The oil produced by the skin is known as sebum, and is made up of different fats (lipids).

You’ve probably noticed that oily skin usually comes with oily hair. That’s because sebum is secreted by tiny glands (sebaceous glands) that are actually in our hair follicles. These sebaceous glands are found in the deep layer of the skin called the dermis.

There are three reasons our skin produces this oil:

– The antioxidants in it protect the skin from the UV rays of the sun

– It helps keeps away the “bad” bacteria2

– It helps the skin cope with injuries and infections

The bigger the oil-producing glands get, the more oil they (naturally!) produce.3As the quantity increases, its quality reduces – especially if the body isn’t receiving enough nutrients.

The inferior quality would mean:

– The oil contains less antioxidants for skin protection.

– The skin is now susceptible to infections (like acne).2

– Skin inflammation problems (e. g. cysts) are also likely to occur.

So, what makes these glands get bigger?


(1) Hormonal factors:

Hormonal imbalances can enlarge the sebaceous glands.1 This is probably why women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome often suffer from skin problems.

(2) Diet:

Our diet can affect the amount of sebum secretion and its quality as well. More specifically, a diet rich in fat or carbohydrate has been associated with an increase in sebum on the skin.

(3) Excess sun exposure:

When squalene, one of the fats present in the sebum, is exposed to UV rays from the sun, free radicals can be produced, which damage the skin cells and their DNA. This makes the skin swell up, which increases the size of the glands as well.5,6


What are the solutions?

1] Healthy lifestyle:

A healthy lifestyle, with sufficient sleep and exercise can help balance our hormones, which would then help get rid of skin problems that are hormone-related.

2] Sunscreen:

As always, don’t forget your sunscreen! Specifically, a broad spectrum sunscreen, which protects your skin against both the UV-A and UV-B rays of the sun.

3] Nutrition:

While eating a healthy diet goes a long way in general, some foods are specifically good for oily skin and its related problems:

– Vitamin E:

The skin needs vitamin E, to help fight the damage being caused by free radicals.6 So, eat plenty of foods rich in vitamin E like tofu, spinach, almonds and fish.

– Omega 3 fatty acids:

These are particularly important for the production of sebum.7Although we don’t want excess sebum, these fatty acids actually improve the quality of the oil. They may also help reduce the size of the sebaceous glands. Avocados, soya bean, nuts, tuna and salmon are all rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.

– Omega 6 fatty acids:

Supplementation with an omega-6 fatty acid (GLA from Evening Primrose Oil) can help with the proper functioning of the sebaceous glands.8

1. Picardo M, et al. Dermato-endocrinology 2009, 1(2): 68-71.
2. Drake DR, et al. Journal of lipid research 2008, 49(1): 4-11.
3. Wójcik A, et al. Post Dermatol Alergol 2011, XXVIII(6): 498–505.
4. Macdonald I. Nature 1964, 203: 1067-1068.
5. Ottaviani M, et al. The Journal of investigative dermatology 2006, 126(11): 2430-2437.
6. Thiele JJ, et al. The Journal of investigative dermatology 1999, 113(6): 1006-1010.
7. Stewart ME, et al. The Journal of investigative dermatology 1986, 87(6): 733-736.
8. Fan YY, et al. The Journal of nutrition 1998, 128(9): 1411-1414.

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