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Oily skin: Symptoms, causes & prevention

woman in the sun wearing a headband
Oily skin is caused by excess sebum (oil) production, which can block pores and cause breakouts. Learn about the symptoms, causes & prevention right here.

You glance in the mirror and your skin is looking slick, but not quite in the way you’d like. Oiliness has crept in and you feel as though your make-up is sliding halfway down your face. Yep, oily skin can really knock your confidence, but it’s actually more common than you might think.1

Most of us have experienced oily skin, particularly if it’s your time of the month. Find out what causes it and how to tackle it in this article.

What is oily skin?

We have sebaceous glands all over our body – particularly on our face and scalp – and these glands produce an oily secretion called sebum that helps moisturise and protect your skin.

Some people produce too much sebum – and it’s this that causes the shiny, greasy appearance of oily skin.2 And the problem is that oily skin can block pores and even cause acne breakouts for some people.3

What causes oily skin?

Researchers think there are several different reasons why skin produces excess sebum. 

8 causes of oily skin

  1. Hormones

During puberty, men and women both produce more of the hormone, testosterone. This enters the sebaceous glands where a series of enzyme processes stimulate sebum production – or, in other words, oiliness. This process is sensitive to hormone levels, so when testosterone levels rise, so does that oiliness.4

  1. Stress

Activation of the stress hormone, cortisol, drives up oil production in women prone to acne, according to a 2017 study from Saudi Arabia’s University of Jeddah.5

Handpicked content: About stress and how you can beat it

  1. Weather

Sebum production increases during the spring and summer months, and also in more humid climates.6

  1. Air pollution

A 2017 German review reported that people living in high pollution urban areas in Asia had higher sebum levels.7

  1. Diet

As we know, hormones can cause oily skin, so it’s important to pay attention to what you’re putting into your body. Try to cut back on processed foods and focus on eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooking with oil isn’t advised and if you currently eat lots of processed food, you might want to cut down and eat more fresh food instead.

The worst foods for oily skin

There are certain foods that could be causing your shiny and greasy skin. Here are three of the culprits.

  1. Over-washing

You may be tempted to keep washing and scrubbing your face to keep it oil-free, but this could actually be the source of the problem. Scrubbing too hard, with cloths or exfoliating products, can strip skin of its natural moisture, which than triggers a reaction in our glands to produce more oil to moisture the skin.8

  1. Medication

Certain hormone-related medication, such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement medication and steroids, may cause an increase in oil production and lead to oily skin. This is due to the fact they can potentially cause dehydration, which makes the skin produce more oil.9

  1. Cosmetics

Certain cosmetics are kinder to skin than others. For instance, noncomedogenic, oil-free and water-based products are less likely to clog pores and add extra oil to skin. Next time you’re buying a skincare product or some make-up, do your research and find out if the ingredients are oil-based or have the potential to block pores. Also look out for skin care for oily skin that’s been specially formulated for this particular skin type.10

Handpicked content: What does non-comedogenic mean?

Summary

  • Excess sebum (oil) production causes the shiny, greasy appearance of oily skin
  • Research has found there are several different reasons for excess sebum
  • They include hormones, stress, diet and skincare routines

Who has oily skin?

Lots of us. It’s actually a very common skin condition, affecting both men and women.11 It tends to first hit during puberty. In fact, up to 75% of young people aged between 15 and 20 are thought to have oily skin. For some, oily skin can crop up until the age of around 60.12

Men tend to produce more sebum because of their higher testosterone levels, but for women, sebum production ramps up each month, thanks to hormonal fluctuations caused by ovulation.13 Sebum production can also increase during pregnancy.14

What does oily skin look like?

Oily skin varies from person-to-person, depending on their individual sebum levels, but on the whole, common symptoms of oily skin include:15

  • Your face will be shiny – due to your skin producing lots of sebum.
     
  • Your pores will be enlarged – more prominent pores in your T-Zone (your nose, chin, and forehead) are a side effect of having oily skin. They’re created by clogged pores.
     
  • You’ll be prone to acne breakouts, spots and pimples – due to sebum overproduction that can clog pores, which can then lead to breakouts.
     
  • You’ll develop blackheads – in addition to acne, spots and pimples, oily skin can also cause blackheads to form. They’re created by excess sebum at the base of skin hair follicles. Once the sebum touches the air, it oxidises and turns black to create what we refer to as blackheads.
     
