Sebum is one of those substances that our body both loves and hates, and unfortunately, we seem to hear about this skin-produced hydrator only when there’s a problem.
Sebum is an oily substance that your skin makes, and when it is produced in a balanced way, it's good for your skin. Produced by the sebaceous glands, sebum protects the skin barrier once it reaches the surface of the skin.
Sebum keeps skin properly hydrated. The skin barrier is is comprised of fats, or lipids, which do not dissolve in water; hydration is an important part of the collagen-making process. Skin is made up of cells and those cells function a lot better when they’re lubricated. When properly hydrated, skin is plump and healthy.
Properly hydrated skin also keeps excess moisture out. Whenever skin is overhydrated, it retains water and has an improper electrolyte balance, which can create hormonal and metabolic imbalances that affect skin health.
The many advantages of sebum include photoprotection (defense from sun damage), as well as transport of the fat soluble antioxidants and some anti-inflammatory components, says The National Institutes of Health, NIH.
When there’s too much sebum, trouble begins. The skin becomes ultra oily, and that oil combines with the dead skin cells on the skin surface. Bacteria grows, resulting in skin eruptions and inflammation. Sebum overproduction can even cause hair loss, since there are sebaceous glands on the scalp which can clog hair follicles.
Your body starts producing sebum at birth, with the amount peaking around puberty, and then gradually declining as we age. Anything can affect sebum production, including illness (especially adrenal and hormonal afflictions), medications, surgeries, and of course, aging.
Sebaceous glands, not to be mistaken for sweat glands, are microscopic objects located all over the body, under pores and hair follicles. The only place you DON’T have them are the palms of your hand and soles of your feet. The highest concentration of sebaceous glands are on the back, and the forehead and chin.
It sounds like sebum, but this skin disease is complex and not well understood. It’s characterized by a red, itchy rash or dandruff (in infants it’s called “cradle cap”) but it’s not an allergy and it’s not caused by poor hygiene.
Theories say possible causes are stress, the yeast that lives on our body, and according to The American Academy of Dermatology, existing medical conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea, and acne.
Sebaceous glands are controlled by sex hormones, specifically androgens, says DermNet NZ and testosterone is the major androgen.
Testosterone production wanes as both genders age and the reduction of testosterone especially applies to postmenopausal women who have a hormonal imbalance. The first thing women should do is work with their physicians to get the proper levels of estrogen and progesterone to correct any imbalance.
Androgen production, however, can also be boosted by taking the right vitamins and supplements, including vitamins A, B1, C, and E, and supplements such as chromium, folic acid, and ginkgo biloba.
Diet plays a major role with the following shown to boost sebum production:
Foods to be avoided are those that contain iodine and trans fats, foods that are salty and highly processed, and refined carbohydrates.
Make sure your skin care routine is gentle and natural, because when you use harsh chemicals, they’ll strip skin and your sebaceous glands will overcompensate by creating more sebum. While they think they’re protecting you, it’s actually doing you more harm!
You also want to treat skin lacking in sebum as you would dry, irritated skin.
Avoid fragrances, parabens, sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate. Parabens act like antibiotics and destroy the balance of the skin microbiome, while sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate are overly harsh and will damage the skin barrier.
Use lukewarm (not hot) water, to avoid any irritation. If you start to feel oily in the afternoon, don’t wash it again but, rather spritz it with a hydrosol or a gentle toner containing a botanical, such as rose, lavender, or cucumber, to refresh without stripping your sebum.
Hyaluronic acid binds to water so we can benefit from that hydration, and although our bodies produce hyaluronic acid naturally, that production shows as we age - so finding products with hyaluronic acid in them can help us keep our skin properly hydrated.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a vital ingredient in any moisturizer, whether your skin suffers from not enough, or too much, sebum. This is according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
EFAs form the outer membrane of cells, and that’s crucial to cell turnover. Fatty acids hold onto water and vital nutrients, while moving out the cell waste and fats. They hydrate and soothe skin and they won’t clog pores.
The ones we most commonly see in skin care are: linoleic acid (also known as omega-6 fatty acids) and oleic acid (omega-3 fatty acids). Our bodies can’t produce them on their own, so we need to get them through diet, supplementation, and topical application.
It’s important to keep them in balance. The Standard American Diet (SAD) tends to have too many omega-6s, and the excess can turn the anti-inflammatory properties into pro-inflammatory ones, while omega-3s are completely anti-inflammatory. To get more omega-3s in your diet, increase consumption of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and trout), eggs, and walnuts.
If you have excess sebum, your skin will be shiny and oily, with clogged pores and blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. Find cleansers with ingredients such as tea tree oil, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, rose, and lavender. They’ll kill bacteria, but will also moisturize.
Jojoba oil actually contains identical chemical compounds to the real stuff, so it can moisturize our skin and hair when our body stops doing it naturally. On the other hand, it also removes sticky buildup and excess oil, so it keeps your oil levels balanced. Used to treat acne, psoriasis, sunburn, chapped skin, and balding - because it encourages hair regrowth. It’s an emollient, so it softens skin but it also unclogs hair follicles.
Jojoba oil is rich antioxidants so it reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, speeds up the wound-healing process, and stimulates collagen production.
A common misconception is that oily skin doesn’t need moisturizing, but nothing is further from the truth. Just be sure your moisturizer is light, non-comedogenic, and has plenty of vitamins and other nutrients.
Olive squalane, unlike its counterpart squalene, is light, non-greasy and non-comedogenic, appropriate for use on any skin type, including oily and acne-prone ones, while squalene is only for use on very dry skin.
Squalane even feels more like a gel than an oil, but it’s a powerful, deeply penetrating moisturizer. If you put just a tiny drop on damp skin, it’s going to feel soft and velvety.
The body manufactures squalane and that’s why it loves it. Sebum is about 13% squalane.
Squalane is used in skin care products, cosmetics, bath oils, facial cleansers, moisturizers and anti-aging products. You can even use it as a hair conditioner, it’s that light!
Sebum is a natural hydrator with which our bodies have a love-hate relationship, and one of the things that sets it off is the sun. There is no such thing as a healthy tan. Sun exposure will dry your skin out and cause flaking that will clog pores and possibly lead to excess sebum production, resulting in acne. The skin will also be inflamed, adding to the problem.
In order to keep sebum production on a healthy track, discontinue using products that are too harsh and dry your skin out (products that make your skin feel uncomfortably tight afterwards fall into this category!) and be sure to use a moisturizer high in essential fatty acids that support the moisture barrier of your skin.
Now that you know more about sebum, you can work with your body's natural hydrator instead of against it.