Sebum is an oily substance that protects your skin—but too much of it isn’t a good thing. One of Curology’s licensed dermatology providers, Jessica Lee, NP-C, explains: “In humans, our sebum is made up of squalene, esters of glycerol, wax and cholesterol, as well as free cholesterol and fatty acids. What makes them unique is that they contain squalene and wax esters, which is found nowhere else in the body. Sebum’s main role is to protect the skin.”
Excess sebum can increase the risk of clogged pores and acne.
Several factors influence excess oil production, such as skincare products and diet choices.
When sebum production is too low, it can result in dry, itchy, and irritated skin.
Our dermatology providers are here to help you find ingredients to treat your skin.
We’ll share 6 effective ways you can say “goodbye” to oily skin, clogged pores, and acne by helping manage your skin’s sebum production.
Balancing sebum production can help reduce your risk for acne breakouts. To that end, let’s consider 6 effective steps you can take on your journey to clearer skin.
It’s important to keep your skin clean to help it develop a protective barrier and stay healthy. As you consider the following cleanser types, remember to clean your hands before touching your face so you don’t transfer bacteria and environmental debris onto your skin.
Remove makeup: Before bed, it’s important to remove your makeup. Sleeping in your makeup can increase the potential for clogged pores when makeup mixes with the dirt and oil that accumulate during the day. Consider a product that removes your makeup and cleanses your face in one step.
Salicylic acid cleansers: Over-the-counter salicylic acid cleansers can be gentle, are often well-tolerated, and can reduce acne vulgaris lesions.¹ However, people with sensitive, eczema-prone skin may find the ingredient too drying, which can lead to irritation.
Benzoyl peroxide cleansers: Benzoyl peroxide is a popular cleanser as it can be effective whether used alone or in combination with other treatments.² Clinical data has accumulated over decades in several countries,³ indicating that the cleanser may work well with most skin types.
Good moisturizers protect your skin by hydrating it without clogging your pores. The product shouldn’t give you greasy skin. Look for oil-free or water-based moisturizers.
Oil-free moisturizers: These moisturizers are typically easier to spread on your face, leave minimal shine, and typically don’t clog your pores, which can contribute to acne breakouts. Oil-free moisturizers are a good choice for those with sensitive skin or oily, acne-prone skin.
Water-based moisturizers: Another good choice is a water-based moisturizer, which by definition is oil-free. The added advantage to water-based formulas is that they lock in moisture and can help replenish your skin’s nutrients.
Smart diet choices: A healthy diet for your skin includes a balanced carbohydrate intake, whether whole grains or refined processed foods. Some research suggests insulin resistance may be linked to acne.⁴
To help reduce inflammatory acne lesions, you may consider increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish.⁵ You may also want to consider incorporating foods high in vitamins A and E, which are known to be antioxidants.⁶
Stress and its impact on acne vulgaris: Stress may be linked with acne outbreaks and severity.⁷ Stress can also trigger hormones that increase sebum production to be released.⁸
Topical treatments can help to address excess sebum production at the source. These include over-the-counter green tea emulsions, and salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide products. But your options don’t stop there.
Prescription options: Sebaceous glands connect to your hair follicles. There is a higher number of these glands on your face, chest, back, and behind the ears—which is the same pattern you may commonly see acne develop.⁹ Prescription options include oral medications such as isotretinoin therapy (for severe or treatment-resistant cases) and topical choices, such as clindamycin and spironolactone.¹⁰ A dermatology provider can recommend a product that may best suit your needs.
Curology’s personalized skincare for oily skin: Your skin is unique, which is why our licensed dermatology providers recommend personalized skincare to help meet your needs. Designed by dermatologists and backed by science, the personalized products designed to meet your skin’s needs can be highly effective in treating acne and clogged pores.
While working with a dermatology provider is best, you might want to consider some of the over-the-counter products available to help control sebum production.
