Back in 1978, Frankie Valli sang a little diddy about a word. The word was “Grease.”
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He told us that it’s got groove, it’s got meaning.
Perhaps he’s right about that, but when it’s on your face, it also has a tendency to get annoying.
We talked to family physician Simon Hodes, MB ChB, about why some of us have a bit more “groove and meaning” than others — and what to do about it.
Why is my skin so oily?
There are a lot of reasons your skin may be a little on the shiny side:
- Genetics. This is one of those places where you can blame your family tree. Having overactive sebaceous glands can run in families.
- Age. Whether your skin is oily, dry or a combination of both, one thing’s for sure: It will change over time. It is common to see many skin changes through puberty and in young adults. As we get older, our hormone levels drop, our collagen production slows down and so do our sebaceous glands. The result: Drier skin that’s more prone to wrinkling.
- Hormone fluctuations. If you menstruate, where you’re in your cycle can be written on your skin. Your progesterone levels are highest during the luteal phase of your cycle (post-ovulation and pre-menstruation), so you can expect your sebaceous glands to be extra … well, sebaceous!
- Environmental factors. Where you’re living can have a significant impact on your skin. Warmer weather is more conducive to oil production, while — as you’ve probably noticed — cooler temperatures tend to dry us out. For that reason, people living in humid, tropical climates are more likely to have oily skin than those living in dry, temperate regions.
- Pore size. A lot of factors can impact pore size, very few of which you have any control over. To start with, pore size is genetic and — you guessed it — determined by the size of your sebaceous glands. They can also get stretched out by previous breakouts, weight fluctuations and skin conditions. You can’t actually shrink your pores, but there are a lot of ways to make them appear smaller.
- Stress. “While stress is part of life and hard to avoid, we know that stress increases cortisol levels, and one of the effects of this is telling the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum,” Dr. Hodes explains.
- Diet. “Foods that are lower on the glycemic index (GI) will keep your sugar and insulin levels down, which can help keep your sebum levels lower,” Dr. Hodes states. “So, a healthy low GI diet should help your skin as well as your overall health.” What does that look like in practice? “Try to reduce processed foods and keep a healthy diet with plenty of water, ” he advises. “People often think their oily skin has to do with them eating greasy food, but I don’t think there’s much proof in that.” The greasy stuff on your French fries is completely different from the oil on your nose.
How to fix oily skin in the moment
You can’t fight your DNA and you can’t get rid of oily skin overnight; you have to build a routine and make a series of lifestyle changes. But what do you do if you happen to have a slick on your forehead right now?
Your best bet is blotting the offending skin with an oil-absorbing sheet, which you can find for sale anywhere that sells cosmetic products. It’s important that you actually blot your skin — rubbing the sheet on the oily areas will just spread the oil around your face and may irritate your skin.
If you wear makeup, there are a host of mattifying primers, moisturizers, bb creams, sunscreens and powders out there that may be able to help in the moment as well.
Skin care tips for oily skin
While it may work in a pinch, being dependent on oil-absorbing sheets or rollers to feel your best isn’t ideal. The most effective way to get your oily skin under control is to adjust your skin care routine and make a few small but impactful lifestyle changes.
1. Wash your face twice a day and after exercise
If you’re not already in the habit of washing your face twice a day, Dr. Hodes suggests doing so using a gentle cleanser. It’s also important to be sure you wash whenever you exercise.
2. Avoid harsh face products
When you wash your face, avoid products that say they’re for oily skin. Products that dry out your skin too much will actually stimulate oil production, so you’re better off with a mild, foaming face wash. By “mild,” we mean cleansers that are unscented, oil-free and noncomedogenic — a fancy term for products that won’t clog your pores.
3. Don’t scrub too hard
You’ve probably heard that it’s important to resist the temptation to scour your face when you wash. That’s especially true if you’re struggling with oily skin.
“Try not to rub too hard. That’s going to make it worse,” Dr. Hodes advises. That’s because your skin produces more oil when it’s irritated. You should likewise avoid using a washcloth, loofah or rough mechanical exfoliants on your face for the same reason.
Toners have evolved a lot in the past few decades. In the past, these products were usually harsh astringents that could easily irritate the skin. Today, soothing toners are the norm. Just be sure to patch test the product on your inner arm before you put it on your face.
5. Moisturize your skin and wear sunscreen
It may be a bit counterintuitive at first, but people struggling with oily skin actually need moisture. That’s because parched skin produces more sebum. If you keep your face hydrated, your sebaceous glands don’t have to work as hard.
The same is true of sunscreen: Sun-damaged skin is unhappy skin. If you have oily skin, you may find that sunscreen breaks your skin out. Look for products that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and avoid scents and oils.
Pro tip: There are a lot of mattifying moisturizers out there that already have sunscreen mixed in. Just make sure you patch test any new product you buy before slathering it on your face.
6. Stay hydrated
We’ve covered hydrating your skin, but hydrating from within is just as important. That means drinking plenty of water. When you do, your sebaceous glands are less likely to be overreactive.
7. Choose your skin care products wisely
Dr. Hodes notes that it’s important to be mindful of the ingredients in your skin care products and cosmetics.
If you tend toward oily skin, some trendy products, like skin oils, could make your condition worse. Techniques like double-cleansing — which uses oil-based cleansers — will work wonders for some people with oily skin, but they’re going to break out others. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.
Your best bet is to seek out skin care products and cosmetics that say they’re oil-free and noncomedogenic. It’s likewise best to steer clear of alcohol-based products, as they could irritate your skin and cause increased oil production.
8. Don’t touch your face!
It’s easier said than done, we know. But touching your face — in addition to potentially introducing bacteria and dirt — can spread the oil around.
For the same reason, make sure you’ve cleaned your hands thoroughly before beginning your skin care routine. Nothing will undo a great skin care regimen faster than a pair of dirty hands.
When to see a dermatologist
When is it time to talk to a healthcare provider about your oily skin? And when is it time to get a referral to a dermatologist? According to Dr. Hodes, that question depends entirely on you. After all, oily skin by itself is not a problem. It’s natural.
“Ultimately, it’s personal,” he says. “If your skin is upsetting you, that’s a very personal thing. If over-the-counter remedies and natural products aren’t working, then you may want to seek medical help.”
A dermatologist may be able to prescribe medicine to get the oil production under control. They may also be able to help you determine what the best products are for your skin.
Keep in mind, though, that any changes you make to your skin care routine will take time to have an impact. If you don’t see positive changes in your skin after a month or two, that’s when you should start thinking about seeking out additional help.
The bottom line
Oily skin, on its own, is a cosmetic concern, not a health concern. It’s perfectly natural for some people’s sebaceous glands to produce more oil than others. How oily your skin gets is determined by a wide range of factors, from your family tree and the weather to your diet, stress levels, hormone fluctuations and hydration levels.
If you’re looking for a quick fix for excess sebum, oil-absorbing sheets or mattifying cosmetics are the way to go. Longer-term solutions will require a careful look at your skin care practices, a commitment to staying hydrated inside and out, and — if over-the-counter and at-home solutions aren’t helping — the aid of a dermatologist.