Plant-based oils in food and personal care

Plant based oils food personal care

The history, benefits, and uses of plant-based oils in food and personal care

By Andrei Mihail

Plant-based oils have always been a staple ingredient in both the food and personal care industries due to their numerous benefits compared to oils derived from animals or fossil fuels. Some of these benefits include being rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that contribute to overall health.

The use of plant-based oils in both food and personal care industries has the potential to make our diets more diverse and healthy, improve our wellbeing, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

A brief history of plant based oils

Humanity is very well acquainted with plant oils, and has been using them for nutrition, industry and personal care since the dawn of time.  It is impossible to tell when these substances were used for the first time, but it is well-known that early civilizations, such as the Egyptians and Greeks, used olive oil for cooking, and is seen as a symbol of wealth and status. Olive oil was also used for medicinal purposes, such as for treating skin conditions and wounds.

In the Middle Ages, other plant-based oils such as flaxseed oil and hemp oil were used in cooking for their health benefits and also as a source of light. In traditional Chinese medicine, various plant-based oils, including sesame and peanut oil, were used for their medicinal properties.

During the Industrial Revolution, the use of plant-based oils as a source of energy decreased as the use of fossil fuels increased. Synthetic products have started dominating the personal care markets. Vaseline, the brand name for petroleum jelly, is still one of the most used and well-known products in existence. However, in recent decades, the popularity of plant-based oils has risen again due to increasing concerns over the negative impacts of fossil fuels on the environment and the desire for more natural and health-conscious alternatives.

The food industry: background and context

Oils play a crucial role in the food industry as they are used in a variety of products, such as cooking oils, baking ingredients, and salad dressings. In cooking, oils are used to add flavor and texture to dishes and to prevent food from sticking to cookware. They also serve as a medium for heat transfer, allowing food to cook evenly. So why are we afraid of oily foods?

High-fat, low-fat, or fat-free

Essentially, due to a marketing campaign. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a growing concern about the link between high-fat diets and heart disease, which led to a shift in focus away from sugars and towards oils and fats as the main dietary culprits. As a result, many food manufacturers began producing low-fat or fat-free products, which were often high in sugar to compensate for the loss of flavor from the reduced fat content.

This shift in focus led to a widespread belief that fat was the enemy, while sugar was seen as a lesser evil. And while it is true that the oils used in the fast-food industry, made inexpensive, low-quality ingredients and produced using chemical solvents and high heat, have many health risks, lipids, and by extension fats, are necessary for a healthy diet.

Lower sugars

In recent years, there has been a growing body of evidence to suggest that the real dietary enemy may not be fat, but sugar. Studies have shown that a diet high in added sugars can lead to a variety of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. In response, many health experts have begun advocating for a shift back towards a diet that is lower in added sugars and higher in healthy fats. This shift in focus has led to a renewed interest in plant-based oils as a source of healthy fats, and a move away from processed and highly refined oils.

The need for healthy fats

Saturated fats, frequently found in low-quality, highly processed vegetable oil, are known to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, unsaturated fats are generally healthy and a key part of a healthy diet.

There are two main types of unsaturated fat:

  • Monounsaturated fat. This is found in olive, canola, peanut, sunflower and safflower oils, and in avocados, peanut butter and most nuts. They have been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease and improve cholesterol levels.
  • Polyunsaturated fat. This is found in sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils. It’s also found in walnuts, pine nuts, flaxseed, and sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Omega-3s fall into this category. 

The benefits of healthy fats include:

  • Providing energy: Fats are an important source of energy for the body and play a role in helping to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Absorption of fat-soluble vitamins: Fats are necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K.
  • Heart health: Healthy fats have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by improving cholesterol levels and reducing inflammation.
  • Brain health: Fats play a critical role in brain function and development, with omega-3 fatty acids being particularly important for brain health.
  • Joint health: Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and improve joint health.

Other culinary uses

Oils such as vegetable and canola are commonly used as ingredients in cakes, cookies, and other baked goods. They help to tenderize the dough and keep the baked goods moist. Oils can also be used to grease baking pans, ensuring that baked goods do not stick to the surface.

In the salad dressing industry, oils such as olive, avocado, and grapeseed oil are popular ingredients. These oils are known for their rich flavor and nutritional benefits and are commonly used to add flavor and texture. They also serve as a source of healthy fats, helping to keep the body sated for longer.

