Your Official Guide To Oily Skin

Oily skin is known as ‘seborrhea’ and is caused by excess skin oil – or ‘sebum’.  You’ll probably be surprised to hear that newborn babies produce a lot of sebum but this quickly decreases, until it reappears with a vengeance at puberty. The main hormone responsible for this is 5-dihydrotestosterone (DHT), an androgen, which causes an increase in the number of sebaceous or oil glands in the skin and the amount of oil they produce. These sebaceous glands are mainly concentrated on the face, upper chest and back, though they do exist all over the body (except the palms and soles). Oil production generally stays high until after menopause in women and after 50 years of age in men.

Who is more likely to have oily skin?

Men are more likely to have oily skin than women as they have more testosterone. Premenopausal women are more likely to have oily skin during ovulation (probably due to a surge in progresterone levels during this time). People also develop oilier skin during warm times of the year or in humid climates, and Afro-Caribbean skin types are more prone – possibly due to enlarged pores as compared to the skin of people of other races.

However, why some people develop oily skin that persists throughout their lives while others battle dry skin is something even science has yet to find an explanation for.

How can you prevent oily skin?

Unfortunately, if you are genetically destined to have oily skin, there is not much you can do to stop it from happening. We don’t understand why hot or humid climates make oily skin more oily, for example, but trying to stay cool in the summer months can help! There is no evidence that any specific diet or lifestyle factor has any impact on preventing or worsening oily skin.

What ingredients should you look for in skincare for oily skin?

Though topical retinoids have always been purported to suppress sebum production in the skin, there is no direct evidence that they actually reduce sebum production. Topical retinoids dry out the skin, most likely due to an effect on reducing the stickiness of skin cells to each other and encouraging them to shed, resulting in the flaky, peeling skin that is so common when people start to use these products. The drying out of the skin is not due to a direct effect on oil production itself.

But don’t despair – topical retinoids do definitely reduce facial pore size which is actually important because there is a direct relationship between large pores and lots of oil production. So it is definitely worth using a topical retinoid for at least three months to see if it can help reduce your oily skin.

There are a lot of over-the-counter ‘cosmeceutical’ products that claim to fight oily skin. There is some evidence for some of the specific ingredients found in some of these products. For example, there is some evidence that applying two percent niacinamide daily for four weeks can significantly reduce oil excretion. Another ingredient that has some limited evidence for significantly reducing oil secretion, is three percent green tea emulsion applied daily for eight weeks. Another one that you may never have heard of is topical two percent L-carnitine; a study has shown that this too can significantly reduce oil secretion in oily skin possibly via reducing the fatty acid content of sebocytes.

What ingredients should you avoid to tackle oily skin?

It’s best to avoid topical treatments that have a very heavy or greasy feeling on the skin. Anything that contains paraffins, petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) and mineral oils are best avoided for this reason. Oils in and of themselves are not bad for oily skin as they are hydrating and that’s important as well when it comes to maintaining your skin’s health; but they will just make your skin feel more oily and look shinier, so best avoided!

How to prep oily skin for the day

Start your day by cleansing with a ten percent glycolic acid or two percent salicylic acid facewash. This helps unstick skin cells, exfoliate your skin, and clear out oil from your pores.

Next, moisturise with a product that does not contain paraffins, petroleum jelly or mineral oils, because these products will just make your skin feel and look even more greasy and shiny. For optimal hydration without greasiness, opt for serums with hyaluronic acid or gels, or creams with dimethicone or ceramides listed as the first few ingredients.

To control oily skin during the day, a mattifying agent is definitely your best bet. You need a product that contains ingredients that will absorb oil from the skin surface, such as silica, talc, aluminum starch octenyl succinate, rice starch, corn starch and nylon-12.

Luckily, there are lots of products available now combining hydrating ingredients like dimethicone with mattifying agents, so you only need to apply one product to get lots of benefits.

The best way to cleanse your skin

Cleansing your skin before bed is important because it removes any dirt, debris and, of course, makeup that has accumulated on your skin during the day. Aim to do this gently with a ten percent glycolic acid, or two percent salicylic acid facewash to remove makeup and debris and gently exfoliate away any stuck together, dried skin cells which can clog your pores. Don’t use harsh scrubs or exfoliants – reserve those for your body! Even if you don’t suffer from acne, scrubbing is never good for your skin, especially if you are using prescription anti-ageing products, as these already exfoliate your skin and too much scrubbing can result in redness and irritation – never a good look when you wake up!

I hope this official guide to oily skin is useful for those looking to understand more about why they suffer from oily skin and how to treat it. If you have any further questions, one of our expert dermatologists can help you – or why not take a free consultation? 


Dr Natalia Spierings
Dr Natalia Spierings
Dr Spierings is a leading consultant dermatologist in the UK with a medical degree from St George's University of London. She has a decade's worth of experience treating acne and anti-ageing, and is dedicated to providing safe, efficient and patient-centred care at every opportunity.
Originally published March 22 2018, updated June 27 2019

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