It would be hard to address the problem of acne without mentioning sebum. This oily substance your sebaceous glands produce plays an important role in keeping your skin healthy, yet too much of it contributes to acne outbreaks. Studies show that applying sebum to the ears of rabbits produces comedones or clogged pores. That’s why any approach to treating acne must address the issue of sebum.
What Is Sebum?
Sebum is an oily, fatty substance secreted by sebaceous glands just below the surface of the skin. It’s composed of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene, small amounts of cholesterol, and fatty acids. In other words, it’s a mix of fatty substances.
What is the purpose of sebum? Sebaceous glands secrete it to lubricate and waterproof the hair and skin and to prevent water loss from the body. Fat repels water and helps hold water in. Sebum protects against dryness by strengthening the lipid layer of the epidermis. It also inhibits pathogenic bacteria such as Staphylococci and Streptococci by producing a biofilm that interferes with their ability to stick to host tissues.
The amount of sebum you produce may be vastly different from the amount someone else produces, depending on your age, gender, lifestyle habits, and genetics. How much sebum you secrete partially depends on your hormones. During puberty and pregnancy, this secretion can increase. Sebum levels tend to be highest at puberty when levels of hormones called androgen increase. Also, it’s normal for sebum production to increase during pregnancy due to hormonal changes.
Too Much Sebum Can Trigger Acne
Sebum also plays a role in producing acne. People who make too much sebum are more prone to acne. When your sebaceous glands pump out too much sebum, that can clog the pores of your skin. Bacteria then get trapped inside the pores, and swelling and inflammation ensue.
When this occurs, the tissue around the pore swells and produces a whitehead, also known as a closed comedone. If this inflammation continues without proper treatment, the tissue will break apart and allow more dirt, oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria to enter the pore. This can lead to a pimple or multiple pimples.
Sebum is concentrated in areas with the highest number of sebaceous glands, including under the arms, in the pubic area, on the face and neck, and on the chest. These are the places acne outbreaks usually occur.
Can You Reduce Sebum Production?
If you reduce excess sebum, you can also lower your risk of acne outbreaks. Some people believe washing their face with a drying soap will decrease oils and sebum, but this isn’t a smart approach. Cleansing with harsh soaps can worsen acne by drying out your skin too much, which triggers more sebum production.
Summary of Ways to Reduce Sebum
Proper skin care helps keep sebum under control. Here are some guidelines:
1. Wash gently. Don’t scrub or rub your skin when you bathe or shower. Rinse well to remove all the soap.
2. Use gentle cleansers, and don’t over-wash or wash aggressively. Over-washing makes acne worse because it irritates the skin and strips away natural oils meant to keep it hydrated and healthy. Gentle cleansers, such as liquids or gels, are best for people with acne-prone skin, as long as they rinse off clearly.
If you have oily skin, consider using a toner that contains salicylic acid or glycolic acid. These ingredients will exfoliate the top layer of skin and help prevent clogged pores.
Try an oil-free moisturizer or an acne treatment cream containing retinol or salicylic acid. These ingredients contain AHAs that can penetrate the top layer of your skin and unclog pores from the inner side of your face. There’s also evidence that tea tree oil is effective for preventing acne flares.
Severe cases of acne may require more aggressive measures such as oral antibiotics, birth control pills, or Accutane. However, these should be options only after safer treatments have failed. The concern with not treating acne is it can lead to permanent scarring.
Other Lifestyle Factors
Diet plays a role in acne and sebum production too. A healthy diet that limits sugar, refined carbohydrates, and dairy products may reduce the production of excess sebum. These foods increase insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 that stimulates sebum production.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why you need sebum and how too much of it can worsen acne. Fortunately, the way you clean your skin, and your diet can help reduce your skin’s sebum burden. If that fails to work, a dermatology consult is the next step. See also: How to Treat Cystic Acne and Why Topical Treatment Doesn’t Always Work
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- Ghosh S, Chaudhuri S, Jain VK, Aggarwal K. Profiling and hormonal therapy for acne in women. Indian J Dermatol. 2014 Mar;59(2):107-15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24700926/
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