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Oily skin is a common problem that affects both genders and usually worsens during adolescence. Excessive oil production is generally accompanied by enlarged pores and it makes the skin look greasy and shiny.
Skin oiliness often results in the development of acne and makes people conscious of their looks. The presence of excessive oil on the face can also induce a feeling of uncleanliness. (1) The skin contains several tiny bag-like glands known as sebaceous glands. Each of these glands forms around a hair follicle in the epithelial layer of the skin.
The cells of the gland multiply and disintegrate, releasing an oily substance called sebum into the hair follicles. Sebum is protective in nature, but excessive secretion may cause problems.
Causes of Oily Skin
An increase in oil secretion by the sebaceous glands results in oily skin. This may be due to the following causes:
Hormonal changes due to any reason, including puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and the use of birth control pills, may cause an increase in oil production in the skin.
For instance, during the menstrual cycle, around 2 weeks before your period, the sebaceous glands may start secreting excess oil. This is due to the shift of hormones from primarily estrogen to higher levels of progesterone and testosterone.
Under stressful conditions, the body raises the level of cortisol, which stimulates the sebaceous glands to produce more oil.
Weather conditions can highly influence the amount of oil produced by the skin’s sebaceous glands. The humid and hot weather during the summer months stimulates the overproduction of sebum. However, dry weather can also cause oily skin.
4. Dietary choices
An unbalanced diet with high-glycemic foods, such as soda, sugar, refined flour, and processed foods (fast food, packaged foods), leads to insulin resistance. This, in turn, increases oil secretion.
Vitamin deficiency (A, B, D) is also known to cause oily skin and acne breakouts.
Not cleaning your skin properly, and even excessive cleansing can lead to oily skin.
6. Genetic influence
Inheritance of specific genes can predispose you to oily skin.
Symptoms of Oily Skin
Oily skin occurs due to the overproduction of sebum and is prominent around the T-zone of the face (forehead, nose, and chin area). The excess oil makes the skin prone to acne.
Oily skin may have the following symptoms:
Medical Treatment for Oily Skin
Oily skin is usually treated with a combination of the following interventions:
1. Topical products
Several medications can be used to treat oily skin. These topical products include cleansers, sunscreens, and moisturizers. They usually have non-comedogenic, oil-free, and non-occlusive compositions.
For instance, the cleansers for oily skin contain surfactants and are devoid of waxes, oils, or any ingredient derived from fatty acids that may contribute to oil production. Gel creams and powder forms are highly recommended.
2. Oral medications
Spironolactone is a potassium-sparing diuretic that reduces oil production by blocking the androgen receptors. While it is generally used as an antihypertensive agent, dermatologists use it for the management of acne and oily skin as it can reduce sebum production.
Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid that is highly efficient in reducing sebum production.
c. Oral contraceptives
Oral contraceptives help in decreasing ovarian and adrenal androgens that play key roles in the proliferation of sebocytes. This effect, in turn, prevents seborrhea or the overproduction of sebum by the sebaceous glands. (2)
3. Other treatments
a. Botulinum toxin
Sebum production can be decreased through acne laser treatment.
c. Photodynamic therapy
Levulinic acid can be applied to the skin, which upon incubation, will be absorbed into the sebaceous glands. Subsequent exposure to blue light induces a chemical-light reaction that moderates the overactive oil glands.
When to See a Doctor
Seek help from a dermatologist if:
- The production of excessive oil does not subside even after following proper skin care measures and using home remedies.
- The excessive oiliness is causing problems, such as repetitive acne or pimples that leave scars or post-inflammatory stains on the skin.
Discuss all the symptoms with your doctor and inquire about the treatment options available for your skin condition.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Michelle Levy, MD (Dermatologist)
The relationship between diet and oil production or acne is not entirely clear. Contrary to the popular myth, eating oily foods does not give you oily skin. The largest contributor to oil production is genetics, and unfortunately, that is something we cannot control.
Several studies have shown that high-glycemic diets (diets high in sugars and refined carbohydrates) may increase acne in some people. It is thought that the spikes in blood sugar that happen after eating high-glycemic foods may lead to hormonal effects that increase oil production. (4)
The natural oils produced by the skin’s oil glands lubricate the skin, keeping it smooth. Oily skin also tends to be thicker with larger pores, and it may develop fewer of the fine lines that happen with age.
In fact, a 2015 study found that skin oiliness was correlated with shallower forehead wrinkles. (5)
Hormones act on the skin’s sebaceous glands to cause them to secrete sebum, a substance composed of the skin’s natural oils. Sebum production increases at puberty and declines after menopause.
Women produce more sebum in the week before their menstrual period when progesterone levels are higher, and they may experience a cyclical pattern to the oiliness of their skin.
Dry skin does not necessarily mean a lack of oil; it is mainly caused by a lack of moisture in the skin.
Moisturizers add water to the skin, protect the skin’s barrier, and give the skin a smooth appearance. People of all skin types typically benefit from their daily use.
Most people with oily skin benefit from washing their face one to two times per day. Overwashing can dry the skin and lead to irritation.
Some people with oily skin anecdotally find that clay and earth masks reduce the oiliness of their skin. At this time, there isn’t any evidence in the scientific literature that tells us how helpful clay and earth masks are for this purpose.
Many people with oily skin benefit from using a cleanser or medicated pad that contains salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps remove sebum and unclog skin pores. These effects temporarily reduce skin oiliness and may help prevent acne breakouts.
People of all skin types benefit from using a moisturizer and broad-spectrum sunscreen each day to protect the skin from dryness and sun damage. Those with oily skin should look for products that are labeled as “oil-free” and “non-comedogenic.” Mattifying makeup and blotting papers are popular and can also help to curb shine.
Finally, for those who have both acne and oily skin, certain medications that reduce oil production may be helpful. Work with your dermatologist to find the best options for you.
About Dr. Michelle Levy: Dr. Levy is a board-certified dermatologist with 15 years of experience. She currently practices general and cosmetic dermatology in Toronto, Canada.
Having oily skin may cause beauty concerns. Many self-care measures and home remedies are available to manage oily skin. However, it is advised to seek medical help if self-treatment does not work. Oily skin can be treated with medications and cosmetic procedures.