Here's What Dermatologists Want You to Know About Sebum


Getty Images

When we think about oily skin, we often imagine clogged pores, a shiny forehead, and a whole slew of new breakouts. And if you're someone who has dealt with these issues for a while, you may think sebum is the culprit.

However, sebum is important for maintaining healthy skin.

To better understand what it is, what it does, how much our skin should have, and how to eliminate it if your skin creates too much, we tapped two board-certified dermatologists.

Find the answer to all your questions, ahead.

RELATED: How to Get Rid of Acne Scars — and Prevent Them In the First Place

What Is Sebum?

Sebum is an oily substance that's composed of fatty acids, waxes, sugars, and other substances. "It's produced by sebaceous glands all over the body," explains Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, who is currently consulting for Elizabeth Arden. It's also responsible for making both blackheads and whiteheads along with sebum plugs.

What Does Sebum Do?

Sebum production is our skin's natural way of moisturizing and protecting itself from the external environment, says Rachel Nazarian, MD, board-certified dermatologist. Combined with lipids (fat molecules in the skin), sebum provides a protective barrier to the skin. "This helps moisturize the skin, prevent transepidermal water loss, and defend against external aggressors," Dr. Engelman says.

VIDEO: The Best Skincare Routine for Acne, According to Dermatologists

How Can You Get Rid of Sebum?

Sebum plays an important part in maintaining a healthy skin barrier, so there's no reason to get rid of it unless it's being overproduced.

"Excess sebum can cause skin to appear too shiny or oily and clog pores, leading to breakouts," explains Dr. Engelman. "Getting excess sebum under control starts with skincare, like making sure to hydrate your skin enough as it's often your skin's way of trying to compensate for being overly dry."

After speaking to your dermatologists, you may also try some medications — such as retinoids — to decrease sebum production and the size of the sebaceous glands over time.

One thing to note is that physical exfoliation doesn't reach the sebum inside of your pores and isn't a good way to stop oil production, explains Dr. Nazarian. "You can't wash your way to less oily skin, so it's best to stick to chemical ingredients with science-based evidence that can target sebum production."

How Much Sebum Is Normal?

"A normal rate of sebum production for adults is about 1 mg/10 cm every three hours," explains Dr. Engelman. "In lay terms, this means that the skin should not feel overly dry, nor look visibly shiny or greasy."

But generally speaking, the amount of sebum you produce changes based on a variety of factors. "Internal hormone signals, stress, medication, and diet can alter the quality and thickness of sebum on the skin," says Dr. Nazarian.