Topical niacinamide¹¹ and zinc pyrithione¹² may both help reduce sebum protection. Here are some over-the-counter products that contain either one of these ingredients.
EltaMD AM Therapy (contains niacinamide)
Elta MD UV 46 Untinted (contains niacinamide)
CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion (contains niacinamide)
CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser (contains niacinamide)
For those who want to strike a balance between managing oily skin and maintaining skin hydration, our licensed dermatology provider Jessica Lee, NP-C, has another suggestion: “Think about using a toner that can maintain skin pH and help with excess sebum accumulation. You can also incorporate blotting papers throughout the day.”
She recommends the following toners to help you manage oily skin while keeping your skin hydrated:
Natural remedies and DIY face masks may help hydrate your skin and balance your sebum production. Look for more tips and information from skincare experts at Curology* to help you control oily skin.
Natural remedies: Avoid over-cleansing as this can lead to skin irritation. Witch hazel is a commonly used astringent with high tannin content that is produced during steam distillation in production.¹³ These tannins may be related to the astringent action. Witch hazel ointments are also used in acne cosmeceuticals to help control sebum production and acne.¹⁴
Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate, a major polyphenol in green tea, has also been shown to have properties that may help lower sebum production.¹⁵
DIY Face Masks: Other DIY face and eye masks can be made with honey, aloe vera, and green tea.
Having too much or too little sebum can cause skin conditions like acne and dry, irritated, flaky skin. Consider how over-the-counter skin care products and home care strategies promote rebalancing your skin oils and reducing the risk of clogged pores and acne.
Jessica recommends “avoiding any greasy, heavy, or sticky products that will likely clog pores. These products can include coconut oil, wax, and alcohol based products.”
Sebaceous glands, located in the hair follicles, produce sebum, which is then secreted to the skin surface. Sebum is a complex mixture of unique lipids (fat),¹⁶ which offers photoprotection (protection from sunlight damage), protection against microbes, and contributes to other components that help protect the skin. However, overproduction can lead to clogged pores and acne.
The amount of sebum produced varies throughout life, with the greatest production at birth and during puberty. Production drops after menopause for women and in the sixth or seventh decade for men.¹⁷ Dietary choices and genetics are other factors that can affect production.¹⁸
Androgens are the main hormones involved in sebum production.¹⁹ They’re produced by the adrenal glands and the ovaries. Stress²⁰ and diet²¹ can also trigger hormonal fluctuations and oily skin.
Research suggests that androgens aren’t the only thing involved in sebum production.²² Other factors that may affect sebaceous gland production include insulin-like growth factor, corticotropin-releasing hormone, and vitamin D, among others.²³
When sebum production is low, you may experience dry, flaky, and irritated skin. If you use products that can dry your skin, the symptoms often worsen. Moisturizers with humectants, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, can relieve dry and irritated skin by improving skin hydration and help restore the skin barrier function.²⁴
Sometimes you need professional help from an expert dermatology provider to address personal concerns and guide you through your skincare journey. Here are a few signs to look out for.
Moderate to severe acne
Persistent or numerous pimples and blackheads
Inflamed pimples that cause discomfort
Recurring skin infections
If you experience any of these, reach out to a healthcare provider—like those at Curology.
It would be so much easier if you had help taking the guesswork out of skincare. That’s what we’re here for! With Curology’s personalized process, you start with a skin quiz to determine if our licensed dermatology providers can provide expert telehealth support and personalized formulas to get you closer to your skin goals.
When you work with our skincare experts, you’ll receive an acne formula personalized* to your skin concerns. As a Curology member, you’ll be confident that you are using clinically proven ingredients personalized to your needs on your skin.
Managing oily or dry skin can be frustrating. Start with a quality cleanser and daily makeup removal to remove the dirt and dead skin cells that accumulate during the day.
Daily moisturizers can help protect your skin barrier. Consider Curology’s personalized skincare products with ingredients that may help with oiliness.
