Linoleic Acid – An Essential Fatty Acid Needed to keep Skin Healthy

What are fats and lipids?

Fats and lipids are the components of the body and tissues that are not soluble in water but are soluble in organic solvents such as chloroform, methanol ethanol and ether. Some are very familiar to us, in particular the common fats and oils we all know such as vegetable oils and animal fats. Many of the other classes carry the particular assignation as lipids – phospholipids, ceramides etc. All of them have particular and different functions in the body which support life across a wide range of physiological activities. They consist of complex compounds of ‘fatty acids’ linked in a variety of ways to other components. The conventional fats are the simplest of these classes. These form the predominant part of our dietary intake of fat.

Why fat is vital to your body

A balanced intake of fat gives you healthy hair and a radiant complexion, while enabling your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, such as, A, D, E and K. Some fatty acids are essential in the diet as the body cannot make them for itself.

Essential fatty acids (EFA’s)

The fatty acids present in fats and lipids are straight chain carboxylic acids. In general fatty acids in the body are between 14 and 24 carbon atoms in length with the majority being in the 16 and 18 chain length acids.

Essential fatty acids. (EFA’s) must be supplied from the diet. These are usually 18 carbon atoms long (octadecanoic acids) and have a variety of 2 or 3 C to C double bond configurations along the carbon chain. They are therefore polyunsaturated fatty acids. The most important of these is 9,12 octadecadienoic acid, known by its trivial name of linoleic acid. This and other EFAs are found primarily in many plant oils and some fish oils.

The essential fatty acids play a vital role in the repair and creation of body tissue. They are incorporated, along with others, into many body structures such as cell membranes and nerve sheaths. They are also the precursors for many of the substances (prostaglandins, thromboxanes for example) involved in the inflammatory response to injury and the replacement or repair of damaged tissue. While these are its primary purposes, EFAs are also important in the establishment and preservation of barrier function in the skin and the healthy growth of skin and hair.

The Deficiency syndrome

The absence or relative absence of Vitamin F in your body manifests itself in easy bruising, cuts and minor skin injuries that are slow to heal, lifeless hair and dry skin. The renewal of skin cells and the healing of minor wounds may also be affected. There may also be links of a local deficiency to problems such as increased water loss from the skin in affected areas.

It has been observed that a local deficiency of EFA’s in the skin can be corrected by application of linoleic acid externally. Application of linoleic acid in a water-based cream is particularly beneficial as its hydroxyethyl ester (part of the molecular structure within the sunflower oil) decreases loss of water from open burn wounds.

Skin specialists in the Burns Research Unit of Salisbury Hospital in 1981 observed that patients recovering from reconstructive surgery, severe burns or skin grafts appeared to have reduced levels of linoleic acid in the lipids that are believed to be a major contributor to the barrier layers of their skin. This was shown by sampling skin lipids with bland solvent swabs of ethanol/ether mix, then comparing the levels of individual fatty acids in normal skin and skin over healing wounds and hypertrophic scars.

The role of linoleic acid in a moisturising skin cream

People of all skin types will almost certainly benefit from the application of skincare moisturiser containing significant amounts of linoleic acid. Sunflower oil is a particularly good source of this.

As an element of daily skin care the linoleic acid-rich sunflower oil cream, offers the following benefits:-

  • It is ideal for use on dry, itchy skin conditions, providing moisture to even exceptionally dry skin. It also helps to soften the appearance of the skin and improve its suppleness.
  • As essential fatty acids can easily permeate the epidermis (outer layer of skin), linoleic acid also makes it easier for other active ingredients in skincare products to penetrate the skin, especially those containing anti-oxidants, such as cocoa butter.
  • The present of linoleic acid in face and body oils means that the viscosity of these oils is lower and that this may help to prevent the recurrence of inflammatory skin conditions. It means pores do not become clogged which is why facial oils rich in linoleic acid are often recommended for people with oily, as well as dry, skin.

Author: Peter Shakespeare, Emeritus Director Burns Research Unit. (2015)
Peter Shakespeare, clinical skin specialist at Odsctock Hospital Burns, directed the skin research team which identified sunflower oil as the key ingredient for its own NHS skincare brand used for improving scar / wound tissue. For more information:

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Last revised: 11 October 2016
Next review: 11 October 2019