Stopping oily skin: Surprising causes and the best ways to reduce and prevent oily skin during the day

If the shiny glare from your face is blinding people as you pass in the halls at lunchtime, or the matte foundation look is simply out of reach for your oily skin then I’ve got great news for you.  People with oily skin just have too much of a good thing.  So count your overly abundant blessings, because oils play a huge part in keeping your skin supple, plump, and comfortable. 

That said, too much oil can also cause problems, so it’s understandable that stopping oily skin would top your list of beauty goals. Maybe your eye makeup slides around on your lids like it’s trying to learn to shuffle dance, or you routinely fight breakouts you suspect are because of excess oil. 

Whatever led you here, take heart. There are effective ways to reduce and prevent oily skin.  Some of them are super easy and some may surprise you. If you’re looking for solutions to overly oily skin read on.

As someone who has had a lifetime pass to the “oily skin club”, I speak from personal experience and from 15 years of professionally helping people with skin problems. The causes of oily skin can be coming from inside and outside, so it’s helpful to take a holistic, whole body approach. Your hormones, dietary choices, genetics, and topical product choices for skincare and makeup can all influence how much oil your skin is making.

Let’s talk about the inside stuff first.

Hormones that cause oily skin

Hormones are generally at the heart of excess oil production.  You might think of hormones as being just related to how our bodies manifest sex and gender characteristics, but hormones are messenger compounds that our bodies make to turn different functions of our bodies on and off.  Balance is crucial and too much of certain hormones can give your skin the instructions to produce way more oil than you need.

The hormones usually responsible for excess oil production are called androgens.  Testosterone is just one type of androgen and this class of hormones includes versions like DHT that are 2.5  to 10 times more potent than regular testosterone! DHT interacts easily with androgen receptors and talks directly to your skin cells that produce sebum. More DHT means more skin oil. 

Overproduction of excess androgens that increase skin oils can occur during puberty, due to conditions like PCOS, traumatic stress, and due to overconsuming foods that increase androgen activity.  Keep in mind that if someone is engaging in purposeful hormone therapies to increase testosterone levels that can have a dramatic impact on skin oil production, particularly during the first 6 months of treatment.

The biology behind high androgen levels can get quite complex, but dietary choices are something that all of us make every day.  Food choices are one of the tools used to mitigate the excess androgens from PCOS and can help people without that condition too, so let’s talk about what we can eat to prevent oily skin.

Food Choices That Can Help Hormones and Reduce Oily Skin

Foods that are high in simple carbohydrates can increase skin oil production.  The insulin hormones released to manage and store energy from foods can cause an increase in skin oils because those same insulin hormones switch your oil production “on”.  A specific hormone called IGF-1 is important in this process.

High levels of IGF-1 have been found to correlate to higher levels of DHT, and one study showed that women with higher levels of IGF-1 and DHT even had more acne breakouts.

Getting your insulin response (and skin oil production) under control can involve eating low glycemic foods that won’t spike your blood sugar.  This is a great move for your overall health as well!  If you want to prevent oily skin a fresh food diet that keeps sugar and carbohydrate levels low can be an impactful choice.

Low glycemic foods to try to reduce oily skin:

  • Leafy green vegetables like lettuce, spinach, and cabbage
  • Veggies like zucchini, celery, and carrots
  • Lean meats from animals that are grown organically or wild
  • Fish from wild caught sources like salmon, trout, or tuna
  • Beans like chickpeas, lentils, black beans, and kidney beans
  • Nuts and seeds like cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and hemp seeds
  • Eggs from free range chickens

One other big influence on my skin oil levels is dairy consumption.  In addition to macronutrients like protein and some sugars milk from cows is fundamentally a hormonal cocktail meant to stimulate the growth of baby cows.  Among the hormones that milk contains are estrogenic hormones and IGF-1 which can affect your skin oil levels.  Consumption of cow’s milk has been shown to directly and significantly raise serum levels of IGF-1 in humans in multiple studies over 15+ years of hormone research.

Interestingly the fermentation process to make cheese and yogurt reduces the hormonal impact of dairy foods, so if you are going to consume cow’s milk make it fermented. I try to keep my consumption of cheese or butter to about 1 serving or less a day. When I eat a low or no dairy diet it drastically decreases the oiliness of the skin on my face and my scalp. I use cheese or butter mostly as an enhancement for other foods rather than the main feature and don’t drink milk directly at all. By limiting my dairy consumption, I can wash my hair every other day instead of every day, and see reduced shine on my skin and reduced acne breakouts.  I may never be a candidate to try to make a hairstyle last for a week, but it’s a definite improvement.

Next up, let’s talk about a topic that’s been coming up a lot lately; your skin barrier!

How a Healthy Skin Barrier Can Prevent Oily Skin

Your skin barrier isn’t just one thing.  It’s made up of many different compounds that your skin cells make to help keep irritants out and keep moisture in.  Your acid mantle, microbiome, and skin lipids are all part of how your barrier does its job.

Your skin barrier can get “leaky”. When that happens irritants get in and moisture gets out. A variety of factors can influence how well your skin barrier works. 

Reasons your skin barrier isn’t producing or retaining the right kind of oil:

  • Genetics
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Omega fatty acid deficiency in your diet
  • Disruption from cosmetic ingredients that increase permeability and disturb lipids

A lot of your skin barrier is made up of lipids, otherwise known as oils. Your skin cells are supposed to produce many of these oils which include cholesterol, free fatty acids, and a bunch of important lipids called ceramides. These three types of lipids come from your keratinocyte cells as they mature and they help waterproof your skin. These oils are not what you are seeing when you see shiny skin in the mirror.

