Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Oily skin is a problem very close to my heart as I was struggling with a shiny complexion for years. I probably tried every popular cosmetic promising to reduce sebum overproduction. The results were mediocre at best with most of the products doing nothing at all. Sounds familiar?
I will never forget the day when it all changed. I was in a herbal store with an impressive display of oils. Curious, I asked which of them would be suitable for my complexion. The sales assistant suggested neem and tamanu oils. And so my healing journey began. I tried the oils at home and was astonished. Not only did they absorb rapidly, but they seemed to mattify my skin. How on earth was it possible? I needed to know, so I researched. As I wanted to get to the root of the problem, I read through tons of dermatology studies and medical journal articles. All seemed to suggest one thing: OILY SKIN DOESN’T EXIST. Say what?
THE REAL CAUSE OF OILY SKIN
Ok, the statement requires some explanation, especially if you have just grabbed a mirror and are still seeing an oily film on your face. You are right, it is there, but what you are seeing is a result of something else, a mere symptom. Our skin produces sebum as a protective mechanism to stop the escape of moisture. In other words, our skin fears drying out, so it coats itself with a substance, which is very good in preventing moisture loss, but unfortunately doesn’t look so attractive. It’s not the sebum overproduction you want to tackle – it’s the increased evaporation of moisture (the Transepidermal Water Loss or TEWL for short).
HOW TO STOP SEBUM OVERPRODUCTION?
Decrease the TEWL and you will decrease the sebum production. It’s as simple as that. But how do we do it? And why exactly do we lose moisture from our skin in the first place?
Our skin is incredibly efficient in keeping the moisture in because its outermost layer looks, more or less, like a brick wall, where flattened skin cells are the bricks and a mixture of lipids, ceramides and co. is the mortar. This brick wall is called the SKIN BARRIER. A strong skin barrier will keep the TEWL low, but a skin barrier looking like a Swiss cheese will not be effective in retaining the hydration. And less hydration equals more sebum production equals oily skin.
WHY DOES THE SKIN BARRIER GET WEAK?
The skin barrier is a delicate system, where many elements work in perfect balance to provide us with the protection we need. Often unknowingly we bring it out of its perfect state by using products on our skin, which give us short term benefits, but long term are making our skin worse.
Exfoliation is one such example. Whether chemical or mechanical, it gets rid of the first few layers of our ‘brick wall’, making the skin barrier weak and increasing the TEWL. It’s something else to exfoliate before a big event and something else altogether to peel our faces regularly. If you want to know more, read the post “The Ugly Face of Exfoliation”.
Soaps, gels and cleansing mousses all work using the same principle. They contain surfactants, which bind to the impurities on the face and wash them away. There’s only one problem. There’s no way for the surfactant to know, what’s dirt and makeup and what’s the building block of our skin barrier. They get rid of everything, washing away our precious lipid layer and weakening our skin barrier.
Last, but not least, following the popular belief that people with oily skin should use oil-free products, we fail to replenish the lipids in our skin’s lipid layer (lipid = fat = oil). We leave our brick wall without the mortar and force our skin to fill in the gaps rapidly using own sebum. And so closes the vicious circle of oily skin.
HOW TO BREAK THE VICIOUS CIRCLE OF OILY SKIN?
Strengthening your skin barrier should be your focus. You can do that by adjusting every step of your skincare routine. Below I go through it step by step:
My number one tip for anyone with oily skin would be to ditch the soaps and gels and swap to the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM). Cleansing oils, contrary to soaps and gels, do not contain surfactants and therefore don’t destroy the hydrolipidic layer of the skin. Skin is protected from over-drying and does not have to react by producing sebum in excess. At the same time, cleansing oils are extremely efficient in removing dirt and even waterproof makeup.