The skin’s sebaceous glands produce an oily substance known as sebum that coats the skin as both a moisturizer and a protectant. When the glands produce too much oil it can lead to congested pores, which can lead to breakouts. But what is sebum, and can it be reduced?
What Is Sebum?
Sebum is a vital component of the skin’s natural moisture barrier that forms a protective barrier against the evaporation of water. It’s comprised of a complex mixture of waxes, fatty acids, sugars, and other naturally occurring chemicals that the body creates—even more specifically, sebum contains triglycerides and fatty acids (57%), wax esters (26%), squalene (12%), and cholesterol (4.5%).
When sebum production is thrown off balance, which can occur for a variety of reasons, several skin issues can arise. When the body produces too much sebum, it can lead to clogged pores, which can lead to acne. Sometimes the terms "sebum" and "oil" are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. What is often referred to as "oily skin" also contains dead skin cells, sweat, and environmental pollutants that accumulate on the skin. So, sebum and oil are not the same. Rather sebum is one of the many components of oil.
Where Does Sebum Come From?
Sebum is produced by sebaceous glands, which are located all over the body (except on the palms of the hands and feet). Although most sebaceous glands are grouped around hair follicles (mainly located on the face, behind the ears, and the upper portions of the chest and back) some of them are not. The face and scalp contain the highest concentration of sebaceous glands. In fact, the face specifically can have as many as 900 sebaceous glands per square centimeter.
Sebaceous glands are known as exocrine glands due to the fact that they secrete their contents directly onto the skin’s surface—unlike endocrine glands that release their contents into the body’s bloodstream. In addition to sebaceous glands, other exocrine glands include sweat and mammary glands, and tear ducts. While the true function of these glands (including sebum production) is still yet to be determined, there are several theories that speculate their purpose including providing antibacterial and antioxidant effects and transporting pheromones. What is known about sebaceous glands is that the lipids they produce are involved with the pathogenesis of one of the most prevalent skin conditions, adolescent acne.
How Hormones Affect Sebum Production
Hormones play a role in sebum production. Androgen hormones like testosterone, which is produced by the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes help to regulate sebum production. The body may produce more sebum the more active the androgen hormones are in the body. While progesterone, a specific female hormone, isn’t an androgen hormone, it can affect sebum production. Progesterone weakens the effect of the enzyme 5 alpha-reductase, which weakens sebum production. In theory, spiked or high progesterone levels should reduce sebum production, but that is not always the case. In fact, researchers have found that when progesterone levels spike, sebum production goes up. There is still much more research needed to understand why this is the case.
What Can Affect Sebum Production?
There are several factors that can affect how much sebum is produced in the body including medical conditions, medications, and other external factors that can initiate the body making too much or too little sebum.
Hormonal medications like testosterone, some progesterone, and phenothiazine often increase sebum production. An increase of sebum production has also been linked to the medical condition, Parkinson’s Disease. Factors that can cause a decrease in sebum production include birth control pills, antiandrogens, isotretinoin, and starvation or malnutrition. Medical conditions of the pituitary or adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes can cause either an increase or decrease in production.
Too much sebum production can clog the skin’s pores and cause breakouts and can even cause the glands to get clogged, which is medically known as sebaceous hyperplasia. Typically, individuals who suffer from acne have too much sebum and oil production. Another condition associated with too much sebum production is seborrheic dermatitis, which occurs when the sebum mixes with yeast and creates symptoms like red, flaking, itchy skin on the cheeks, forehead, and scalp. Too little sebum production can lead to dry skin and even eczema, which are signs that the skin’s moisture barrier needs to be restored and rebalanced.
How To Reduce Sebum Production
Sebum is necessary for healthy skin since it moisturizes and protects the skin on the body. But like anything in life, too much of a good thing can be problematic. While there is no "right" amount of sebum one should have since everyone’s body is different, if you are looking to reduce sebum production, below are some tips.
- Wash Your Face Regularly With A Gentle Cleanser: Get in the habit (if you aren’t already doing so) of washing your face in the morning and evening and also after exercising. Choose a gentle or mild cleaner that doesn’t irritate the skin since stronger cleaners (like oil or alcohol-based cleaners) can trigger an overproduction of oil in the skin.
- Choose Skincare Products That Are "Oil Free" and "Noncomedogenic": Choose skincare products that don’t contain oils and are noncomedogenic, so you moisturize the skin but avoid causing clogging your pores and causing additional breakout.
Limit Alcohol Consumption: Overuse of alcohol can cause blood vessels and oil glands to enlarge, which can enlarge the pores—particularly on the nose and chin.
- Exfoliate (Gently): A weekly habit of using a gentle, chemical exfoliant can help to remove dead skin cells, excess oil, and other contaminants on the skin, while also balancing the skin’s ph. Acids like salicylic or mandelic acid are gentle yet effective with salicylic acid being quite effective at drying out acne.
- Eat Low Glycemic Foods: The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that high glycemic foods and beverages raise blood sugar levels quickly, which may create inflammation in the body and increase sebum production. Eating a diet of fresh vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and certain fresh fruits may combat this.
- Reduce Stress: It may be easier said than done, but stress triggers a release of hormones, including cortisol, that help produce sebum. Mediation, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly can help minimize stress.
- Isotretinoin: If you suffer from severe acne, a medical doctor may prescribe isotretinoin due to its ability to reduce sebum production by 90 percent.
Sebum is crucial for the health of the skin. However, too much (or too little) of it can cause a variety of skin conditions. Talk to your doctor or skincare specialist if you suspect your body is producing too much. If simple solutions like the above don’t work a prescription may be needed to get the condition under control.