Balancing Sebum: Acne, Production, Treatments, and More

Medically Reviewed By Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C
Was this helpful?
1

Sebum is a mixture of lipids that is important for many processes of skin health. While sebum can protect skin health, sebum levels may become unbalanced as the sebaceous glands produce more or less sebum than necessary for health. Sebum can appear like an oil on the skin.

While many people associate sebum negatively with blemishes and acne, it is vital for many skin functions.

However, changes to the levels of sebum production can cause skin effects such as dry skin or acne, and many may want to address unbalanced sebum levels of their skin.

Learn about sebum, its purpose, production, and complications, and how to care for your skin.

What is sebum?

Woman putting on makeup looking in handheld mirror
Stereo Shot/Stocksy United

Sebum is composed of a mixture of lipids, and it contributes to the oil on the skin.

Glands in the skin called sebaceous glands produce sebum. Sebaceous glands are present over most of the body, particularly on the face, mid-back, ear canal, and around the genitals.

These glands can open out into the hair follicle, from where hair grows, or open directly onto the skin’s surface.

What is the purpose of sebum?

Sebum is essential to the skin’s function. It is critical for maintaining the skin’s homeostasis, the self-regulating processes that maintain stable function.

Some additional purposes of sebum include:

  • reducing water loss from the skin and preventing dryness
  • skin lubrication
  • protection from bacteria and fungi

Sebum also contains antimicrobial substances, free fatty acids, and certain enzymes that can help to protect the skin from infectious and external or environmental insults.

What does sebum look like?

Sebum can appear as an oily substance on the skin.

Reema Patel, PA-C, notes that sebum may appear oily or waxy on the skin’s surface.

Excess sebum on the skin can make the skin look shiny or oily
Excess sebum on the skin can make the skin look shiny or oily. Credit: russaquarius/Getty Images

When there is an overproduction of sebum, Patel explains that the sebum may not be able to reach the surface of the skin and can develop sebum plugs. These sebum plugs may appear as small yellowish or pale-colored bumps that stick out from the skin’s surface.

Hardened sebum plugs visible on the surface of the skin.
Hardened sebum plugs visible on the surface of the skin. Credit: russaquarius/Getty Images

Sebum and skin health

High or low levels of sebum production may relate to an underlying condition or cause.

For the most part, acne as a result of sebum can be very common.

Additionally, most people who experience excessive sebum production have no further health concerns underlying this production. This is because certain benign factors can impact sebum production, such as age.

However, high or low sebum levels can cause complications or be a symptom of a further underlying condition or irritation.

If you experience persistent symptoms of irritated skin, contact your doctor or dermatologist.

Overproduction

Overproduction of sebum may lead to acne and other skin conditions.

Seborrhea is the excessive production of sebum, which can cause the skin to feel unpleasant and appear shiny. This condition often leads to red, oily, or scaling patches of skin.

Seborrhea can lead to acne or another condition known as seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory reaction of the skin.

Causes of overproduction

Overproduction of sebum can occur for various reasons.

A 2017 study on oily skin suggests some risk factors for an increase in sebum production, including:

  • Environment: Sebum production may increase in more humid climates or during spring and summer.
  • Race: The study suggests that Black individuals may sometimes have larger pore sizes that may output more sebum, whereas researchers note that Chinese females (assigned at birth) may sometimes have smaller pore sizes which may output less.
  • Sex: Being assigned male at birth can be a risk factor for oily skin.
  • Health conditions: Conditions that elevate androgens may be a risk factor. Pituitary, adrenal, ovarian, or testicular disorders can also increase or reduce sebum production.
  • Skin health: Damage to the epidermal barrier may increase susceptibility to seborrheic dermatitis.
  • Medications: Medications you take for other conditions may also affect sebum production, such as phenothiazines and co-cyprindiol.

Other factors related to sebum production levels include age, hormones, and diet.

Does sebum cause acne?

Sebum does have a role in the formation of acne.

2017 review observes that increased sebum production and changes to sebum composition may strongly relate to the occurrence of acne.

Sebum plugs

If the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, the excess sebum can combine with other debris on the skin. This debris, such as dead skin cells, can form a plug in the hair follicle.

This plug can create blackheads or whiteheads, also commonly referred to as pimples, breakouts, or zits.

The 2017 review also notes that other factors leading to acne can include hormone levels, bacterial infection, and inflammatory reactions.

Learn more about sebum plugs, how they relate to acne, and how to treat sebum overproduction here.

Underproduction

Because sebum prevents water loss from the skin, an underproduction of sebum can mean that the skin loses water and becomes dry.

Environmental factors can exacerbate the problem by potentially causing more water evaporation. In turn, this decreases the sebum’s ability to prevent water loss. Excess water loss can cause the skin to shrivel or crack.

Causes of underproduction

Factors that can decrease sebum production include:

  • pituitary, adrenal, ovarian, or testicular disorders
  • starvation or malnutrition
  • certain medications or chemicals
  • antiandrogens such as cyproterone acetate and spironolactone
  • vitamin A derivatives such as isotretinoin
  • estrogens, for example, the combined oral contraceptive pill

Sebum and food

A 2019 study explores the relationship between diet and sebum production to observe outcomes on skin health.

Healthy Korean adults ate four different diets, with researchers measuring skin sebum content using a sebumeter to absorb sebum on the forehead.

Researchers observed that a diet low in beans and high in meats, dairy, soft drinks, and alcohol increased sebum content in males and females (assigned at birth).

