What is Sebum (And Why You Need It)?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

What is your skin’s BFF and its worst enemy at the same time? Its frenemy, you know?

Ok, I’ll tell you…

Sebum.

When skin makes just enough of it, a miracle happens: your skin is perfectly moisturized. It is soft to the touch. It’s plumper. It glows. It’s healthy. It looks awesome.

But when skin produces too little or too much? Then all kinds of problems begin. Flakiness. Infections. Breakouts. It’s hell. No wonder we all love to hate on sebum!

But I feel sorry for the poor guy. Ok, it often doesn’t do its job as well as it should, but without it, your skin would be a lot worse off. Here’s why:

  • What Is Sebum?
  • What Does Sebum Do For The Skin?
  • What Happens When Your Skin Doesn’t Make Enough Sebum?
  • What Happens When Your Skin Produces Too Much Sebum?
  • The Bottom Line

What Is Sebum?

You’re probably referring to sebum as oil without even realising it.

That’s what sebum is: a mixture of oils and waxes. It’s made up of 41% triglycerides, 25% wax monoesters, 16% fatty acids, and 12% squalene, to be exact.

Sebaceous glands create sebum for you. You have them all over your body, except the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet (that’s why they never get oily).

Unlike the forehead, chin, and middle portion on the back, which often tend to get shiny and are more prone to breakouts. We have a TON of sebaceous glands there (roughly 2,600 to 5,800 per square inch!).

Hormones regulate the production of sebum. That’s why it’s mostly teenagers who get acne. Or why lots of women who are experiencing menopause suddenly find themselves dealing with bad breakouts for the first time.

Like many other things (think collagen), sebum decreases with age. Cue dry skin as you hit menopause.

Yep, sebum can be a pain at any age.

What Does Sebum Do For The Skin?

Sorry ladies, but sebum is essential for the skin. Without it, skin doesn’t function well. So, what does sebum do?

Sebum is the skin’s natural moisturizer. It creates a waterproof barrier on the skin that keeps moisture in and pollutants, germs, and other nasty stuff out.

When your skin has enough of it, it looks hydrated. Softer. Plumper. Glowy, even.

What Happens When Your Skin Doesn’t Make Enough Sebum?

You have dry skin.

Without enough sebum, the skin’s protective barrier lacks its most important building blocks, so it breaks up all over the place.

Moisture evaporates, leaving skin feeling and looking as dry as the desert. If it gets really bad, it even starts to flake. Bacteria, toxins, and a whole bunch of not-so-nice stuff can get inside the body, leaving skin red and irritated.

When this happens, you need to use skincare products that repair the skin’s barrier. And, of course, you need to treat your skin super gently so you won’t make things worse.

What Happens When Your Skin Produces Too Much Sebum?

You have oily skin.

The excess oil your skin produces gets trapped in the pores where it mixes with dead skin cells and other gunk in there. Your pores get clogged. You get pimples. Blackheads. Whiteheads. It’s breakout galore.

Oh, some oil stays on the surface of your skin too. It makes it shine like a frying pan.

When that happens, you need to use skincare products that keep the production of sebum under control and absorb any excess.

The Bottom Line

Your skin needs sebum, so learn to get along with it. Understand how it works, so you can help your skin get just the right amount it needs to stay healthy and moisturized.

Did you consider sebum a dirty word too? Share your thoughts on sebum in the comments below.

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