Excess Sebum

Excess sebum, or oily skin, is a frustrating reality for many people. While considered to be an issue confined primarily to hormonal teenagers, the reality is that it can and will plague anyone. There are also a huge variety of treatments available for anyone who is concerned about how oily their skin is.

In order to understand which treatment options will work best, it’s important to understand the root causes of excess sebum and why humans need skin oils in the first place - otherwise you could end up doing more damage than the oil does in the first place.

What is sebum?

Sebum is just another name for skin oil, which is a natural part of being human. Oils are the body’s natural way of protecting the skin from drying out and cracking. Everyone is covered with sebaceous glands – everywhere but the palms of hands and soles of feet – and it’s a feature of all mammals. These glands are found surrounding hair follicles.

These secretions are crucial to healthy skin and hair. The oil is ever so slightly acidic, allowing the skin to protect humans from many of the bacteria and viruses in the world. However, just like with many bodily functions, sebaceous glands can malfunction and cause more problems than they solve. The most common side effect of excessive sebum, other than a shiny face, is acne flare-ups. Acne is nothing more than clogged hair follicles.


For the most part, whether or not someone will have excess sebum boils down to genetics. It’s directly caused by androgens, which are hormones present in testosterone and progesterone, both of which are determined by genes. Because of this, women will more often have flare-ups during certain points in their cycle and teenagers (especially boys) are extremely prone to acne.

Other causes of flare-ups:

  • Too much washing
  • Harsh products
  • Dehydration
  • Poor diet

Skin is maintained through a delicate balance of many different things, and it’s important to keep in mind that if an individual’s skin gets too dehydrated or otherwise loses too much oil, the glands will overcompensate, making it worse. It’s better to find a happy medium with some oil left on the skin to prevent it from drying out.

How to diagnose

Thankfully this part is easy. While some oil is natural and helps prevent skin from drying out, excessive oil leaves skin looking shiny. This is most common in the t-zone (forehead, nose and chin) on the face, however it can happen in other areas of the body as well, especially the scalp.

Again, some oil is normal, however if it’s starting to cause additional issues such as acne, it may be time to start looking into treatment options.

If left untreated

Oily skin isn’t life-threatening or dangerous to anything but an individual’s self-esteem. The most common side effect of excessive sebum is acne. While not dangerous in its own right, acne can become infected and leave unsightly scars on the skin if left to fester. It’s best to try and treat it before it becomes a major issue down the road.

For individuals experiencing excessive sebum on the scalp, it can lead to hair loss if the hair follicles are overwhelmed with oil. If there are secondary symptoms present, it's important to start treatment right away to prevent long-term problems.

Treatment options

Thankfully there are many treatment options available – both over-the-counter and prescription.

  • Lotion/sunscreen
  • Toning
  • Retinoids
  • Vitamin A
  • Hormonal birth control
  • Change in diet/routine
  • Laser treatment

These are the main types of treatments that are available, though this list is in no way comprehensive. But then the question becomes: how do they work?

Lotion and sunscreen can help by reducing dry and flaky skin, which often causes the sebaceous glands to overcompensate. Sunscreen, in particular, is important as it will prevent tanning and sunburn. It is important to note that some lotions and sunscreens can make it worse, so make sure you’re using oil-free sunscreen.

Toners tend to be people’s go-to recommendation for dealing with oily skin. While toners such as witch hazel can help dry out oily skin, too much will cause more damage than it prevents. Remember – dehydrated skin will over-produce oil in order to compensate, so make sure not to use too much toner.

Retinoids are a broad category of chemicals that are related to vitamin A. This category includes both oral supplements and pills and topical (lotion) treatments. Both are available over-the-counter and through prescriptions. These treatments also have the benefit of generally promoting healthy skin and helping prevent cancer. For people with excessively oily skin that isn’t responding to other treatments, it’s worth speaking with a dermatologist about medicinal options.

Hormonal birth control acts as an androgen blocker, which is a major factor in causing oily skin. There are also androgen blockers that are available to men, so it’s worth checking with a doctor about available options.

If you're looking for a more holistic approach to treating oily skin, it’s worth taking a look at diet and other aspects of an individual’s routine. It can be hard to do things like ‘avoid stress’, but it can help. Same with getting enough sleep every night. One thing that anyone can do is change their linens regularly. While this won’t prevent oily skin, it can help prevent oil and dirt build-up in pores, which leads to acne and hair loss.

In more extreme cases, laser and light therapy can help significantly reduce not only acne, but also acne scars. It has also been known to reduce oil production directly, though in some cases laser hair removal can increase oil production.

There are other steps that can help with the acne, such as changing linens regularly, but in many cases, it won’t help with the underlying cause of excessively oily skin. These steps are also important to encourage healthy skin in general and so can be useful regardless.

In the end, many of the steps that would reduce oily skin are the same steps an individual would take to encourage healthy skin. It is important to talk to a doctor or dermatologist about skincare routine before taking any drastic steps - because it may turn out that they aren't needed.


I have acne! Does that mean my skin is oily?

Not necessarily. Acne is caused by clogged pores, particularly hair follicles. While this can be caused by oily skin, it’s not the only cause. Pores can be clogged by normal amounts of oil and dead skin. Acne isn’t by itself a sign of oily skin.

Can I treat oily skin without a prescription?

Absolutely – there are plenty of treatment methods that don’t require a prescription.

Will a high-fat diet cause me to have oily skin?

Not necessarily. A poor diet can cause oily skin, but there are many factors.

I’m not sure I have clinically oily skin. Can I still use these treatments if I feel like my skin is too oily?

Sure! Just bear in mind that if your skin becomes too dry, it can cause your sebaceous glands to overreact, leaving you with oilier skin than you started with. Always check with your doctor or a dermatologist before starting any sort of treatment, even non-prescription.

Doesn’t laser treatment hurt?

It can sting, and leave redness and some swelling, but in general, doesn’t hurt.

Do I have to worry about this as I get older?

Oily skin can plague people of any age. It’s important to note that because so much of it is dependent on hormones, women going through menopause are vulnerable to a flare-up even if they haven’t had one in the past.