Aside from their uses in food products, oils are also used in the food industry for frying. Fast food restaurants and other food establishments commonly use oils such as vegetable and canola oil for deep-frying foods such as French fries and chicken. While this has many health disadvantages, it also allows for a very quick and efficient way of cooking.

Whether used for making a gourmet salad or a bucket of french fries, oils play an essential role in creating delicious and satisfying food products.

Personal care

The personal care industry has always been fascinated by nature and used elements from it, from the rose water used in antiquity to the endless products we find today. However, despite appearing to be an industry inspired by nature, it is heavily reliant on mineral oil.

Mineral oil is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless oil derived from petroleum. As a byproduct of petroleum, mineral oil is widely available and relatively low-cost, making it a popular ingredient in a range of industries. In the personal care industry, mineral oil is often used as an inexpensive moisturizing ingredient in a range of household products, from lotions and creams to baby oil. It is also commonly used as a carrier oil in massage oils and as a base for fragrances and other cosmetic products. 

Plant-based oils for personal care

It acts as a moisturizer and emollient, helping to hydrate and smooth the skin. However, mineral oil has a been criticized for its potential to clog pores and contribute to skin irritation. It is also derived from a non-renewable resource, and its extraction and production can have harmful effects on the environment. As a result, many consumers are seeking alternative, plant-based personal care products that offer similar benefits without the potential health and environmental concerns associated with mineral oil.

In this context, plant-based oils have become increasingly popular in the personal care industry, due to their nourishing and moisturizing properties.  Plant-based oils such as jojoba, sweet almond, and argan oil are known for their ability to hydrate and protect the skin, making them a popular ingredient in many personal care products. From the moisturizing properties of coconut oil to the antioxidant-rich argan oil, we will take a closer look at how these natural ingredients are making a positive impact on the personal care industry.

Some of the widest used plant oils include:

  • Coconut oil: this product is not just a healthy and delicious alternative to highly processed vegetable oils, but also great for personal care. Extracted from the flesh of coconuts and highly moisturizing and nourishing for the skin and hair, coconut oil is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are easily absorbed and provide quick energy for the skin and hair. Coconut oil also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, making it a popular ingredient in skin and hair care products, especially those aimed at treating conditions like dandruff, dry skin, and fungal infections.
  • Olive oil: used since ancient times for massages, fragrances and haircare, this popular favorite is extracted from the fruit of the olive tree. It is rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, including oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat that moisturizes the skin and hair. Olive oil is often used in soaps, lotions, and hair care products due to its moisturizing and nourishing properties. It is also a popular ingredient in anti-aging products, as its antioxidants help to protect the skin from environmental damage and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Almond oil: extracted from almonds and is known for its light, non-greasy texture, making it a popular choice for use in skin and hair care products. Almond oil is rich in vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect the skin from environmental damage, and is also a good source of fatty acids, which help to nourish and moisturize the skin and hair. Almond oil is easily absorbed and is often used as a carrier oil in aromatherapy, as it helps to distribute essential oils evenly and effectively.
  • Jojoba oil: derived from the seeds of the jojoba plant and closely mimicking the natural oils produced by the skin, the unique properties of this oil make it an excellent choice for use in skin care products. It is non-greasy. easily absorbed and known for its moisturizing and nourishing properties. Jojoba oil is also a good source of antioxidants and is often used in anti-aging products, as its moisturizing properties help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Argan oil: last but not least, argan oil is extracted from the kernels of the argan tree and is known for its high concentration of antioxidants and healthy fatty acids. It is rich in vitamin E and is highly moisturizing, making it an excellent choice

Consumer choice

Plant-based oils have a long history of use in both the food and personal care industries, offering a range of benefits over petroleum-based products.

As consumers continue to seek out more natural and ethical products, it is likely that plant-based oils will play an increasingly important role in the food and personal care industries. Whether it’s through their use in diets, as moisturizing ingredients, or as a replacement for harmful and unsustainable products, plant-based oils offer a promising option for both consumers and the planet.

Andrei Mihail

Master’s student in Biodiversity and Global Change at University College London. Andrei has a deep love for nature, and writes to connect people all over the world with conservation and technology.


More Aerospace


More Agriculture


More Automotive


More Energy


More Technology


More Environmental