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What You Need to Know About Sebum: the Good, the Bad, the Oily

Sebum often gets a bad rap, what with all the oil-control skincare products and oil-absorbing makeup sheets that line the drugstore shelves. But the oily, waxy substance naturally produced by the body isn’t the nemesis of your skin—it’s actually essential to maintaining a healthy, glowing appearance.

Unlike our common idea of a single-ingredient oil (think olive oil), sebum is made of a mix of different types of fats and oils that combine into a single molecule. It is these power molecules that are responsible for skin that is very oily, very dry, or anything in between. Like any good thing – wine, ice cream, sex – sebum is best in moderation; the right amount helps to support the skin barrier and keep your skin moisturized, but if you have too much, it can start to cause problems.

The Bright Side of Sebum

Pop skincare culture may position sebum solely as a nuisance that needs to be blotted away in the afternoon, but this is a marketing smear campaign.

Dermatologist Dr. Hysem Eldik says we should think of sebum “as being alive—it has biological activity and functions in the skin. It communicates with hormones, stimulates the immune system, and feeds microorganisms like yeast and bacteria.”

When your sebum levels are in balance, this substance has a host of health benefits for the skin. “[Sebum keeps] skin moisturized, less prone to breakouts and rosacea, and evens the playing field of microorganisms,” Dr. Eldik says. Sebum has a slightly acidic pH so it can keep bacteria from getting into the skin and it acts as a lubricant helping to lock in moisture. As a bonus, it can also help to naturally protect the skin from UV rays, though SPF is still a must.

But like all biological processes, the problem with sebum arises when levels tip out of balance and the skin begins to produce too much or too little.

The Ugly Side of Sebum

“Sebum is tricky because it’s both good and evil,” Dr. Eldik says. For example, while sebum has anti-inflammatory properties, it also has the power to trigger acne and other skin conditions like rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis (greasy scales on the scalp, eyebrows, and area near the nose) associated with inflammation. 

While having too little sebum (aka dry skin) can affect your skin barrier, generally the bigger issues arise when your skin is producing too much. One of the main culprits for this overproduction is invisible, but mighty: your hormones.

Dr. Eldik says you can think of sebaceous glands, which sit just below the surface, as the factories that make sebum. These “factories” exist almost everywhere in the skin, and they receive “directions” on how to behave and how much sebum to produce from, you guessed it, certain hormones.

In particular, the male androgen hormones, DHEA and testosterone, have an outsized effect on this process. When these two hormones get out of balance and are present at abnormally high levels, they send signals to increase production of sebum, which in turn makes your skin oilier and more prone to clogged pores and acne.

“Sebaceous glands are very sensitive to the level of circulating DHT [a form of testosterone] in the body, which can be elevated in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), during puberty, while on birth control, and rarer circumstances like ovarian tumors, to name a few,” Dr. Eldik says. “One of the effects of elevated sebum production stimulated by increased levels of DHT can be severe acne, which is why we commonly see acne develop in young adolescents and patients with PCOS.” 

Though not all acne is hormonal, breakouts can be a clue that something is going on with your sebum levels, and in turn, your hormones.

The first step to taming too much sebum is finding a good cleanser that will remove excess oils from the surface of your skin and keep your pores squeaky clean. But if a hormonal imbalance is causing elevated sebum production, the best thing you can do is get your hormones checked so that you can get to the root of the issue and its solution.

But, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t freak out at every sign of oil on your face. Sebum is just as good for you as it can be bad, and a little oil goes a long way to keeping your skin healthy, hydrated, and glowing.

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