Additionally, a diet high in potatoes, starch, seeds, nuts, fruits, and eggs decreased sebum content in females.

However, researchers note that further and larger studies are necessary to support their findings and improve on limitations.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) also suggests that a high-glycemic diet may cause your body to produce more sebum. The high-glycemic diet causes spikes in blood sugar.

The AAD also notes that while there are some indications that diet may relate to acne, further research is necessary to confirm the relationship. There are also many additional factors to consider, including individual body chemistry. Clearing the skin of acne requires more care than diet changes alone.

Sebum and hormones

Certain hormones and hormonal levels can influence sebum production.

Hormones called androgens are fundamental to the function of sebaceous glands and sebum production.

Those experiencing higher testosterone levels may have a higher output of sebum.

Sebum may also increase during ovulation, possibly due to the increases of progesterone in the body during this time.

Sebum and age

Over your lifespan, sebum production levels may increase and decrease with fluctuating hormones.

Sebum can be over or underproduced due to certain conditions you may experience depending on your age.

For example, cradle cap is a very common condition in newborns and is a type of infantile seborrheic dermatitis. Cradle cap occur due to sebum overproduction in the first months of life. This condition is generally benign and self-limiting, often resolving by 12 months of age.

Sebum production then declines until the next peak. The next peak or increase may occur from the beginning of sexual maturation or puberty until around 18 years old.

Sebum production levels may then decline with age, particularly after menopause.

Read on here for more information about seborrheic dermatitis and cradle cap.

How do you balance sebum?

Sebum performs vital functions for skin health.

If you have excess sebum or not enough sebum, you may want to address the underlying cause or improve symptoms of sebum production.

You may be able to alleviate dry skin by applying moisturizer regularly, especially after bathing. Avoid irritating products, such as those that contain alcohol or fragrance, and avoid using hot water while bathing.

How do you get rid of sebum?

Avoiding controllable risk factors may help improve your skin health. For example, this could involve avoiding foods or cosmetic products that trigger skin irritation for you.

As sebum has many vital functions, it is important not to overcorrect excessive sebum production. Overcorrection can cause irritation and a lack of sebum in the skin.

If your skin is oily, you may feel tempted to apply treatments that appear to dry out the skin, such as astringents or acne treatments. However, this can overly dry the skin, causing irritation and further adverse skin reactions, such as acne.

The AAD outlines some tips for the care of oily skin that may help:

  • Wash your face gently every day and after exercise.
  • Choose skin care products that are oil-free, noncomedogenic, and alcohol-free.
  • Apply moisturizer.
  • Wear sunscreen every time you go outdoors.
  • Wash your face after wearing makeup.
  • Use blotting papers.
  • Avoid touching or squeezing the face.

Further over-the-counter products and treatments that may help address sebum plugs and acne include:

  • retinol
  • acids for the skin, such as azelaic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids, or beta-hydroxy acids
  • benzoyl peroxide

However, these products can be strong and produce side effects or interact with other treatments. Only start using these products with the advice of a pharmacist or your doctor.

Contacting a doctor

If you continue to experience irregular sebum production or irritated skin, contact your doctor to investigate any underlying cause.

Treatments for dry skin related to a lack of sebum may focus on moisturizing the skin, protecting it from environmental irritants, and finding the underlying cause.

If you experience seborrhea, a doctor may be able to prescribe you treatment to improve the condition.

Treatments and medications to reduce sebum include:

  • hormone therapy, such as using a combined oral contraceptive pill
  • antiandrogens
  • vitamin A derivatives, such as isotretinoin or retinoids

You may also need to have a consultation with a dermatologist. They can recommend further treatment for oily, dry, or irritated skin due to sebum production or sebaceous gland activity.

Summary

Sebum is a vital component of the skin, produced by the sebaceous glands. Sebum contributes to healthy skin function and maintenance.

Changes to sebum production levels can occur due to many factors, including hormonal changes, age, and underlying health conditions. While it can be benign, both an excess and insufficient sebum can irritate the skin and impair function.

Contact a doctor or dermatologist to discuss any persistent skin irritation or acne symptoms.

Was this helpful?
1
Medical Reviewer: Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 29
View All Skin, Hair and Nails Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. 10 skin care habits that can worsen acne. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/skin-care/habits-stop
  2. Acne: Diagnosis and treatment. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/derm-treat/treat
  3. (2019). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/acne/
  4. Can the right diet get rid of acne? (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/causes/diet
  5. Dry skin relief. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-basics/dry/dry-skin-relief
  6. Dry skin: Diagnosis and treatment. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/dry-skin-treatment
  7. Dry skin. (2019). https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/dry-skin-a-to-z
  8. Endly, D. C., et al. (2017). Oily skin: A review of treatment options. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605215/
  9. Hoover, E., et al. (2021). Physiology, sebaceous glands. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499819/
  10. How to control oily skin. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-basics/dry/oily-skin
  11. Li, X., et al. (2017). A review of the role of sebum in the mechanism of acne pathogenesis [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28556292/
  12. Lim, S., et al. (2019). Dietary patterns associated with sebum content, skin hydration and pH, and their sex-dependent differences in health Korean adults. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6471406/
  13. Nobbles, T., et al. (2021). Cradle cap. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531463/
  14. Oakley, A., et al. (2014). Seborrhea. https://dermnetnz.org/topics/seborrhoea
  15. Oakley, A., et al. (2014). Sebum. https://dermnetnz.org/topics/sebum
  16. Purnamawati, S., et al. (2017). The role of moisturizers in addressing various kinds of dermatitis: A review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849435/