What Is Sebum?

Love it or hate it (and you most likely hate it) sebum is an essential part of your skin. Naturally produced by our sebaceous glands, it has a protective purpose that prevents friction and keeps the skin lubricated. Despite this, we often feel as though it’s causing more harm than good. This is especially true if you’re stuck in a cycle of sebum overproduction, which can lead to oiliness and breakouts. We sat down with dermatologist and general skin guru Dr Soma to elucidate the sometimes confusing role it plays…

So, what is sebum?

“Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by our sebaceous glands. These glands are all over the body (minus the hands and feet) but are mainly on our face and scalp. Sebaceous glands are usually paired up with hair follicles and together they form something called the pilosebaceous unit.”

What is sebum made of, exactly?

“A unique blend of lipids, waxes and squalene. Specifically, the mix is reported to be 57% triglycerides and fatty acids, 26% wax esters, 12% squalene, and 4.5% cholesterol.”

What is sebum’s function?

“Interestingly, its role is not completely understood,” says Dr Soma. “It forms part of our surface lipids, which lubricate the skin and hair, as well as protecting the skin’s barrier. It also has lesser-known functions, like delivering anti-oxidants, acting as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent and regulating hormones.”

What happens when you produce too much sebum?

As the saying goes: you can have too much of a good thing. Unfortunately, this is the case here. An overproduction of sebum can lead to things like oiliness and breakouts, which is one of the main reasons why it has such a bad rep. “Some people naturally produce more sebum than others,” explains Dr Soma. “This can cause excessively greasy hair and skin. It can also contribute to the formation of acne, although it is not solely responsible. By saying this what I mean is, not everyone who produces a lot of sebum will have acne, but it is one of the mechanisms implicated in causing it.”

“Acne is a result of excessive sebum <and> a build-up of dead skin cells,” clarifies Dr Soma. “When combined, these clog pores, creating an environment for acne bacteria to thrive, which then triggers inflammation.” Glad we cleared that up. So then, why do certain people find themselves dealing with more sebum than others?

“Sebum production is also kicked into gear by hormones, which explains why teenagers, who are at the height of hormone changes, are more acne-prone. Sebum production is highest during our teenage years and then tends to decline with age.”

What skincare products would you recommend?

If you’ve just discovered that you are dealing with an overproduction of sebum, your next question is most likely to be: how can I help curb it? As previously mentioned, there is nothing you can do to alter the amount your skin naturally produces. However, using a regime with targeted ingredients can help cut through excessive greasiness. Think twice before buying a bunch of stringent acids and scrubs. Using extremely harsh products can strip the skin, resulting in dryness, irritation and (surprise!) even more oil production. Dr Soma suggests honing on a few key ingredients first: “niacinamide, retinol, and salicylic acid are all great. 

If your skin is oily but not necessarily acne-prone, I would recommend choosing moisturisers that are light or gel-based, like COSRX AC Collection Lightweight Soothing Moisturiser. Also, consider incorporating niacinamide into your daily routine.” Revolution Skincare 20% Niacinamide Blemish and Pore Refining Serum is both efficacious and bank-friendly, so stock up. “Apply The Ordinary’s Retinol 0.2% In Squalane at night,” she continues. “Salicylic acid can also be helpful.” Revolution Skincare’s Blemish Targeting Facial Cleanser is a fantastic formula that can be used daily to deep-clean pores and clear away excess oil and dead skin. 

If you’re in the market for a hard-working all-rounder, Allies Of Skin Promise Keeper Blemish Sleeping Facial is your guy. It might be big bucks, but it is without a doubt worth every penny. A potent blend of refining, exfoliating and brightening actives, this blue bottle does everything from rebalancing oil production to improving skin tone and texture. It also contains anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients, including medical-grade manuka honey, colloidal silver and yoghurt. A thin layer applied before bed will get your face gleaming come morning. Always wear an SPF the next day.