Your sebum is another type of oil that helps condition the skin, and it’s made by a specific type of cell in your pores called sebocytes. This is the skin oil you’re hoping to reduce when you have “oily” skin.

What is important here for people to understand is that oily skin doesn’t mean your skin doesn’t need oil. You have too much of one type of oil, but you might be missing others!

There’s an old saying that applies nicely in this situation. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When your skin barrier isn’t working well your sebocytes want to help. Sebum can help protect and cushion the skin, but it’s only one part of the solution. But sebum is all your sebocytes can make, and the rest is up to the keratinocytes. 

Your sebocytes are working overtime trying to solve a problem, but they can’t do it by themselves. This is why you might experience feeling like an oil slick while your skin is also feeling dry. It seems like a paradox but it’s not, because sebum is trying to hammer away at a problem that isn’t a nail.

To get your sebocytes to cool it we need to build up those other lipids and get them to contribute. This is like a team project, and the sebocytes have been the only ones doing their part. If you are the person who spent an entire weekend making an illustrated posterboard and preparing an oral report while other people put in 20 minutes you’re like the sebocytes and you deserve a break!

Increasing your other lipids means solving at least some of the problems that are preventing them from being made in the first place.

Add Niacinamide to Reduce Oily Skin

Want to buff up your skin barrier to reduce oily skin? Niacinamide is a skincare ingredient that is super reliable, very safe, and incredibly effective.  It’s natural and so good for you. I can personally vouch for the fact that my oily skin loves it.

Niacinamide helps your skin produce more ceramides, which should be about 50% of the lipids in your outer layer of skin. It’s included in Blissoma’s Smooth A+ Correcting Serum for oily skin and the Awake Morning Firming Facial Moisturizer because of its benefits in preventing and reducing oiliness.

credit Julie Longyear

When the skin is stressed your ceramide production can get out of whack. Your skin makes and contains at least 8 types of ceramides, so no one synthetic ceramide can completely replace what your skin can make naturally. This is a great opportunity to DIY, and supplying a nutrient like niacinamide can help boost ceramide levels and prevent sebum slicks.

You don’t need a high level to get benefits from niacinamide for oily skin. Even just 2% niacinamide is capable of reducing skin sebum levels. 4% is about the highest most people need to consider using to get skin oil benefits and avoid irritation.

Avoid Irritating Cosmetic Ingredients to Prevent Oily Skin

This might surprise you, but some skincare products can damage your skin’s barrier.  Generally, we count on skincare to improve hydration and the health of our skin. Unfortunately, some ingredients do just the opposite. The ingredients in your products determine whether your skincare is helping or harming your goal of preventing oily skin.

This winter my brand conducted a clinical test on our Pure Sensitive Care Complex, and the “control” cream used by the lab reduced skin barrier function by 1.2% one hour after application!  Meanwhile, our moisturizer improved skin barrier function by 13.5% at 1 hour and 16.8% at 8 hours after application.

Surfactants, emulsifiers, and ingredients that act as penetration enhancers are common types of ingredients that appear in cleansers, serums, moisturizers, and toners. Some compounds can act in all 3 ways, like polyethylene glycol-based ingredients, or PEG. Surfactants and emulsifiers have specific activities related to changing how oils and water interact, so it’s not really that surprising that they can also affect your skin oils.  It has been known for over 20 years that PEG ingredients can cause increased transepidermal water loss, yet they continue to be included in cosmetic products. There are dozens of PEG compounds and many also have inflammatory effects on the skin. PEG ethers, esters and surfactants like Steareth varieties, Oleth, and Laureth ingredients have been found to disrupt skin lipids.

Propylene glycol is a common synthetic skincare ingredient that is thought of as a humectant, but propylene glycol can disorder the skin’s barrier lipids and can contribute to increased transepidermal water loss, which means dehydration, irritation, and, drumroll please, excess oil for you.

It’s not entirely a choice between synthetic and natural ingredients either. Some natural compounds like Omega 9 oleic fatty acid can have a temporary benefit for skin recovery because it helps deliver other helpful compounds deeper into the skin. Unfortunately, oils high in oleic fatty acid can have a downside if used consistently over long periods of time because of their barrier disrupting abilities. 

Instead, look for facial oils high in Omegas 3 and 6 fatty acids. Blackberry seed oil and hemp seed oil are two natural plant oils that contain good levels of these compounds. A little facial oil that is properly designed for oily skin can ironically be a huge help in reducing excess skin oil production by supporting a strong skin barrier. Application of Omega 6 oils can supply building block compounds to help your skin make more ceramides and be less stressed.

And there’s good news for people prone to acne too.. It’s not just oily skin that influences breakouts. You can keep your skin oils from getting sticky and clogging pores by supplying your body with plenty of antioxidants in food and skincare. Green tea is one ingredient that can have a beneficial impact on reducing skin oils and boosting antioxidant levels. 

The complexity of choosing skincare products that will help your skin avoid irritation and reduce excess oil makes it important to purchase products made by companies that you know are studying the skin barrier and designing products that support it well. Without a strong barrier, your sebocytes will likely continue to work overtime no matter what “oil control” cosmetics you use. Just because a product is popular, feels good, or smells good doesn’t mean it’s based on skin science.

If you are prone to oily skin it’s likely to be something you cope with for much of your life. Once you know the causes of oily skin you can manage your lifestyle and use the right skincare to keep you looking glowy instead of just shiny. Supporting your skin inside and out is truly the best way to a peaceful, balanced complexion and can have benefits that last a lifetime. And if you happen to blind anyone it will just be because of how fantastic you look.

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