Sebum or oil is generally demonised and made out to be the bad guy when you have acne. People give you advice on how to wash your face multiple times a day so that you can wash off the oil. There are face washes and moisturisers and foundations all with labels that say oil-free. These are targeted at people who have acne. If you have acne you are told to stay away from any hint of oil in your skin care.
What is Sebum
Sebum is an oily substance produced by your skin’s sebaceous or oil glands. Sebum in Latin means fat. It is made up of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene, and free fatty acids. Testosterone stimulates the production of sebum while estrogen inhibits it. Source
How Many Sebaceous Glands Do You Have
You have sebaceous glands all over your body, except the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. The number of sebaceous glands in your face, scalp, chest, upper back and shoulders are more in number than anywhere else on your body. You can have as many as 400-900 glands per square cm of your face. The gland is either attached to a hair follicle or found on its own. Source
This is the reason why you are more likely to get acne on your face than anywhere else on your body. You just have more sebaceous glands on your face, than anywhere else. Remember those Chinese Face Maps that tell you that acne on a certain part of your face must be linked to your liver? Those are all made up. The simple reason that you get acne on your face is because of the number of sebaceous glands on your face.
What Does Sebum Do For Your Skin
Ever seen someone who looks like their makeup is perfect but then you realise that they are not using any? They have this dewy looking skin that we all want. This lucky person has skin that produces a perfect balance of oil. As much you might think that oil is bad, it is what helps keep your skin healthy.
Now let’s see what role sebum actually plays in the health of your skin.
It Keeps Your Skin Moisturised
Your skin needs moisture to look healthy. Sebum or oil as it is commonly known helps keep your skin moisturised and healthy. The thin layer of oil on the surface of your skin prevents the skin from losing water. It helps keep your skin plump and hydrated. Sebum is your skin’s built-in moisturiser.
It Protects Your Skin From Environmental Damage
Sebum protects your skin from bacterial and fungal infections. It also protects water from getting into your skin and keeps moisture from getting out. Sebum also protects your skin during rain, cold, strong winds, and heat.
It Helps Keep Your Skin Young Longer
If you have oily skin you are less likely to get wrinkles. Since the oil acts as a protective layer on your skin, this will keep your skin moisturised and plump. Skin that is moisturised is less likely to develop deep wrinkles.
It Keeps Your Skin Clear
This might sound a little contradictory to what you’ve heard or been told so far, but bear with me. It’s always been said that oil is the cause of your acne. But it’s not really the oil that is causing your acne, it’s oil that is blocked in the pore that makes you get acne. Oil is supposed to flow freely through your pores bringing with it all the dead skin cells and debris that line your pores. It is when this process is somehow prevented due to excess skin cells that block the pore, that acne form.
What Part Does Sebum Play in Acne
Now as we’ve all heard so many times, acne is caused by excess oil or sebum in your skin. But where and how exactly does sebum cause acne? I am first going to break down the role of sebum in each skin type.
Normal Skin: If a normal amount of sebum flows freely through the pore and to the skin, you will have normal skin. The sebum, in this case, forms a protective film over the skin preventing moisture from being lost. This type of skin looks clear and smooth and feels plump and hydrated.
Dry Skin: When the skin produces far too little sebum, there is no protective layer on your skin. This means that moisture is lost from the skin making your skin dry.
Oily Skin: When the sebaceous glands produce too much oil, it forms an oily film over your skin. This type of skin looks oily and feel sticky.
Combination Skin: In this case, there are areas of the skin which are oily and areas of the skin which are normal or dry. The sebaceous glands in the oily areas are much more active than the dry areas, which gives you an oily forehead and nose but dry or normal cheeks.
Acne Prone Skin: Acne-prone skin has pores that have the tendency to be blocked by dead skin cells. This, in turn, prevents the oil from flowing freely to the surface of the skin. This trapped oil is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Since the pore is blocked, the oil pushes from beneath creating a bump.
Let’s start with how the pore gets blocked. As human beings, our skin is being shed to be replaced by new skin cells all the time. Now, normally these dead skin cells fall off on their own. Sometimes the dead skin cells stick around on the surface on the skin. These dead skin cells block the pores.
Now the oil that flows through the pore to come to the surface of the skin is blocked. The plug of dead skin cells prevents the oil or sebum from flowing freely. It is now trapped. As the oil tries to escape it pushes on the plug and you’ll feel a slight bump under your skin. Of course, we all know what this means. We’re getting a pimple! Not good at all.
This trapped sebum is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria.
Let’s talk a little bit more about bacteria now. So one thing I learned a while back that took me by surprise, is that everyone – even people with lovely, clear skin – has acne-causing bacteria in their skin. This acne bacteria is a tiny microbe called Propionibacterium acnes. However, the bacteria has 2 strains – one that is found in people who have acne and one that is found in the skin of people who don’t. To put is in a very basic way, the bacteria in the skin of people who have acne causes acne. The bacteria in people with clear skin actually helps protect the skin. When the acne causing strain triggers the immune system it causes red, swollen bumps which we are all too familiar with. Source
So now you can see the part sebum plays in the formation of acne. It is not the only reason we get acne. Acne is not caused by sebum or oil alone.
