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What Causes Oily Skin?

Dr. Nancy Shannon

Medically reviewed by Dr. Nancy Shannon, MD, PhD on June 9, 2021

Oily skin: a pain to deal with and one of the leading causes of acne as well. The trouble with getting rid of oily skin is that there’s not necessarily one common cause: different people’s skin oils are produced for different reasons. 

If you’re looking to clear up and restore balance to your skin, you need to determine what is causing the oiliness to begin with. Here are some of the most common reasons for oily skin:

  1. Skin type

There are several different skin types and, unfortunately, oily is one of them. Each skin pore contains a sebaceous gland that produces a mixture of natural fats called sebum. Some people have over-productive sebaceous glands which can lead to skin that accumulates oils at a higher-than-average rate. There’s nothing wrong with having oily skin — it’s completely natural — but those that do need to adapt their skincare routine to accommodate for it.

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  1. Age

Concern over oily skin usually begins around puberty, and it’s easy to see why: androgens, the group of hormones that are produced during puberty, cause high levels of sebum to secrete from pores. As you grow older, the sebaceous glands naturally become less active, producing less sebum and leading to fewer instances of oily skin. 

  1. Genetics 

As with so much regarding the skin, a person’s oil levels may be closely tied with those of their immediate relatives. This is most traceable through skin type: if one or both of your parents has oily skin, there’s a good chance that they’ve passed it on to you. 

  1. Weather

The classic combination of summertime weather conditions — hot, humid, and hazy — all create the perfect storm for sebum production. The perspiration caused by this weather can also mix with the sebum and ultimately clog pores, leading to skin irritation and potential acne breakouts. The best way to deal with the impact of hot weather on your skin is to regularly clean your skin to prevent excess buildup of oils during the day. 

  1. Dehydration 

It may sound a bit counterintuitive at first — shouldn’t dehydration cause dry skin instead of oily skin? — but it’s simply the body’s reaction to a lack of fluids. If you’re not drinking enough water, your skin will overcompensate by producing an abundance of oils in return. Dry skin will often appear rough and flaky but is not necessarily the result of dehydration; dehydrated skin, on the other hand, could actually contain even more oils than your skin does normally. 

  1. Seborrheic Dermatitis 

Seborrheic dermatitis is a kind of rash that appears at sites that are rich in sebaceous glands (e.g. scalp, face, chest). Common features of it include flaking, scaly skin, reddish patches, and dandruff if it appears on the scalp. The cause of seborrheic dermatitis is not fully known but thought to be related to the excess growth of Pityrosporum (Malassezia) yeast. While there is no “cure” for the condition, there are a number of topical treatments that can help ameliorate symptoms. 

  1. Diet

Everyone’s skin responds differently to certain foods, but research has suggested that following a low-glycemic diet can help prevent excessive oil production. By eating foods that are primarily plant-based and low in trans fats, you can lower the glycemic index of your diet, in turn preventing blood sugar spikes. Sudden spikes in blood sugar have been linked to increased sebum production, thus causing oily skin. 

  1. Certain skincare products

As surprising as it may sound, not all skincare products actually benefit your skin. Some can even cause the overproduction of oils, doing more harm than good. When buying skincare products, be sure to look for products explicitly labeled as oil-free or non-comedogenic — a fancy word that essentially just means it won’t block pores. This is particularly true for moisturizers, as many contain oils that combine with the sebum on your face and make things even more oily than they already are. 

No matter the cause of your oily skin, there are things you can do about it. If you’re looking for some guidance, get in touch with a member of our team of medical experts today. 

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