So much of maintaining a healthy skincare routine revolves around knowing your skin type. Is it oily? Dry? Combination? Normal?
But rarely do we ask ourselves:Why is this my skin type?
Well, a lot of that has to do with your body’s sebum production. The amount of sebum the body produces correlates with how oily the skin is. Sebum and oil, however, are not the same thing!
The body produces sebum naturally, but we do have some measure of control over how much is produced.
If sebum and oil are not the same thing, you may be wondering: What is sebum, exactly?
Sebum is an oily substance produced by our sebaceous glands. It’s made up of fatty acids, triglycerides, squalene, waxes, cholesterol, and sugars. It protects and helps moisturize the skin.
Oil, however, is sebum mixed with environmental dirt and dust, dead skin cells, and sweat. This is why oil can cause breakouts when it gets trapped in pores, while sebum (on its own) is essential for healthy, moisturized skin.
There’s an easy explanation as to why your face is more oily than the rest of your body: it has the highest concentration of sebaceous glands (typically 400 - 900 per square centimeter of skin!). Sebaceous glands usually group around the base of a hair follicle, which is why the scalp is the second most concentrated area.
But sebaceous glands aren’t only on the face and scalp. They can actually be found anywhere on the body except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
Ever wonder why you broke out so much during puberty? (Ah, the glory days.) That’s because hormones primarily control the amounts of sebum the body produces. Androgens (like testostrone) are male sex hormones that regulate sebum production. In other words, high testosterone correlates with high levels of sebum.
Progesterone is a female sex hormone that correlates with high levels of sebum; however, males can produce up to five times more sebum than females during puberty.
Since hormones control sebum production, certain conditions involving the pituitary glands (which control hormone levels), adrenal glands, ovaries, or testicles may increase or decrease sebum production. Parkinson’s disease is also linked to higher sebum levels.
Our bodies produce the same amount of sebum an adult does from the first three to six months after we’re born. This is so babies’ soft, sensitive skin is protected after exiting the womb.
After that, production slows down until puberty — when it spikes by 500 percent! Finally, around age 20, sebum production starts to decrease and continues to do so with age.
A follicle fills with sebum when it combines with skin cells being sloughed off during the cell regeneration process. When the follicle fills, it releases the sebum onto your skin, coating and protecting it.
Sometimes this process works in overdrive, which is what causes sebum excess and results in oily skin and hair. Medically, this is known as seborrheic dermatitis, or seborrhea — a condition that causes a buildup of flaky, yellowish skin and red patches on the scalp and different areas of the face and body, such as eyebrows, nose, and around the ears. (For infants, this is commonly known as “cradle cap.”)
Of course, the opposite can also occur. When the skin does not produce enough sebum, dry, cracked and/or flaky skin results. This can happen naturally from low hormone levels, or it can happen as a result of some acne medications. For example, isotretinoin (known on the market as Accutane) is essentially a powerful dose of Vitamin A that shrinks the sebaceous glands, limiting sebum production.
While many may see limited sebum production as a good thing, the side effects of overly dry skin and hair can be just as tedious as the oiliness caused by overproduction.
So, what can you do to balance sebum production so that it’s at a desirable level? We only have so much control over our hormone levels, but there are some practices you can implement to naturally keep your sebum levels in order.
There are plenty of reasons to maintain healthy skin through diet, and regulating sebum production is no exception. If your skin is very oily and prone to breakouts, you might consider the following in order to reduce sebum production:
One of the original uses for witch hazel was for pore shrinkage. Studies have shown that witch hazel contains skin-soothing properties, and its natural tannins work as an effective astringent. However, be sure to use one with no alcohol content; witch hazel itself is gentle and will not harm the skin, but older witch hazel products may have added alcohol, which can dry the skin out and lead to heavier sebum production.
Green tea is an all-star ingredient for oily skin. It contains a polyphenol that reduces sebum production and inflammation. Studies have also found that green tea extract, when applied directly to the skin, can reduce acne severity.
Herbal Dynamics Beauty makes a Rose Water Calming Face Toner with green tea extract, witch hazel, and rose essential oil (a natural anti-inflammatory) -- the dream team for going acne-free!
Tea tree oil has highly effective antimicrobial properties and works wonders for acne, breakouts, and blemishes. Plus, some research shows that products with tea tree oil can treat acne more effectively than antibiotics.
A tea tree oil hydrosol mist will balance sebum production and reduce the appearance of pores. Its anti-inflammatory properties will also help to soothe redness and irritation associated with acne caused by an overproduction of sebum.
Try exfoliating with a BHA like salicylic acid 2 - 3 times per week. BHAs deeply penetrate the pores, helping to reduce oil and sebum production.
Salicylic acid fights the most common acne-causing bacteria. Plus, it relieves redness and inflammation associated with acne, evens skin tone, and balances the skin’s pH. A clay mask with salicylic acid will help draw out excess oils and deeply cleanse the skin.
Oily skin sheds skin cells more slowly than other skin types. So, according to the AAD, it can tolerate more stringent exfoliating products such as face scrubs and cleansing brushes.Always remember to moisturize after exfoliation!
Once again, diet soars above many other remedies when it comes to maintaining healthy skin naturally. In many ways, simply reversing what was discussed earlier can help dry skin that’s underproducing sebum. However, this may initially sound like an unhealthy diet. The truth is, there are healthy ways to increase sebum production through diet by implementing a few tricks:
If you notice unusually dry skin, you may want to take a closer look at your cleansing products. This doesn’t just mean facial cleansers; it can mean shampoos and detergents as well. Start to pay attention to how your skin changes once you replace your old products with natural, alcohol-free alternatives.
A well-balanced gentle cleanser with natural, plant-based ingredients will remove excess dirt, but leave room for healthy skin regeneration without stripping any good oils away. Always avoid cleansers with alcohol and choose those with a lower acid content for dry skin.
(P.S. There’s no need to exfoliate more than once per week for very dry skin!)
It may seem like repetitive advice, but seriously: if you want more hydrated skin, you’re going to have to drink a lot of water. This helps hydrate skin cells, keeping them plump and allowing them to carry out their tasks seamlessly.
The recommended amount of water a person should consume daily used to be 8 glasses. Now it seems women should actually consume 9, while men should consume 13. This may seem high, but it really depends on your weight, how much you exercise, and other factors.
We tend to wait until we’re thirsty to reach for a glass of water. A good trick is to drink a glass when you’re not thirsty throughout the day (and make this a habit). This prevents dehydration and can help your body increase sebum production.
Research shows that moisturizers containing ceramides, sorbitol, emollients, or humectants will ultra-moisturize the skin and help increase sebum production. Rose oil is a natural emollient, so many rose-based products will encourage the sebaceous glands to function healthily.
Hyaluronic acid is perfect for long-lasting skin hydration. This serum with hyaluronic acid, natural humectants, and organic aloe vera will help the skin retain moisture on a cellular level.
Overall, there’s no right or wrong amount of sebum your body can produce. Sebum is a good thing, and essential for protected and moisturized skin.
Still, sometimes our bodies can produce too much or too little. Diet and other healthy habits can be practiced to perfect your sebum production naturally.