Everyone’s skin naturally has some oil. Little pores all over our skin exist to make space for hair follicles, and along with them, duct glands called “sebaceous glands.” These glands are responsible for secreting a substance called “sebum.”
Oil has a bad reputation in the skincare community. It can seem like an overarching nightmare, casting a greasy shadow on your clear skin dreams. Excess oil can clog your pores, cause breakouts of pimples and acne, blackheads, and skin inflammation. But don’t worry, we’re not here to panic you. It could be comforting for you to know that the oil on your skin has a greater purpose. It is, in fact, mostly good for you, given that you learn to manage its bad effects.
Where Does All the Oil Come From?
Sebum refers to a complex oily substance that is composed of wax, sugars, and fatty acids. The oil you see on your skin is a mixture of sebum, sweat, dead skin cells, and dust. The highest number of sebaceous glands exist on the face, the chest, and the scalp. The face itself has about 900 glands per square centimetre!
Sebum is produced through a process of systemic cell death, called holocrine secretion. Specialized cells (sebocytes) just below the surface of your skin dissolve themselves and release sebum in your sebaceous glands. Since hair follicles are close to these glands, hair growth enables the transfer of sebum on the surface of the skin.
The Functions of Sebum
Sebum serves many important functions that are essential for good skin. Not only does it give you hydrated and youthful skin, but it also protects you from external damage. Some say it could be playing a role in releasing pheromones. To sum up, the functions of sebum include:
- Hydration: Sebum consists of fat molecules called “lipids” that help trap moisture in the skin. This keeps skin hydrated, smooth, and elastic. Dry, un-moisturized skin and a lack of sebum can cause skin irritation and general discomfort.
- Serving as an Anti-Oxidant: During the normal metabolism process, our body produces unstable molecules, called “free radicals.” These molecules are formed during the process of oxidation and can be damaging to cells. A major function of sebum is to transport anti-oxidants. It carries anti-oxidants like Vitamin E, which protect skin cells from the ill effects of free radicals.
- Protection of Skin: Lipids, which refer to fat molecules, are carried in the composition of sebum. These lipids trap moisture into the skin and create a protective shield around the skin. Squalene, a substance present in sebum, is effective in combating skin damage due to harsh sun rays, UV radiation, and exposure.
- Anti-bacterial and Anti-Microbial: The acidic nature of sebum prevents infections and bacteria to enter the skin. Additionally, squalene and lipids present in sebum have anti-inflammatory properties.
Sebum has also been found to have anti-fungal properties. The fungal infection ringworm, for example, is said to be more common in children because of low sebum production.
Factors Affecting Sebum Production
Several factors can play a role in affecting sebum production. These factors can include genetics, nutrition, hydration, stress, and medication, among many others. Sebaceous glands are highly dependent on androgens which is why the most important factors that determine sebum production are age and hormones.
Hormones and Sebum Production
Hormonal fluctuations have been frequently associated with sebum production. Androgens, which refer to male sex hormones, play important roles in sebum production.
Female sex hormones like progesterone impact sebum production but in the opposite direction. High progesterone levels lead to low sebum production and high androgen levels lead to high sebum production.
Hormones are the reason that medication like birth control pills, which meddle with hormones, can affect one’s sebum production levels.
Age and Sebum Production
You may be surprised to find out that humans start producing sebum immediately after birth. Young children do not produce sebum until hitting puberty; however, a new born baby produces a lot of sebum in the first week of their life. Gradually over months, sebum production becomes negligent.
Once a human being hits puberty, their sebum production sky-rockets to new heights. This makes adolescents more prone to acne problems. Sebum is produced in a larger quantity in males than females, thanks to the higher concentration of androgens in boys.
As a person ages, their sebum production gradually slows down. This is one of the causes of dry, cracked skin in older people.
Overproduction and Underproduction of Sebum
A moderate level of sebum is essential for good skin. As is the case with most good things, both overproduction and underproduction of sebum can be causes of great concern.
The underproduction of sebum can cause dry, flaky, and itchy skin. Dry skin tends to look dull, can cause cracks, and speed aging processes. It leads to declining skin health which may cause wrinkles to form. As sebum production reduces with age, people tend to lose skin elasticity and natural shine. Eating disorders, excessive fasting, and a low intake of calories impact sebum production significantly. This is one of the many reasons you should not compromise on your water consumption when trying to lose weight. Excessively dry skin can lead to skin conditions like eczema.
Common causes for underproduction in sebaceous glands include:
- Exposure to harmful chemicals (through skincare products, treatments, or pollution)
- Malnutrition and dehydration
- Disorders of the pituitary gland
- Oral contraceptive pills, that act as antiandrogens
How to Tackle Underproduction of Sebum
- A balanced diet is a must. Make sure you’re getting enough proteins and fats.
- Avoid using products high on alcohol or artificial fragrances as they are likely to deteriorate skin.
- The best way to deal with dry skin is regular moisturizing. Mildly dry skin can be treated with moisturizers containing humectants. Look for products with squalene, hyaluronic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, glycerol, and jojoba oil.
- Thick lotions that contain petroleum jelly or mineral oils can be effective in storing moisture and sebum. These are effective in treating exceptionally dry or flaky skin. However, they can lead to clogged pores if applied too much on normal to mildly dry skin.
