William Shakespeare famously said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Swap in “good skin” for “greatness” and you’ve got a saying that applies directly to my life. I fall squarely into the second category, having “achieved” good skin through meticulous and painstaking product research, testing, and analyzing. When people compliment me on my complexion, I beam like a kindergartner who was complimented by her teacher for remembering to hold scissors the right way (and walking, not running). This might sound vain and superficial, or maybe even the slightest bit psychotic, but I’m not ashamed. In fact, I’m proud. I wasn’t born with good skin, and sadly, did not have good skin thrust upon me. I worked for the skin I have now, and though it is far from perfect, it’s far less oily and acne-prone than the skin I had growing up.
But I haven’t forgotten my pimply, oily days of yore. They linger on in the periphery of my brain, and the familiar flood of stress and anxiety floods over me still on occasion whenever I see the hint of a breakout forming. Thus, I wanted to share some key things I’ve done and learned that have helped my skin go from supremely greasy to pleasantly dewy in the hopes that it might help anyone who has ever struggled with an oil slick of a T-zone. Yes, I have to give nature some credit—most of my acne-filled days were during my hormonally-crazy teenage years—but in general, my skincare routine is the key reason I no longer have to blot my face 10 times a day (true story). Also, keep in mind that these are tips that have worked for me. If you have a skincare routine you love that goes against every single point I bring up ahead, by all means, stick to it. But if you’ve been struggling with oily skin for a long time and are on the verge of shaking your fists at the sky, screaming, “Why me?!” you might find some helpful information ahead.
Let’s get started, shall we? Keep scrolling to find out how I trained my skin to be less greasy, with tips from the experts.
Meet the Expert
- Donna Tol is a strategic account manager and esthetician at SkinMedica.
- Dr. Amir Karam is a double-board certified facial plastic surgeon in San Diego.
I Said Bye to Sulfates
Flip through any of your cleansers or shampoos and you’ll most likely see ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. They are cheap detergents and surfactants that cleanse your skin and hair and give you that nice, satisfying bubbly lather. Here’s the thing: They’re way too harsh for the skin on your face, and could actually be making your oil problem worse. “When you use something that’s too drying, it eliminates too much oil, so your body goes into overdrive and it ends up producing more oil,” explains Tol.
One of the biggest paradigm shifts I went through in my journey to good skin was to realize that I shouldn’t necessarily be reaching for products that say they’re “for oily skin” because they’re usually filled with sulfates. "People with oily skin should avoid sulfates because they can cause more irritation, which can cause more acne. Sulfates typically found in foaming agents can dry out the skin. Different types of sulfates can actually lead to clogged pores and acne breakouts," Karam points out.
I might even go as far to say that most traditional foaming cleansers have sulfates, so it’s really about doing your research and going out of your way to find a good non-sulfate cleanser that still leaves your skin feeling clean. Some of my favorites are Renée Rouleau Moisture Protecting Cleanser ($39), Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Foam ($38), and BareMinerals Smoothness Hydrating Cleansing Oil ($30) (it’s an oil cleanser but actually gets rid of all your makeup and turns into a slight lather when you add water).
Everyone on the Byrdie team is obsessed with Eve Lom Cleanser ($80) and I’ve recently seen the light, too. If you’re looking for something more affordable, I always look to Korean brands; Purito From Green Cleansing Oil ($24) feels utterly luxurious, while the 107 Chaga Jelly Low pH Cleanser ($22) is made with delicate green tea powder for a low-stakes exfoliation moment.
If you tend to wear a lot of eye makeup, you’ll want to double-cleanse with a richer oil cleanser first.
I Realized the Difference Between Dryness and Dehydration
Tol also told me something else that pretty much blew my mind. “There’s a difference between having oil in your skin and having moisture in your skin,” she told me. “When you’re dehydrated, you’re lacking moisture and hydration. When you’re dry, you’re lacking oil. It’s two separate things.” In other words, even if your skin looks oily, you could still be dehydrated and lacking moisture. This means that even oily skin types could benefit from a light moisturizer.
Karam explains in more detail, "Typically dehydrated skin looks and feels rough, looks dull and feels tight, shows more fine lines and is more sensitive. Sun is a big factor in dehydrated skin, so is hard water and aging. Dry skin, however, feels rough and appears dry and flaky."
Look for light, hydrating ingredients in your serums and moisturizers like hyaluronic acid, which holds up to a thousand times its weight in water.
Keeping your skin healthy and hydrated will keep it happily in balance, and I’ve found that using a hyaluronic acid serum like Pestle & Mortar Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($59) morning and night soothes and calms my otherwise-temperamental complexion. So, repeat after me: Moisture is your friend, not your foe.
But I Still Had My Acne Backups
I went through a strange phase about a year ago where I kept getting a breakout in the middle of my forehead consisting of small, poppable bumps. It would rear its ugly (white) head every few weeks without warning, and I would pile on the concealer and just hope and pray it would go away. Then, I tried this miracle product from the U.K. called Medik8 Blemish SOS Rapid Target Gel ($45). This product cleared my forehead breakout overnight, quite literally. It's formulated with salicylic acid that unclogs pores, skin-brightening niacinamide, and antibacterial azelaic acid.
