- Oily skin is caused by excess oil produced by overactive sebaceous glands.
- Excess sebum can lead to a host of skin imperfections and concerns.
- Genetics, age, hormones and lifestyle are underlying causes of oily skin.
- Oily skin can be prevented and minimized by using specific cosmeceutical ingredients and following a regular skin care routine.
What Is Oily Skin?
Sebaceous glands, located within the skin, are responsible for secreting a viscous fluid composed of squalene, wax esters, triglycerides, free fatty acids, cholesterol esters, and free sterols, called sebum.
Everyone needs a certain amount of this natural oil to keep their skin moisturized and supple. However, overactive sebaceous glands produce excess sebum that will lead to shiny or greasy skin prone to skin imperfections.
Oily vs. Combination Skin
If you notice your skin is often shiny or has a tendency to break out, you likely have oily skin or combination skin. Understanding your skin type will help you learn how to take care of your skin and select skin care products that are right for you.
When sebum production becomes excessive, the result is oily skin or a skin condition called seborrhea, a chronic form of eczema.
In addition to a shiny complexion, those who have oily skin usually have larger, more noticeable pores.
Oily skin types are also more prone to clogged pores that in turn, may lead to an increase in the appearance of blackheads, blemishes and other skin imperfections.
Combination skin is the most commonly reported skin type, with both dry and oily areas presenting on the face. Signs of combination skin may include large pores and an oily nose, chin and forehead, while the cheeks and other portions of the face may be dry and flaky.
What Causes Oily Skin?
Oily skin is the result of the overproduction of sebum from sebaceous glands located under the skin’s surface. Hormones, genetics, environment and even lifestyle can affect sebum production. Identifying these underlying causes are key to controlling skin’s health and appearance.
Genetics is the leading factor in skin type and therefore the leading cause of oily skin. Having large sebaceous glands that produce excess oil is a hereditary attribute that can be handed down through genes.
Studies also show that facial pore size and sebum output rate differ between ethnic groups. In the Journal of Dermatological Science, researchers noted that compared with other racial groups, Asian people have notably smaller pore size and lower density. African Americans have enlarged pore size that can be attributed to higher rates of sebum output.
Oily skin and hormones go hand in hand. Hormones affect oil production, so oily skin may be caused or worsened by hormonal imbalances. Androgens (a male hormone present in both males and females) fluctuate during puberty, pregnancy or menopause and are the hormones most responsible for oil production.
Lifestyle and Environmental Causes
Daily habits and lifestyle choices can greatly affect your skin in several ways, impacting skin’s appearance.
For some people, consumption of foods high on the glycemic index, which are high in sugars, carbohydrates and saturated fats, may lead to overactive sebum production.
Causing a steep insulin spike, these foods increase the production of skin oils and contribute to the clogging of follicles, which can worsen skin complexion. These foods can also raise a body’s androgen levels, which induces fluctuations in hormonal levels.
The use of hormonal birth control and hormone replacement therapy can lead to excessive oil production, while other types of medication may result in dry skin, prompting skin to overcompensate and overproduce oil. Some over-the-counter medicine may have that effect as well.
Skin oiliness can change depending upon the time of year or the weather, due to fluctuations in heat and humidity. This explains why, during the spring and summer, some people may be particularly prone to oily skin and notice larger pores and a shiny complexion.
Stress and sleep
Stress causes hormones to be released, such as cortisol, which can in turn be responsible for a chain reaction leading to an overproduction of oil. This explains why rest and sufficient sleep are so important in controlling and preventing oily skin.
Cosmetics and skin care routine
Using the wrong skin care products or having the wrong skin care plan may have a negative effect on the appearance of skin. Overdoing your routine, skipping on moisturizer or failing to wear sunscreen may affect sebum production. This is why dermatologists suggest that when choosing cosmetics, to opt for oil-free and noncomedogenic labels.
Oily Skin Causes in Adults
The amount of sebum a person produces varies throughout the course of their life.
While sebaceous glands display relatively high production of sebum at birth, sebum production decreases shortly after, until puberty, at which point it dramatically increases.
Following the onset puberty, women also experience higher sebum production rates during ovulation. Sebum production does not decline again until after menopause.
Aging in general causes sebaceous glands to reduce sebum output, which also explains why aging skin often becomes dry and why fine lines and wrinkles become more noticeable.
Oily Skin Causes in Men
In general, men have a higher sebum output that is attributed to higher testosterone levels. During puberty, males produce up to five times more sebum than females. A hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is the cause for overproduction of sebum.
Sebum production does not decline again until around the sixth to the seventh decade for men.
While other causes for oily skin in men are the same as for women, shaving may be a trigger. When trimming off the hair follicle beyond the skin’s surface, the secreted oil, which normally coats the hair, instead goes to the surroundings of the follicle, leading to a shiny and oily appearance.