- It would be wise to consult a dermatologist and figure out your skin type before investing in expensive products.
Overproduction of sebum inevitably leads to oily skin. People with this condition are likely to notice enlarged pores, along with excessively shiny or sticky skin. Sebum may combine with dead skin cells and clog pores, causing acne, blackheads, and pimples. Further, overproduction in the scalp can cause Seborrheic Dermatitis, which is a condition that causes dandruff along with dry, scaly, and irritated skin.
Some causes associated with overproduction are:
- Medications that cause hormonal imbalances
- Health conditions in the pituitary, adrenal, ovarian, and testicular glands
- Parkinson’s disease
- Immunosuppressed diseases like HIV or AIDS
Medical Treatments for Overproduction
Mildly oily skin can be treated by using a gentle but effective skincare routine. This would include mild skin cleansers containing: beta-hydroxy acid, benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid.
- Dermatologists recommend not using oil-based or alcohol-based cleansers.
- Acne problems are often treated using antibiotics, retinoids, and chemical peels. Oral retinoids in particular are often used for treating oily skin problems.
- Hormone therapy using androgen inhibitors is a common medical technique used to control the overproduction of sebum.
- Estrogen-containing birth control pills have proven effective for some women to reduce oily skin because it reduces androgens in one’s body. However, we recommend you take this measure after consulting a trusted professional.
How to Balance Sebum Production Naturally?
Everyone’s skin has a little oil. But it is only people with oily skin who truly know of the deep struggles that come along with it. Oily skin constantly looks greasy and dirty no matter how many times you wipe it. Pores get constantly blocked with dirt, sebum, and dead skin cells, causing breakouts.
In severe cases, excessive sebum causes skin inflammation, acne breakouts, everlasting scars, and low self-esteem. Causes for oily skin and excessive sebum production are endless - be it the weather, genetics, hormones, or age. While it might not always be possible or ideal to get rid of all oil on the face, there exist ways to manage the oiliness of your skin.
Diet and Nutrition
A balanced diet and proper nutrition are essential for a healthy amount of sebum production on the skin. Many vitamins and minerals are essential for a healthy amount of sebum production. Oily and junk foods contain a lot of fats that in turn lead to lots of activity in the sebaceous glands. Avoid fried, sugary, and cheesy foods. Fresh vegetables and fruits are the best friends of good skin.
Vitamin A in particular is associated with good eyesight and healthy skin. Foods such as green vegetables, musk melons, and carrots are high in Vitamin A.
Fish is high on Omega-3 fatty acids and proteins, which are good for the overall health of both skin and hair. Probiotics like Greek Yogurt help maintain a healthy gut, essential for healthy skin. Drinking green tea regularly is also recommended because of its detoxifying properties.
If you’re struggling with oily skin, it is time to stop taking skin care lightly. It would be wise to invest in good products that suit your skin. Keep clay masks and toners close to you whenever you find a breakout coming up. Use tea tree oil to soothe inflammation caused by acne scars.
Avoid alcohol-based washes and scrubs. Additionally, always think ahead to plan your skin care regimens for different weather conditions. Your skin does not produce the same amount of oil in winters and summers. More frequent cleaning and toning might be essential in summers and monsoons.
Harsh products that are made to clear oil on the face might seem effective at first, but excessive use of such products can cause irritation and dry skin, which might trigger more sebum production. This is why it is important to not overdo any of these practices.
You might be surprised to know that the solution to managing oily skin problems might be present in your kitchen right now. DIY hacks often include ingredients like coffee, turmeric, oatmeal, green tea, baking soda, and so on. Regularly washing your face with warm water is also effective in keeping skin clear.
Argan oil is another ingredient that has been proved effective in controlling sebum production. The oil is said to repair skin cells and give you a smoother complexion. It has anti-sebum effects and thereby makes the skin less oily.
DIY Hacks for Oily Skin
Here are some fun and nourishing Do-It-Yourself Beauty Hacks to manage oily skin, with ingredients that are readily available at home.
Egg White Mask
Egg whites have been proven effective in absorbing excess oil off your face while giving it rich, protein-filled nourishment. To create an egg-white mask, you will need egg whites from 2 eggs, a spoonful of honey, and a spoonful of all-purpose flour. Mix and make a thick paste. Apply this paste on your face and leave it on for 10-15 minutes. Rinse it off with lukewarm water and a mild cleanser if necessary.
Coffee is an excellent oil absorber and anti-oxidant. The best way to use it for oily skin is as a scrub, because of its little exfoliating particles. Take a few coffee beans and soak them up overnight. Blend them with some coconut oil to make a good paste. Apply it to your face and leave it on for about 15-20 minutes. If you have the time, this paste can further act as a body scrub. You will be happy to find oil-free and smooth skin underneath all the grease and dirt.
Oatmeal and Baking Soda Mask
Oatmeal is known for its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties. Baking soda is an exfoliating agent that is useful for cleansing pores. Mix 2 tablespoons of oatmeal, one tablespoon of baking soda, and some water to make a paste. Apply it to your face and leave it on for 10 minutes. Wash it off with cold water afterward. You will be happy to find an oil-free, smooth skin afterward.