Why Trying to “Wash” The Oil Off Doesn’t Help
If you have oily or acne prone skin, you’ll be tempted or in some cases, even encouraged to wash the oil off. However, try as much as you want, you will never be able to prevent acne this way. And here’s why.
So when you wash your face with soap or a face wash, you are just washing the oil off the surface of your skin. This oil has already passed through the pore and reached the surface of the skin. It cannot block the pore now. You will never be able to reach the oil that is in the pores. The oil that is trapped in the pores will never reach the surface of the skin. Now because it cannot reach the surface of the skin is the reason why you will get acne. So all you’re doing is washing off something that will never cause acne and is actually good for your skin. As we have seen this oil is there for a reason. To protect your skin.
So try as you might, you will never be able to prevent acne by washing your face. But what you will be doing with this constant washing is drying out your skin, and making it oilier at the same time. This feels like tight dehydrated skin with an oily film on top. The constant washing will remove moisture and protective oil from your skin and make it dry. At the same time, your oil glands will produce more oil to replace the oil you wash off. You’ll be left with tight dry skin that will feel sticky and oily. Not something to look forward to now, is it?
Why You Need To Balance Out Your Skin
What you should do instead of trying to wash off the layer of oil that protects your skin, is to try and get your skin to produce a normal, healthy amount of oil. We don’t want a thick slick layer of sticky oil. A normal amount of oil feels comfortable and makes your skin look hydrated rather than oily. It is actually very important that you get your skin in this state and let me explain why.
As I have been saying your skin needs sebum to stay healthy and look good. Sebum forms a layer over your skin which is called an acid mantle. This acid mantle protects your skin from wind, cold, rain and is slightly acidic in nature with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. The optimal pH of your skin is 5.5. This pH is slightly acidic helps keep your skin safe from bacteria and fungi. Let’s put it this way, acne bacteria will thrive and grow in a slightly alkaline pH. This is why I tell my readers to steer clear of using baking soda on their face. Baking soda has a pH of 9. It belongs in your kitchen, not in your skin care.
This acid mantle can be washed away with harsh soaps or face washes. It can also be scrubbed away when you use harsh exfoliators. It can be made more alkaline by face washes and soaps. Once this acid mantle is damaged or washed it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours to restore itself. So constant washing is going to damage this acid mantle. Once damaged your skin is not going to be able to repair itself or protect itself properly. This is when you will have red, dry, itchy, flaky, sensitive and acne-prone skin.
Now you can see why you need this acid mantle.
Now I will tell you how you can repair this acid mantle and also reduce the excessive oiliness on your skin. This is totally within your control and let me explain how you can do this.
Don’t Use Soap Based Cleansers
Soap removes the oil from your skin as well as the moisture. Removing the protective layer of sebum just makes you lose more moisture from your skin. Many cleansers claim to remove dirt and not strip your skin. I’m not sure they can actually do this. I have tried all these cleansers and they just dried out my face. Either switch to a soap-free cleanser or go natural. In this post, I explain the various ways you can clean your face without using soap.
Ditch The Topical Acne Medications
Topical acne medications and ointments containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid dry out your skin. These ointments damage the protective layer of oil on your skin. Once this protective layer is damaged, your skin is exposed to the elements making it vulnerable. This is why so many women notice that their skin gets sensitive after a few months of using either BP or salicylic acid containing ointments. Your skin is more likely to be irritated, red and flaky. Treatments that involve slathering your face with benzoyl peroxide are treatments that are going to damage your skin in the future.
Avoid Foods that Increase Oil Production
Some foods actually stimulate your sebaceous glands and make your skin more oily. Sugar and sweet foods cause an insulin spike in your blood which makes your sebaceous glands overactive. So if you have oily or acne prone skin cut down on sugar. Sugar is not great for skin acne or not. Make sure your diet contains enough fruit and vegetables. Add a cooked or raw vegetable to every meal. Eat any fruit after. This way you make it a habit. After a while, you’ll actually start feeling guilty if you don’t eat them!
If you want a complete diet plan to help you clear your skin go here.
Use Oils High in Linoleic Acid
You may think I’ve gone crazy asking you to use oil to reduce oily skin. But when you have acne the levels of linoleic acid in your sebum are low. This makes it thick, sticky and likely to clog pores. We want it to be free-flowing so that it can flow freely through the pore and reach the surface of the skin. So using oils high in linoleic acid helps to balance out your sebum production.
Here are some oils that have high levels of linoleic acid
Rose Hip Oil ( buy from here )
Grape Seed Oil ( buy from here )
Pumpkin Seed Oil ( buy from here )
Evening Primrose Oil ( buy from here )
Hemp Seed Oil ( buy from here )
Black Cumin Seed Oil ( buy from here )
Drink A Lot of Water
Lastly, make sure you drink enough water every day. This replenishes water lost during the day and keeps your skin hydrated. Make it a habit to fill a one-litre bottle and carry it around with you. Add lemon slices and mint leaves to zing it up a bit.
So I hope you now know why sebum is actually important and is needed to keep your skin healthy. Don’t make the mistake I made and try to wash it off constantly. I spent years fixing the damage I had caused to my skin.