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Oily skin: what you need to know

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 guide

Written by Christina Quaine on February 14, 2019 Reviewed by Dr Nicole Chiang on February 27, 2019

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 like your make-up is sliding halfway down your face. Yep, oily skin can really knock your confidence, but it’s more common than you might think.1

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 an excess of sebum – and it’s this that causes the shiny, greasy appearance of oily skin.2

The problem is that oily skin can block pores and even cause breakouts of acne in some people.3

What causes oily skin?

Researchers think there are several different reasons why your skin produces excess sebum. These include:

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 increase, so does that oiliness.4

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

Diet: 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 in turn drives up your sebum production, according to a 2014 study in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.6 As for fatty foods, there’s actually no evidence that they cause greasy skin.7

Weather: sebum production increases during the spring and summer months, and also in more humid climates.8

Air pollution: a 2017 German review reported that people living in high-pollution urban areas in Asia had raised sebum levels.9

Who has oily skin?

Lots of us. It’s actually a very common skin condition, affecting both men and women.10 It tends to first hit during puberty, and 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 60.11 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.12 Sebum production can also increase during pregnancy.13

How to help oily skin

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

  • 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 this will spread more oil around your face

  • choose the right cleansers and moisturisers – avoid oil-based products which will plug your pores and instead look for products that are water-based or ‘non-comedogenic’, so won’t clog your pores

  • don’t touch your face – it spreads oil, dirt and bacteria from your hands to your face which could make your skin look worse

  • 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 skin14

And if you want to try a natural remedy:

  • 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, Thailand15

  • try green tea – a 2017 study in Antioxidants found a lotion containing green tea may reduce sebum production16

When should I see my GP?

If your oily skin leads to acne breakouts that you can’t control, or if your skin is making you feel very unhappy, book an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist.17 Shop Natural Beauty Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.


1. Arbuckle R, et al. Patient experiences with oily skin: The qualitative development of content for two new patient reported outcome questionnaires 2. Endly DC and Miller RA. Oily skin: A review of treatment options 3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to control oily skin 4. Dr Diana Howard. The International Dermal Institute. What is Acne? 5. Zari S, Alrahmani D. The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 6. Katta R, Desai SP. Diet and Dermatology 7. BBC Two Trust me I’m a Doctor. Does eating fatty food or chocolate spoil your skin?

8. As Source 2

9. Krutmann J, et al. Pollution and acne: is there a link?

10. As Source 1
11. As Source 2
12. As Source 2

13. Yvonne Butler Tobah. Mayo Clinic. Is pregnancy glow real?

14. As Source 3

15. Chularojanamontri L, et al. Moisturisers for Acne 16. Saric S, Notay M, Sivamani RK. Green Tea and Other Tea Polyphenols: Effects on Sebum Production and Acne Vulgaris 17. NHS. Overview: acne
Oily Skin