Google search bars all over the globe are lighting up with a most-pressing beauty question: Why do I have oily skin? It’s such a simple one at face value, but the answer dictates pretty much everything about your skin-care routine. In a big way, this has to do with your skin type—dry, normal, sensitive, or oily—which is hereditary and determined by your genetic makeup. But while everyone is born with sebaceous glands, in some people, they’re just more expressive than in others. And that can kind of feel like a bummer until you hear this: It’s actually not all gloom and doom.
If you manage the condition, by keeping acne from forming or dealing with it once it does (more on that in just a minute), researchers have proven that those who have categorically oily skin tend to have fewer wrinkles form as they age (and the ones that do form are often shallower and less obvious). “Oily skin is more moist, so it appears plumper and keeps the appearance of wrinkles at bay,” says New York City-based dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD.
Another perk? Sebum (AKA: the oil secreted by the sebaceous glands) contains large quantities of vitamin E, which is a key free-radical fighter. And that means that you’ve literally got the key to fending off environmental damage in your DNA.
So while it can feel like a pain-in-the-butt situation to deal with at the current juncture (and believe me, I totally get it), you can get your oily skin under control in a few easy steps. Here, two dermatologists share what creates this skin condition and how to react so that your complexion stays copacetic.
Keep scrolling for the reasons skin gets oily and how to treat it when that happens.
The environmental factors that cause oily skin
While your skin type is genetic, its presentation is also conditional, so at different times of the month or when certain hormones spike, your skin can produce more sebum. “Your oil glands are activated by hormones, including stress hormones, which are all triggered by not sleeping enough, overworking, and general stress,” says Shirley Chi, MD, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist. “Monthly hormone changes that are tied to your [menstrual] cycle can cause oil glands to overproduce in the week leading up to your period, or the week leading up to ovulation.” So, needless to say, hormones play a gigantic role in the appearance of your skin and how oily it is at any given moment.
But TBH, you don’t even have to be all Ms. Frizzle about it at the cellular level, because it’s not just hormones that are causing your skin to get oily and your acne to start sprouting up. Your surroundings can completely affect your skin, as well. One recent study showed that in areas where ambient pollution was high, some people saw their acne get worse, which is h-u-g-e in terms of understanding spikes in the skin condition. Because remember: While sebum *could* have free-radical-fighting cred thanks to vitamin E like we talked about a sec ago, the fact that it’s appearing in larger quantities to begin with might be a caused by the sheer fact that you’re living in an place where the environmental aggressors are high.
Finally, stress is a huge contributor to what our skin looks like, and this holds true for people with the driest skin types (like those with eczema and psoriasis) all the way to the other end of the spectrum in people who are dealing with chronic acne. A study on adolescents (a group that’s widely known for having oily skin) indicated that at times of higher stress, there were higher levels of sebum on skin, which in turn created more acne. A more recent study on women in the medical community backs up this thinking: It found a positive correlation between acne and stress.
But fear—and stress!—not: There are ways to deal with the problem (and I’m talking past the realm of just booking yourself an extra yoga sesh tonight).
To deal with oily skin: Start with a good face wash
Once you understand why oily skin happens, it can be easier to get a handle on how to treat and beat breakouts before they pop up. So, by developing a strict skin-care regimen that discourages oil from clogging up pores, you’re setting yourself up for success. As with all skin-care philosophies: It starts with a good cleanse twice a day, according to Dr. Chi.
There are a couple of theories surrounding the best cleanser to use for acne-prone skin. Some experts say that the best way to beat oil is to straight up use an oil cleanser, such as the Tata Harper Oil Cleanser, $76. The thinking behind this is that the oil in the cleanser will dissolve the oil on your face.
The other school of thought is that you need an amped-up cleanser with a higher level of surfactants (your foam and gel cleansers that create a rich lather) to help dissolve the oil on your complexion. Dr. Peredo suggests one spiked with salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid (try: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Cleanser, $20) known for its ability to de-clog pores.
If you tend to glisten throughout the day, keep a micellar water in your bag to help tamp down the shine. “If you feel really oily and have an event after work, for instance, I recommend using a gentle toner like LaRoche Posay Micellar Water, $20, on a cotton pad across your T-zone to clear our the excessive oil,” Dr. Chi recommends. One thing you want to make sure: If your face feels tight after you wash, you might be overdoing it. And by stripping your face of key skin oils, you could create even more oil production later on, which is def not what you want.
Then, use targeted treatments both day and night.
Next up: moisturizer, which should be happening both in the morning and night. “Even if you’re oily, you don’t want to skip moisturizing and nourishing skin, as that can actually kick oil production into overdrive,” says Dr. Peredo. “I recommend Alastin Restorative Skin Complex with TriHex Technology, $195, because it has the texture of a serum and it’s lightweight and absorbs into skin almost instantly, penetrating deeper to deliver active ingredients.” Look for a moisturizer or serum that’s touted for acneic skin, which often will be moisturizing gels or gel creams meant to give skin a firm, smoother texture that decreases the appearance of pores.
To guard against the sun’s effects during the day, Dr. Peredo says to slather on a mineral-based SPF of at least 30 (we like the Bare Republic SPF 30 Face Lotion, $13). Because the active ingredients are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, she says that they’ll help to sop up excess oil and create a mattifying effect on the skin.
If you happen to need a touch-up throughout the day, however, Dr. Chi has an important word on what to reach for. “I carry oil blotting papers in my purse to blot out the excessive oil; powder also works but can feel heavy if you use too much,” she says. “Loose powder is preferred over pressed powder, as oil is used in the making of pressed powder in compacts.” A great option: Bare Minerals Loose Powder, $29 (which has a tiny bit of SPF protection as well).
At night, you’re really going to focus all of your energy on stopping oil in its tracks, and both dermatologists agree that retinoids are the very best way to do this. Not only do they help with cell turnover, but they also help curb oil production over time. “Using a retinoid cream regularly at night such as RetinA Micro (a potent tretinoin prescription version of the buzzy OTC ingredient retinol) will decrease oil production in your skin. Be careful not to use too much as it can cause dryness and peeling.” A word here from the department of been-there-done-that: Retinols can create skin flaking, but when coupled a proper moisturizer, the effects are much less obvious. Just make sure to properly follow your nighttime retinol with a morning face wash because any lingering ingredient can cause sun sensitivity.
At the dermatologists office, you’ve also got options. Namely: “Blue light or red light treatments can also decrease oil production,” says Dr. Chi. And while these devices began in your doc’s office, they’re also making their way into the home. For instance, Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Mask, $30, taps the powers of blue and red LED light therapy, which have been shown in studies to help reduce inflammation and lessen the number of acne spores that pop up on one’s face.
I know, I know, it’s a total drag to deal with oily skin now, but there *are* ways to get it under control with the right products and regimen. And that means the future is bright for your skin (and I’m not just talking about the LEDs).
Okay, so now we should probably talk pimples and how to get rid of them. These are some of dermatologists’ top picks for acne spot treatments and these are the top face toners for those with acne-prone skin.
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