  • Your skin always feels oily – for instance, it never feels tight or dry or develops flakes due to dryness. Oily skin tends to be on the opposite end of the scale.
     
  • You leave behind oil imprints – every time you use your phone or your face happens to touch something, your mirror perhaps, you leave an oily ‘shadow’ behind.
     
  • You struggle to get make-up to stay put – depending on how oily your skin gets, you may find your make-up ‘slides’ throughout the day as your skin produces more oil.
     
  • Your family has oily skin – oily skin actually happens to be a genetic thing. So if your parents and/or siblings have it, chances are you’re going to have it too.
     
  • Your fringe is always greasy – if you happen to have a fringe, then it’s highly likely it gets greasy quickly due to the grease on your forehead coming into contact with and rubbing off on your hair. Give your fringe (and forehead) a break by pinning your fringe back every now and then.

What food causes oily skin?

Foods with a high glycaemic index – such as sugar, white bread and white rice – can cause a spike in levels of the hormone insulin, which regulates levels of blood glucose.

This increase in insulin drives up your sebum production, according to a 2014 study in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.  As for fatty foods, there’s actually no evidence of them causing greasy skin.

Summary

  • It’s common for men and women to have oily skin
  • Symptoms include a shiny face, enlarged pores and blackheads
  • High GI foods can contribute to skin oiliness

Is your diet causing oily skin?

What actually causes oily skin - could it be down to your diet? We also look into the best food for clear skin and best ways to prevent an oily t-zone.

How to stop oily skin

Try these tips to manage your skin’s oil production:

  1. Make friends with blotting papers

Gently press to your skin and leave for a few seconds to absorb the oil. Never rub your skin with the paper as it’ll spread more oil around your face.

  1. Choose the right cleansers and moisturisers

Avoid oil-based products that will plug your pores and instead look for products that are water-based or ‘non-comedogenic’, so won’t clog your pores.

Handpicked content: The best cleanser for oily skin

  1. Don’t touch your face

It spreads oil, dirt and bacteria from your hands to your face, which could make your skin look worse.

  1. Wash your face every morning, evening and after exercise

But resist the urge to scrub, even when you’re removing make-up, as this will irritate your skin.16

  1. And if you want to try a natural solution...

  • Dab on witch hazel – it’s a natural astringent so can help close pores and reduce oiliness, according to a 2014 study from Mahidol University in Thailand17
  • Try green tea – a 2017 study in Antioxidants found a lotion containing green tea may reduce sebum production18

Does drinking water help oily skin?

Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fresh water every day is linked to good skin health.

This is down to the fact our skin cells and tissues are mainly made up of water. Studies have found that drinking more than 2 litres of water a day can have a significant positive impact on skin physiology. What’s more, if your skin is always dry, upping your daily water intake could help give it the hydration it needs.19

Handpicked content: How much water should I be drinking each day?

Does stress cause oily skin?

The two have been connected. When we’re stressed, our body produces more of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can trigger an increase in oil production. And this can lead to oily skin, acne and other-related skin problems.20

What’s more, a study published in the Archives of Dermatology reported that stress can negatively impact the skin’s natural barrier function. This can lead to moisture loss, which can compromise skin’s overall ability to repair and renew.

Summary

  • Choosing the right skincare products, not touching your face and having a regular skin routine can help with face oil
  • Drinking more than 2 litres of water a day can potentially help too
  • The stress hormone, cortisol, can trigger excess oil production

Best serum for oily skin

Serums are an excellent choice for oily skin, mainly as many products are water-based.They also tend to contain ingredients that can help to regulate oil and sebum, improve deep hydration, and much more.

Takeaway

Skin oiliness may be something none of us want, but it’s something we’re all capable of getting at some point in our lives. We may not always realise it at the time, but diet, genetics, stress, daily skincare routines, and more, can all play a part in oily skin.

But it’s not all bad news. People with oily skin usually have less wrinkles and look more youthful than people with dry, normal, combination or sensitive skin. Some people only have oily skin at certain times of the year, when the weather is humid. Plus, there’s the fact there are simple changes you can make to your lifestyle that can make all the difference to helping ease oily skin.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 28 May 2021

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