Having oily skin can be a complexion conundrum. When your t-zone looks like an oil spill before lunchtime or your makeup has melted off by mid-day, having this skin type can feel like a serious struggle. What’s worse, it might seem as though there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve probably wondered what causes oily skin plenty of times—and the answer is a lot.
But the good news is there are ways to cut the shine. “We all have sebaceous (oil) glands on our skin that vary in the amount of oil (sebum) production they produce,” explains board-certified dermatologist Chris Tomassian, MD. “Oily skin is typically characterized by oily/shiny skin that typically presents all over the face. There is a subtype of oily skin, combination skin, which presents as oily skin on the t-zone (forehead, nose, eyebrows) but dry to balanced elsewhere.”
Sound familiar? Then you might have oily skin. Though you might wish you could change your skin type, unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. “You can’t change your skin type but your skin type can change, so to speak,” says board-certified dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD. “Your skin can change over time, certain climates may change your skin, and medications can change your skin. For example, after treatment with isotretinoin (formerly Accutane), someone with oily skin may move toward the drier end of the skin type spectrum. And with age, it is common for skin to become drier.”
Meet the Expert
- Chris Tomassian, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of The Dermatology Collective in Glendora, California.
- Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York, specializing in facial rejuvenation. She is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
It’s also important to note common myths and what doesn’t cause oily skin. That includes having large pores, which is often seen in people with oily skin but doesn’t affect oil production. Another myth is that exercise causes oily skin: “The benefits of a good workout far outweigh any of the negatives on the skin,” Tomassian says. “During your workout, you have increased blood flow to the skin and sweat production, but it does not cause your skin to be more oily. Exercise will likely lower stress which is a common cause of increased oil production.”
To help temper that shine, learn what does cause oily skin—and what you can do about it.
Your gene pool is a major factor in your skin type. “There are studies that actually show identical twins had the same or very similar amounts of oil production while non-identical twins did not,” Tomassian says.
It might seem counterintuitive, but forgoing moisturizer can actually put oil production into overdrive. “The oil glands have the ability to sense that skin is drier and begin to overcompensate and produce more oils,” Murphy-Rose says. “Make sure to use a well-balanced light moisturizer and avoid products that break down the skin barrier, causing dryness and irritation.” Moisturizing is key for all skin types because it helps maintain hydration within the skin.
It’s not your imagination—there actually is a correlation between your age and how oily your complexion is. “During puberty, you have a large increase in oil production due to the increase in androgen hormones (DHT),” Tomassian says. “You can also see an increase in oil production during ovulation of the menstrual cycle due to an influx of hormones as well. However, as you get older you become less oily. As you age in general you also have less sebum production, which is why many people complain of dry skin.” Oily complexions really start to calm down after menopause, thanks to a decrease in hormones.
Using the Wrong Skincare Ingredients
This common culprit can cause oily skin. “Avoid harsh astringents or alcohol-based solutions that can actually cause your sebaceous glands to over-compensate and produce even more sebum,” Murphy-Rose says. “Anything that dries the skin can cause this effect.” Oily skin types are better off avoiding oil-based products, so look for “oil-free” on the label. Tomassian recommends using products with ingredients like retinol and niacinamide, as well as oil-free moisturizers and mattifying sunscreens.
Your Environment and Climate
“In higher temperatures and with increased humidity levels, the sebaceous glands tend to increase oil production,” Murphy-Rose says. The time of year can also effect oil production, which is why skin feels oilier in the spring and summer.
Sometimes a particular food can take a toll on your complexion. “A high intake of alcohol, meats, as well as dairy has been shown to be associated with higher oil production,” Tomassian says.
It’s no secret that stress can take a major toll on your complexion, and that includes causing oily skin. “High stress levels increase cortisol levels, which can then trigger increased oil production from sebaceous glands,” Murphy-Rose says.
Unsurprisingly, hormones play a major role in oily skin. “The oil glands are partially controlled by hormones, particularly androgen hormones,” Murphy-Rose says. “Hormonal fluctuations from day to day and week to week can cause increased oil production over time.”