Sudden Onset of Oily Skin
Oily skin can abruptly appear at any time or age. Potential causes may be stress, insufficient hydration, an overly sweet diet or an intense skin cleaning routine.
Other potential causes for sudden onsets of oily skin may also be hormonal disorders, such as acromegaly. Primarily affecting middle-aged people, this disorder is caused by benign tumors.
Oily Skin Prevention
Since oily skin is closely linked to genetics and hormonal changes, it may be difficult to prevent and control. The best preventative measures are to find an effective, consistent skin care routine, stay hydrated, and maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
- Have a steady skin care routine, washing every morning, evening and after exercise.
- Use mild and gentle skin care products labeled as oil-free and noncomedogenic.
- After washing, gently pat face dry to avoid overstimulating skin.
- Remove excess oil throughout the day with blotting papers.
- Use natural astringent and anti-inflammatory toners.
- Use facial masks containing ingredients such as honey, oatmeal and clay.
- Apply oil-free moisturizers daily, ideally containing broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Use water-based makeup.
- Stay hydrated.
- Wear fragrance- and oil-free sunscreen that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
- Maintain a healthy diet and avoid fats and sugars.
- Avoid washing excessively or roughly, to avoid overstimulating skin.
- Do not sleep with makeup.
- Avoid oil-based products, as well as products that contain alcohol.
- Avoid harsh soaps with added chemicals and moisturizers.
- Do not touch your face throughout the day to avoid spreading bacteria, dirt or oil from your hands to your face.
Oily Skin Treatments
Many treatments reduce and treat the symptoms of oily skin, including a good skin care routine executed with the right skin care products. From cleansers and toners to moisturizers and cosmetics, the ingredients used in a good skin care regimen can help reduce oily skin.
Here are some of these ingredients:
Retinoids, the umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives, stimulate cell turnover, which increases collagen and elastin production, helping clear and shrink pores.
Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid and citric acid, help reduce the presence of oil in pores.
Many botanical ingredients are used in topical skin products for their astringent properties, such as witch hazel. Witch hazel has skin soothing properties, tightening and drying oily pores. Other herbs such as yarrow, sage and peppermint also have astringent properties.
Metals and botanical anti-inflammatory agents
Metals and botanical extracts are sometimes added in skin care products for their anti-inflammatory properties. Zinc, ginkgo biloba, green tea, aloe vera, allantoin and licochalcone are some of these metals and botanical anti-inflammatory agents that are commonly used in the current market. They all all reputed to have a moisturizing effect.
It has been reported that natural raw honey has antibacterial and antiseptic qualities. These qualities may help in reducing oily skin.
Green tea is another topical cosmeceutical ingredient with some evidence behind its application for oily skin, resulting in a significant reduction in sebum production.
Oats, which contain gentle cleansing saponins, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, may help to cleanse skin, as well as soothe irritated skin.
Facial clays, such as bentonite, reduce greasiness and help tone skin, draw out impurities and also help control overactive oil glands.
Oily skin is complex with many causes. While triggers vary from genetics to environment and lifestyle, addressing all the causes of excess sebum production can help achieve cleaner, clearer skin.
The key to prevent or treat oily skin is to strike a balance between having too much oil and too little, in order to maintain your skin’s natural moisture.
To achieve this balance, the goal is to learn to understand your skin type and to then tailor your skin care routine with this understanding in mind. Should you feel the need for professional advice, see a dermatologist to find out about treatment options.
- American Academy of Dermatology. (2018) How to Control Oily Skin. aad.org/media/news-releases/how-to-control-oily-skin
- Endly, D. C., & Miller, R. A. (2017). Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 10(8), 49–55. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605215/
- Sugiyama-Nakagiri Y, Sugata K, Hachiya A, Osanai O, Ohuchi A, Kitahara T. (2009) Ethnic differences in the structural properties of facial skin. J Dermatol Sci. ;53(2):135-9. doi:10.1016/j.jdermsci.2008.08.008
- Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. (2014). Brain-skin connection: stress, inflammation and skin aging. Inflammation & allergy drug targets, 13(3), 177–190. doi:10.2174/1871528113666140522104422
- Chularojanamontri L, Tuchinda P, Kulthanan K, Pongparit K. (2014) Moisturizers for Acne: What are their Constituents? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol.;7(5):36-44. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24847408
- Fowler Jr., Joseph F. MD. (2014) Colloidal Oatmeal Formulations and the Treatment of Atopic Dermatitis. jddonline.com/articles/dermatology/S1545961614P1180X
- Mandal, M. D., & Mandal, S. (2011). Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pacific journal of tropical biomedicine, 1(2), 154–160. doi:10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6