor

Alongside triglycerides (oils), olive oil contains many other unique compounds. This includes vitamin e, phenol compounds, carotenoids, squalene, phytosterols, and chlorophyll.

The level of this compounds found in the oil varies. The general rule is that quality virgin olive oil contains a higher amount, while refined olive oil.

It’s quite possible that high quality oil has a higher amount of these compounds and effects the skin differently then low quality oil [5]. However, the number of factors (production process, harvest time, geographic origin) that play a role does make it difficult to ensure consistency.

Quality of olive oil rating guide - shows the acidity of various varieties of olive oil - Extra virgin: below 0.8% acidity, Virgin: below 1.5 acidity, Pure: a blend of virgin and refined, Olive oil: below 2.0% acidity

A combination of olive oil, honey, and beeswax does have some support

Quite interestingly, a combination of olive oil, honey, and beeswax has gained the interest of some researchers for the treatment of several skin issues/conditions similar to that of seborrheic dermatitis:

  • Topical application of natural honey, beeswax and olive oil mixture for atopic dermatitis or psoriasis: partially controlled, single-blinded study [9]
  • 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 [10]
  • Mixture of Honey, Beeswax and Olive Oil Inhibits Growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans[11]

But actually going through these papers, it’s the honey that seems to get the most attention. The inclusion of olive oil appears secondary and primarily to “reduce the viscosity of the honey” – make it easier to apply.

Conclusion

Using olive oil for seborrheic dermatitis treatment seems like a poor choice due to it’s high oleic acid content.

Many other oils are readily available and have arguably more favorable fatty acids profiles. For example, extra virgin coconut oil (low in oleic acid) [12], cosmetic grade mineral oil (hydrocarbons) [13], and even sunflower oil [14, 15] may all be plausible alternatives.

While some would argue that natural oils should be avoided altogether [16], it’s difficult to cast such statements without the data to back it up.

Research suggests malassezia behave differently based on the fatty acids available [17] and removal of natural oils all together can create more issues then it solves [18].

References

  1. Paul Vossen "Olive Oil: History, Production, and Characteristics of the World’s Classic Oils" American Society for Horticultural Science 42.5 (2019): 1093-1100. doi.org
  2. Kam Lun Hon, Jeng Sum Charmaine Kung, Wing Gi Gigi Ng, Ting Fan Leung "Emollient treatment of atopic dermatitis: latest evidence and clinical considerations." Drugs in context 7 (2018): 212530. PubMed
  3. Kellie L. Tuck, Peter J. Hayball "Major phenolic compounds in olive oil: metabolism and health effects." The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 13.11 (2003): 636-644. PubMed
  4. Olga García-Martínez, Elvira De Luna-Bertos, Javier Ramos-Torrecillas, Concepción Ruiz, Egle Milia, María Luisa Lorenzo, Brigida Jimenez, Araceli Sánchez-Ortiz, Ana Rivas "Phenolic Compounds in Extra Virgin Olive Oil Stimulate Human Osteoblastic Cell Proliferation." PloS one 11.3 (2016): e0150045. PubMed
  5. Publio Viola, Marzia Viola "Virgin olive oil as a fundamental nutritional component and skin protector." Clinics in dermatology 27.2 (2009): 159-65. PubMed
  6. Yvonne M DeAngelis, Christina M Gemmer, Joseph R Kaczvinsky, Dianna C Kenneally, James R Schwartz, Thomas L Dawson "Three etiologic facets of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis: Malassezia fungi, sebaceous lipids, and individual sensitivity." The journal of investigative dermatology. Symposium proceedings / the Society for Investigative Dermatology, Inc. [and] European Society for Dermatological Research 10.3 (2005): 295-7. PubMed
  7. Takamasa Kaneko, Koichi Makimura, Masanobu Onozaki, Kumiko Ueda, Yohko Yamada, Yayoi Nishiyama, Hideyo Yamaguchi "Vital growth factors of Malassezia species on modified CHROMagar Candida." Medical mycology 43.8 (2006): 699-704. PubMed
  8. Simon G Danby, Tareq AlEnezi, Amani Sultan, Tina Lavender, John Chittock, Kirsty Brown, Michael J Cork "Effect of olive and sunflower seed oil on the adult skin barrier: implications for neonatal skin care." Pediatric dermatology 30.1 (2013): 42-50. PubMed
  9. Noori S Al-Waili "Topical application of natural honey, beeswax and olive oil mixture for atopic dermatitis or psoriasis: partially controlled, single-blinded study." Complementary therapies in medicine 11.4 (2004): 226-34. PubMed
  10. N S Al-Waili "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." Complementary therapies in medicine 12.1 (2004): 45-7. PubMed
  11. Noori S Al-Waili "Mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil inhibits growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans." Archives of medical research 36.1 (2005): 10-3. PubMed
  12. Sandeep R Varma, Thiyagarajan O Sivaprakasam, Ilavarasu Arumugam, N Dilip, M Raghuraman, K B Pavan, Mohammed Rafiq, Rangesh Paramesh "anti-inflammatory and skin protective properties of Virgin coconut oil." Journal of traditional and complementary medicine 9.1 (2019): 5-14. PubMed
  13. A V Rawlings, K J Lombard "A review on the extensive skin benefits of mineral oil." International journal of cosmetic science 34.6 (2013): 511-8. PubMed
  14. Varvara Kanti, Malise Günther, Andrea Stroux, Sabine Sawatzky, Wolfgang Henrich, Michael Abou-Dakn, Ulrike Blume-Peytavi, Natalie Garcia Bartels "Influence of sunflower seed oil or baby lotion on the skin barrier function of newborns: A pilot study." Journal of cosmetic dermatology 16.4 (2018): 500-507. PubMed
  15. Alexandra R Vaughn, Ashley K Clark, Raja K Sivamani, Vivian Y Shi "Natural Oils for Skin-Barrier Repair: Ancient Compounds Now Backed by Modern Science." American journal of clinical dermatology 19.1 (2018): 103-117. PubMed
  16. Elaine Siegfried, Erica Glenn "Use of olive oil for the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis in children." Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine 166.10 (2013): 967. PubMed
  17. H Ruth Ashbee, E Glyn V Evans "Immunology of diseases associated with Malassezia species." Clinical microbiology reviews 15.1 (2002): 21-57. PubMed
  18. S Kesavan, K T Holland, E Ingham "The effects of lipid extraction on the immunomodulatory activity of Malassezia species in vitro." Medical mycology 38.3 (2000): 239-47. PubMed
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About Michael Anders

After being affected by seborrheic dermatitis, I have made it my goal to gather and organize all the information that has helped me in my journey.

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