The Lifesaving Power of Sunflower Oil
By Denise Cartwright, CRUDE Founder & CEO
I started CRUDE in my kitchen nearly a decade ago, after an experiment with oil-cleansing—a concept that was new and ‘crude’ then but widely embraced now—cleared up my chronic acne breakouts. In my research to determine the best kinds of oil to use on the skin, I discovered the work of Dr. Gary Darmstadt, a globally recognized developmental health expert and Associate Dean for Maternal and Child Health at Stanford Medicine.
In a breakthrough study conducted by Dr. Darmstadt and his colleagues, the application of sunflower seed oil to premature infants’ skin resulted in a 52% reduction in mortality compared to a control group that received standard care. This remarkable result is attributed to the oil's ability to maintain skin barrier function, one of the body’s first defenses in preventing infection. This work supports long-held theories about the benefits of emollient therapy (applying an oil to the skin) which include reduced risk of infections, enhanced immunological protection, and even improved overall nutrition in children. These findings have already had a tremendous impact on children’s health with its results being translated into policy and practice worldwide. Dr. Darmstadt has been kind enough to speak with me about his research and its implications and I couldn’t be more excited to share his expertise with our CRUDE family on our newest educational platform Skin-to-Skin.
“I expected that we'd see something, but I was shocked when we saw a 52% reduction. I mean, it's just absolutely mind boggling…if that was a pill, if that was a drug that a pharmaceutical company had produced and studied, people would be buying that stock like crazy.” - Gary Darmstadt, MD, MS*
Where Dr. Darmstadt’s research shows the power of supporting the body’s own protective mechanisms, the skincare philosophy I learned in esthetics school was much more invasive. Using harsh cleansers and exfoliants that strip away natural oils and bacteria was standard practice, only to then replace what was stripped away with synthetic serums and moisturizers. But, the skin’s protective oils and microbiome, or flora, are there for a reason. Our skin and well-being depend on them at any age.
This new understanding expanded my focus from merely treating acne to supporting our bodies' natural healing and protective capabilities on a larger scale—starting at birth. Prioritizing a healthy moisture barrier in infants is crucial as it plays a significant role in protecting the skin against external pathogens and irritants. A healthy skin microbiome also helps in regulating the immune system, reducing the risk of developing certain diseases and skin conditions. Maintaining the natural oils and flora on your baby's skin from an early age is vital for their long-term health and well-being, and the ingredients you use on their skin really do matter.
"There were some specific reasons that we chose sunflower seed oil, and the more I go along in this field and the more I work with it the more I’m convinced that there’s something kind of special about it." - Gary Darmstadt*
It’s rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids which have antioxidant and moisturizing properties, respectively. Sunflower oil is non-greasy and easily absorbed into the skin, so it won't leave baby feeling sticky or greasy. Plus, it's hypoallergenic, making it a great choice for those with sensitive skin. Sunflower oil also closely mimics the skin’s own oils, or sebum, allowing it to repair or replace the skin’s moisture barrier to prevent pathogenic bacteria from entering the skin.
But not all oils are created equal. While sunflower seed oil has been found to benefit the skin's moisture barrier and even promote neurodevelopment, Dr. Darmstadt’s research shows that olive oil can actually disrupt the moisture barrier, as can soap and detergent-based baby washes.
Beyond the skin, emollient therapy has been found to diversify infants’ microbiomes even in untreated areas, like their stool. And, topically applied sunflower oil can even deliver important nutrients to an infant’s body through skin absorption. Undernourished infants often struggle to absorb nutrients through their gut potentially making emollient therapy an additional avenue for nourishment, especially in settings where access to food or supplements may be limited.
Moreover, skin-to-skin contact and Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) can further enhance the benefits of applying emollients like sunflower oil. Research by Dr. Darmstadt and others has found that preterm infants who received skin-to-skin contact with their caregivers had a wide range of benefits including improved survival. Specifically, they showed improved cognitive development, including increased attention and enhanced memory, as well as better motor development, including improved muscle tone and coordination. Additionally, preterm infants who received skin-to-skin contact had lower levels of stress hormones, better regulation of their heart rate and breathing, were protected from serious infections and showed improved growth. The World Health Organization now recommends that all preterm or low birth weight infants the world over – except if critically ill – receive Kangaroo Mother Care starting immediately after birth.
The use of emollients like sunflower oil is crucial in neonatal care, especially in low-resource settings where access to more expensive interventions is limited. Emollient therapy is a low-cost, safe, and effective approach to improving skin health in preterm infants, and it has the potential to save countless lives.
Since the beginning of CRUDE, it has been our message to educate and advocate for the magic of the microbiome. If you're ready for more flora-friendly content, dive in and discover Skin-to-Skin.
*The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and are not meant as endorsement of any product by Stanford Medicine or Gary Darmstadt, MD, MS.
Denise Cartwright is the Founder and CEO of CRUDE, and a Master Esthetician with 15+ years of experience. A lifelong Utahn, she's passionate about the natural world, vegetarian cooking, and environmental activism. Check her out on Instagram @dkcartwright.