Everything You Need to Know About Skin Sebum, Straight from The Experts

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

If you've got oily skin, you've probably heard the word "sebum" thrown around a lot by beauty experts and brands. But what actually is sebum? And why do some people have too much, and others too little? Plus, what is the best way to regulate sebum levels? We hit up expert dermatologists to find out everything you need to know about skin sebum.

WHAT IS SEBUM

“Sebum is an oily substance released by the sebaceous glands of the skin,” explains Dr Ewoma Ukeleghe, cosmetic doctor, founder of SKN Doctor and ambassador for La Roche Posay. Sebum is a complex mixture of fatty acids, waxes, sugars and other natural chemicals and is essential for skin health. “It helps to minimise water loss via the skin, and help to maintain the skin's flora,” continues Dr Ukeleghe.

Plus, sebum plays a key role in the skin’s defense mechanism. “Sebum exists to help protect the surface of the skin reducing the risk of penetration of external elements and helping to retain moisture in the deeper layers,” says Dr Mervyn Patterson, cosmetic dermatologist at Woodford Medical. “A delicate balance exists on the surface of the skin involving all of the constituents in sebum, normal bacteria and the body's own defence mechanisms ensuring a balanced equilibrium.”

WHAT CAUSES AN EXCESS OF SEBUM?

If your skin is very oily, your body may be producing too much sebum, leading to skin conditions like acne and breakouts. The main cause of an overproduction of sebum is hormonal imbalances, including as a result of puberty and pregnancy. “As well as hormones, heat, exercise and genetics play a part,” says Kate Kerr, acclaimed clinical facialist. “It can also be caused by skin that’s dehydrated, and/or skin that’s irritated from incorrect products.”

WHAT CAUSES UNDERPRODUCTION OF SEBUM?

It’s not just too much sebum that can cause skin problems or signify underlying health conditions - too little sebum can also be a sign that somethings not quite right. “An underproduction of sebum can be caused by diseases of the pituitary glands, adrenal glands, ovaries or testicles as well as prolonged starvation,” says Dr Ukeleghe.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF AN IMBALANCE?

According to Kate, a shine on the skin surface is a sign that you might be producing too much oil. “Also, if you’re suffering from acne, rosacea or perioral dermatitis,” she adds. “These are all conditions caused by excessive oil production.”

As for an underproduction? “If there’s not enough sebum, the skin can become excessively dry, dull and flaky,” explains Dr Ukeleghe.

WHAT SKINCARE INGREDIENTS CAN BE HELPFUL?

Firstly be careful not to attack the skin with harsh, poorly-formulated cleansers, toners, retinoids and exfoliators,” cautions Dr Patterson. “Although this can be very tempting to do it runs the risk of disrupting and drying out the delicate relationship between the surface cells and their protective lipid layers. This can lead to skin dryness and sensitivity which in turn produces a rebound response in the form of yet more sebum production.”

However, when used correctly, there are certain ingredients that can be effective. “For dry skin, I recommend a hyaluronic acid based serum,” says Dr Ukeleghe. Hyaluronic acid is known for its impressive hydrating abilities thanks to its unique capacity to bind and retain water molecules. “For excessively oily skin, use niacinamide or retinol-based products such as La Roche-Posay Retinol B3,” she adds. Retinol helps to boost cell turnover, removing layers of dead skin that can trap excess sebum resulting in pimples.

Another ingredient recommended by the experts is salicylic acid, which helps to regulate oil production as well as clear clogged pores and exfoliate dry skin.

WHAT TREATMENTS ARE AVAILABLE?

As well as a targeted skincare regime, there are some professional treatments that can be effective at treating oil imbalances, including chemical peels and microdermabrasion. “These reboot the skin, resulting in a fresh flush of new, healthier cells to rise to the surface,” says Dr Patterson.

In more severe cases, there are prescription medications that can help. “Sometimes if you’ve got severely oily skin, or a skin condition that results from oily skin that you’re finding hard to get under control, you could try Roaccutane,” suggests Kate. Roaccutane works by decreasing sebum production in the skin and the production of keratin (the scales of the skin which often blocks pores).

For at-home options, we’ve rounded up the best sebum regulating products available...

Kate Somerville Clarifying Treatment Toner, £22, SpaceNKPerfect for anyone who experiences shine, this toner contains witch hazel to balance and calm inflammation as well as lactic acid to buff away dead skin cells and Kate's own NDGA complex to balance oil, for a clearer, brighter complexion.

La Roche-Posay HyaluB5 Hyaluronic Acid Serum, £38, BootsContaining two different sizes of the miracle moisturising ingredient Hyaluronic acid to penetrate deeper levels of skin while instantly plumping the surface layer, this serum is able to quench skin's thirst without clogging pores.

Epionce Lytic Gel Cleanser, £72.64, AmazonThis refreshing gel cleanser removes excess oil, makeup and impurities while Menthol and Willow Bark Extract tackle blemish-causing microbes.

Origins Clear Improvement Charcoal Honey Mask, £30, Look FantasticCombining charcoal to draw out impurities and honey to moisturise, this indulgent mask is the perfect solution for both dry and congested skins.

La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum, £38, BootsThis retinol serum is so gentle, it can be used on even sensitive skin and helps to boost cell turnover and regulate oil production.

Caudalie Vinopure Blemish Control Infusion Serum, £29, Cult BeautySalicylic acid meets grape-seed polyphenols and organic essential oils for a clearer, shine- free glow.

S5 Skincare Balance Fluid, £30, Content BeautyThis easy to use fluid contains expert ingredient Alpine Epilobium to balance sebum production and hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate. Simply apply after your chosen serum.

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