Everything You Need to Know About Oily Skin (and How to Care for It)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Podcast version

Our skin is miraculous. The largest organ in our bodies, it acts as a protective barrier, keeping out microbes, helping us regulate our body temperature, and playing a vital role in our immune defences.

To help it perform these essential functions, our skin produces sebum – an oily substance that protects against friction and helps to keep our skin watertight. Sebum is produced all over our bodies, but we tend to notice it most on our faces, where we have extra sebaceous glands.

Podcast version
Listen here or with your favourite paodcast app:

Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash

Sebum is vital to keeping skin healthy and performing as it should. But some people produce more than others. And when our skin produces too much sebum, it can cause issues like acne and blocked pores.

If your skin produces a lot of sebum, you’ve probably been told you have oily skin. Often, oily skin is presented as a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Once you understand your skin and its needs, you can develop a skincare routine to care for it in a way that helps to balance out the increased sebum.

What Causes Oily Skin?

Genetics have a role to play in our skin type. If you have a parent with oily skin, you are more likely to produce extra sebum yourself.

Hormones also affect how much oil our skin produces. In particular, our skin is sensitive to our levels of oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. If you first noticed your oily skin during puberty, this is why. It also explains why many women find they have oilier skin during certain parts of their menstrual cycle.

Research shows that higher testosterone levels are linked with increased sebum production, so men often have oilier skin than women.

Changes in hormones during menopause can also affect how much oil your skin produces. Overall, our skin tends to produce less sebum as we get older, because our levels of oestrogen and progesterone decrease sharply after menopause, and testosterone production also reduces as we age.

However, during the perimenopausal phase, our hormone levels start to decline, causing the many symptoms of menopause. Along with hot flushes, sleep issues, and brain fuzz, many people find they experience oilier skin and acne, even if they weren’t prone to these in the past.

Your skin tone can also affect whether you are prone to oily skin or not. According to research published in Dermato-Endocrinology, melanin-rich skin tends to produce more sebum.

While we have no control over our genes and limited control over our hormones, there are other factors involved in sebum production that are more down to our lifestyle.

A 2011 paper published by Dermato-Endocrinologynotes the effect diet can have on how much oil our skin produces. Eating too little causes us to produce more sebum. But so does a diet that is high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates.

As well as diet, the paper outlines some other potential causes of oily skin. These include:

  • Lack of vitamin E
  • High histamine levels
  • Stress
  • Inflammation

Problems Caused by Oily Skin

As we’ve seen, our skin produces oil for a reason. The sebum keeps our skin supple and moisturised, helping to prevent wrinkles and protect us from sun damage.

As dermatologists Alan Nguyen and Athena Soulika explain in a 2019 article published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, sebum even seems to protect us against bacteria, possibly by preventing the microbes from getting into our skin via our hair follicles.

However, anyone with oily skin knows that excess sebum can also cause plenty of issues. One of the most common is acne.

Despite what the media might have you believe, acne isn’t restricted to teens. Plenty of adults experience it too, even if we didn’t have much acne during puberty. Some of us might experience it occasionally as the result of diet, stress, or our hormonal cycles. Others find it crops up more regularly.

The link between oily skin and acne is well-known. When our skin produces too much oil, it ends up mixing with dead skin cells, causing blocked pores. This produces blackheads and whiteheads – a form of acne that dermatologists call ‘comedonal acne’.

At the same time, the build-up of oil creates an environment where a type of bacteria called Cutibacterium acnes thrives. Everyone has this type of bacteria on their skin and most of the time it doesn’t cause any issues.

However, when our pores get blocked by oil, the bacteria begin to multiply in that area. Our bodies try to fight them off, creating an inflammatory response. The resulting inflammation causes red spots, which may become swollen, painful, or pus-filled.

Photo by Peri Stojnic on Unsplash

How to Get Rid of Oily Skin

If you are prone to oily skin, you may not be able to get rid of it permanently. It depends on what is causing your skin to produce excess sebum.

If hormones are the main factor, you might find that your skin naturally becomes less oily with time. On the other hand, those of us who are genetically predisposed to oilier skin will probably find that there’s only so much we can do.

However, having oily skin doesn’t need to mean skin issues and acne. There’s plenty you can do to manage your skin and prevent or reduce breakouts.

An appropriate skincare routine is vital, of course. In a moment, we’ll run through some skincare do’s and don’ts for people with oily skin.

However, you should never underestimate the impact that diet and lifestyle can have on the health of your skin. Staying well hydrated, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables can do wonders for your skin.

Stress is another major cause of oily skin. While we can’t avoid it altogether, actively trying to manage our stress levels can help our skin, as well as our overall wellbeing. Taking the time for self-care, setting appropriate boundaries, seeking support from a therapist, and mindfulness activities like yoga and meditation can all help with stress.