I Restricted Alcohol to My Margarita Habit
Though there are many health benefits to cutting alcohol out of your diet, I admit I haven’t gotten there yet—I dare anyone to try and tell me an ice-cold margarita after a long week isn’t good for my soul. But I have cut alcohol out of my skincare routine, and my skin has responded by being less oily and happier in general. Alcohol—often called benzyl alcohol, SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol in ingredient labels—is just straight-up bad for your skin, dry or oily.
It’s drying (no surprise), and it can actually weaken your skin over time if used consistently. Karam explains, "Alcohol is bad for oily skin because it can enlarge pores and alcohol based products can actually lead to an increase in the skin's greasiness. Alcohol harms the protective surface and depletes substances for healthy skin. An it can stimulate oil production at the base of the pore so you produce more oil."
Here’s the trap: A lot of products aimed towards oilier skin types or touted as “light” and “easily absorbed” rely on alcohol to give that quick-dry, weightless finish people obsess over. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a beauty editor is to ignore all the marketing talk, and zero in on the ingredients. The ingredients don’t lie—clever marketing can. I don’t let any product that lists alcohol in the first five ingredients near my face, no matter how grand the promises are (if it’s near the end of the ingredients list and it’s from a brand I love and trust, I’ll make an exception).
Instead, light moisturizers like SkinMedica Ultra Sheer Moisturizer ($49), Tatcha Pore Perfecting Water Gel Moisturizer ($65), and Huxley Anti-Gravity Cream ($35) keep my skin hydrated without drying it out in the long run. One thing to note: cetearyl, cetyl, and stearyl alcohol aren’t actually bad for you, so don’t denounce products that contain these ingredients. They’re emulsifiers classified as “fatty alcohols” that aren’t harmful and usually derived from coconut or vegetable oils.
I Treated My Skin Like the Queen It Was All Along
Here’s the truth: If you aren’t born with naturally perfect skin, then you’ll probably have to put in some work. In the past, I saw skincare as a chore, left to the last five minutes before bed and executed as hastily as possible. But then I started seeing real results from the products I was using, and gradually, skincare became more of a ritual and an indulgence rather than an annoying necessity.
I started to look forward to my weekly mask (Charlotte Tilbury Goddess Skin Clay Mask, $55, is utterly luxurious and never dries out; Glossier Mega Greens Galaxy Pack, $22, is a great affordable alternative), and I would take time to treat myself, usually settling in the bath or cuddling up in bed with a good book as I waited for the mask to work its magic.
I also treat my skin with serums that are chock-full of brightening, texture-smoothing, and oil-balancing ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, green tea (also called Camellia Sinensis leaf extract), grape extract (Vitis vinifera seed extract). SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic ($166) is a beauty editor favorite; Instanatural Vitamin C Skin Clearing Serum ($22) is more affordable and Byrdie editorial project director Lindsey’s go-to.
I Already Said This, But: Treat Your Skin With Love (and Moisture)
“I think people get confused,” Tol says. “When you have oily skin you want the oil gone. But the oil is there to provide a natural layer of protection on your skin, so you need to have it there.” She brings up how oil breaks down oil, so you shouldn’t shy away from an oil cleanser. I’ve recently gotten over my aversion to face oils, and now reach for Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum ($185) and May Lindstrom Blue Cocoon ($180) any time my skin feels dull or tired; Kahina Giving Beauty Argan Oil ($36) is another great option and can be used on your hair and body, too.
"It is good for someone with oily skin to use the right oils because the right oils balance the skin and regulate sebum production. Dehydrated skin actually tends to overproduce sebum in order to compensate for the lack of moisture. Examples of healthy oils are Jojoba oil which prevents moisture loss and chaulmoogra oil which has fatty acids," says Karam.
Instead of over-exfoliating, I exfoliate just once or twice a week with a more intense treatment (i.e., Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Peel, $88), or I use a gentle chemical exfoliator like Ever Biomimetic Peel Pads ($70) every day to increase cell turnover and help my hydrating products penetrate better.
Nowadays, I welcome moisturizing masks, essences, and other lightly hydrating skincare products with open arms—and since then, my skin has never looked look better. I can go a full day without reaching for my blotting papers, which gives me time to focus on more important things, like whether or not I should start Vanderpump Rules (all signs point to yes). It seems to go against logic, but this paradigm shift has changed my life (and skin) for the better, and I’ll never go back to harsh cleansers, exfoliators, and drying treatments again—just try and take my hyaluronic acid serum from me, I dare you.
Opening Image: Pepe León
What causes oily skin?
Oily skin can be caused by a number of factors, including (but not limited to): hormonal fluctuations, genetics, weather, and certain skincare products containing alcohol.
Does using an oil make your skin more oily?
Despite sounding pretty counterintuitive, using an oil on your skin can actually help balance out oil production.
What oils are best for oily skin?
Oily skin really benefits from lightweight oils like jojoba, argan, and squalane oil. If you have acne prone skin, rosehip seed oil is a great option, as it can also reduce acne scarring.
National Library of Medicine PubChem. COMPOUND SUMMARY: Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate. Updated February 27, 2021.
National Library of Medicine PubChem. COMPOUND SUMMARY: Sodium laureth sulfate (compound). Updated February 27, 2021.
National Library of Medicine PubChem. COMPOUND SUMMARY: Benzyl alcohol (Compound). Updated February 27, 2021.