A consultation with a licensed dermatology provider can help determine if your acne is hormonally influenced, a skincare routine that’s not appropriate for your skin type, or could be influenced by your diet or other lifestyle factors. A personalized acne product can help you tackle breakouts, clogged pores, and redness.
A variety of factors can contribute to sebum production in your skin. These include hormone levels, the foods you eat, and stress.
Consider smart diet choices, like balancing your carbohydrate intake. Speak with your primary care physician about any hormonal imbalance concerns you may be experiencing, including any hormonal medications you may be taking.
One of Curology’s licensed dermatology providers, Jessica Lee, NP-C, explains that blotting paper can be useful to remove excess oil throughout the day when needed.
Meat, dairy, and alcoholic beverages²⁵ may possibly increase sebum production. You may consider testing your sensitivity to these foods to determine which have the greatest effect on your skin.
Topical retinoids, isotretinoin, spironolactone, oral contraceptives, and botulinum toxin may help in the reduction in sebum production. However, the risks and benefits of these options, as they apply to you, should be discussed with your healthcare provider.
The hormones with the most control are androgens. Other hormones that play a role include insulin-like growth factor, corticotropin-releasing hormone, and vitamin D.²⁶
1. Woodruff, J. and Appa, Y. A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (April 2013).
2. Yang, Z., et.al. Topical benzoyl peroxide for acne. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (2020, March 16). 3. Kawashima, M., et al. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. The Journal of Dermatology. (November 2017).
4. Sadowska-Prztocka, A., et al. Insulin resistance in the course of acne-literature review. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (April 2022).
5. Thomsen, B.J., et al. The Potential Uses of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Dermatology: A Review. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. (May 2020). 6. Draelos, Z.D. An Oral Supplement and the Nutrition-Skin Connection. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (July 2019). 7. Zari, S. and Alrahmani, D. The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. (2017, December 5). 8. Chen, Y. and Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflamm Allergy Drug Targets. (June 2014). 9. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (August 2017). 10. Bagatin, E. et. al. Adult female acne: a guide to clinical practice. Anais Brasileiros De Dermatologia. (January-February 2019). 11. Draelos, Z.D., et al. The effect of 2% niacinamide on facial sebum production. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. (June 2006). 12. Gupta, M., et al. Zinc Therapy in Dermatology: A Review. Dermatology Research and Practice. (2014, June 10). 13. Chularojanamontri, L. et. al. Moisturizers for acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (May 2014). 14. Chularojanamontri, L. et. al. Moisturizers for acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (May 2014). 15. Yoon, J.Y., et. al. Epigallocatechin-3-gallate improves acne in humans by modulating intracellular molecular targets and inhibiting P. acnes. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (February 2013). 16. Picardo, M., et al. Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermato-Endocrinology. (March-April 2009). 17. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A Review of Treatment Options. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.
18. Picardo, M., et al. Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermato-Endocrinology. (March-April 2009).
19. Elsaie, M.L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. (September 2016). 20. Chen, Y. and Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflamm Allergy Drug Targets. (June 2014).
21. Picardo, M., et al. Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermato-Endocrinology. Ibid.
22. Elsaie, M.L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. Ibid.
23. Elsaie, M.L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. Ibid
24. Milani, M. and Sparavigna, A. The 24-hour skin hydration and barrier function effects of a hyaluronic 1%, glycerin 5%, and Centella asiatica stem cells extract moisturizing fluid: an intra-subject, randomized, assessor-blinded study. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. (August 2017). 25. Lim, S., et al. Dietary Patterns Associated with Sebum Content, Skin Hydration and pH, and Their Sex-Dependent Differences in Healthy Korean Adults. Nutrients. (March 2019).
26. Elsaie, M.L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. Ibid.
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. Jessica Lee is a certified Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She received her Master in Nursing from Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, CA. Maria Borowiec is a certified Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She received her Master in Nursing from University of California, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, CA.
Maria Borowiec, NB-BC