Caring for Oily Skin: 1) Cleanse

When your skin feels oily, your instinctive reaction might be to reach for any cleansing product you can find. However, over-washing your skin can actually encourage it to produce more oil instead of less.

Many conventional facial cleansing products are simply too effective. As well as removing dirt, they strip the skin of its natural sebum. In response, the skin starts to produce more oil to try to restore balance.

Instead, look for a gentle facial cleanser and use it every morning and evening.

If your skin is sensitive, choose a cleanser (and other products) that are labelled fragrance-free. This is different from unscented – unscented products often contain ingredients that mask the natural smell of the other components. These can irritate the skin, so are best avoided.

Also avoid any skincare products that contain isopropyl alcohol or alcohol denat. These are very drying and can cause skin irritation in some people.

Oily skin often responds best to a gel or micellar water cleanser. These contain mild ingredients that will thoroughly clean your skin without causing irritation.

We’ll be adding cleansers to the Whitfords range soon, so keep an eye out!

2) Moisturise

Once you’ve cleansed your face, follow with a small amount of a product that helps to balance your skin.

Skin hydration simply relates to the concentration of water in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis and a semi-permeable barrier that regulates fluid loss. The optimum hydration level of the stratum corneum is 20-30%. At around 10-20%, it starts to look dry and might even begin to crack.

Look out for something with a good blend of water to hydrate your skin directly and humectants to draw water from the air. Glycerin and hyaluronic acid are popular and very effective humectants found in many skincare products.

The hyaluronic acid found in our products is plant-derived and obtained by a bacteria-based biofermentation process – not from rooster combs and cows’ eyes!


Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

The extra hydration plumps out the skin, making fine lines and wrinkles less noticeable but only temporarily. That’s why it’s important that your moisturiser also contains active ingredients, such as bakuchiol, hemp and ectoin natural for long-term benefits and peptides and liposomes for deeper penetration.

Also, water and humectants alone evaporate very quikly so it’s important to make sure the product you use contains light emollients – usually oils or butters, these soften the skin and help to prevent this water loss, keeping your skin well-hydrated.

One of the myths about looking after oily skin is that you should avoid products that contain oils. In fact, some types of oil can help to keep your skin in balance and prevent excess sebum. 

Finally, like emollients, occlusive ingredients trap water in the skin. However, they are heavier than emollients and may cause blocked pores depending on their composition of fatty acids and the percentage used in a given product (e.g. petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin, etc.).

We do recommend avoiding products that contain petroleum-based ingredients, because these are not renewable, therefore not sustainable.

You can apply a very small amount of our Hemp & Algae Face Cream, which has a matte finish and absorbs quickly. Because it contains Jojoba, Marula Seed oil and squalane from olives, which mimic sebum, the cream can help to bring your sebum production back into balance. These oils are lightweight and non-greasy.

This cream also contains anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as hemp extract and rosemary leaf extract, which soothe redness and reduce acne caused by inflammation.

3) Exfoliate

Although you should be careful not to over-wash your face when you have oily skin, using a gentle exfoliator once or twice a week removes dead skin cells and prevents blocked pores, helping you avoid acne.

Our Fruit AHAs Exfoliating Mask contains Alpha-Hydroxy Acids from fruits to gently exfoliate impurities and help with the appearance of wrinkles. It also contains White Willow Bark Extract, a natural source of salicylic acid. This encourages anti-microbial activity, cell renewal, and antioxidant protection, without the irritation that synthetic salicylic acid can cause.

Choose Sustainable Skincare

At Whitfords, all our products are plastic-free. We also don’t use petroleum-derived ingredients, including carbomer, which is found in most conventional facial gels.

Instead, we focus on making sustainable skincare products using the best botanical ingredients. Made in small batches to ensure freshness and reduce waste, our gender-neutral skincare products are also vegan and certified cruelty-free.

See the full range in our shop

Loved it? Share it and help us spread the word:

Sources and further reading:

Rahrovan, S., Fanian, F., Mehryan, P., Humbert, P., & Firooz, A. (2018). Male versus female skin: What dermatologists and cosmeticians should know. International journal of women’s dermatology, 4(3), 122–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijwd.2018.03.002

Pappas, A., Fantasia, J., & Chen, T. (2013). Age and ethnic variations in sebaceous lipids. Dermato-endocrinology, 5(2), 319–324. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.25366

Makrantonaki, E., Ganceviciene, R., & Zouboulis, C. (2011). An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acne. Dermato-endocrinology, 3(1), 41–49. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.3.1.13900

Nguyen, A. V., & Soulika, A. M. (2019). The Dynamics of the Skin’s Immune System. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(8), 1811. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20081811

British Association of Dermatologists, Acne

Stephen Barton, Allan Eastham, Amanda Isom, Denise Mclaverty, Yi Ling Soong (Editors), Discovering Cosmetic Science, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-78262-472-1


We use cookies to give you a better service