Oily Skin Guide: Everything You Need To Know About Being A Greaseball

To all my fellow greaseballs:

It gets better!

Read through the article below to gain some insight into the world of oiliness—causes, treatments, routines, and all.

Oily Skin Questionnaire

Chances are, if you’re here, you already know that you have oily skin.

But there’s no harm in double checking.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re in doubt:

  1. Is your face greasy all over (forehead, nose, chin, AND cheeks)?
  2. Do you have large pores (aka orange peel skin)?
  3. Are you acne-prone/blackhead-prone?
  4. Does your makeup slide off by lunchtime?
  5. Do you have thick skin?

If you answered “yes” to question #1, it’s safe to assume that you have oily skin.

And, if you answered yes more than once, it’s super-duper safe to assume that you have oily skin.

Cause #1: Genetics

Hate to say it, but it’s true.

Oily skin is genetic.

Just like you can’t change your eye color, you also can’t change your skin type.

In other words, you’ll be oily forever.

Well, maybe not forever.

Just until you hit menopause. Or, for men, until you hit your 70-year-old milestone.

Age changes things—sometimes for the better.

While it’s true that nothing you do or don’t do can genetically modify your skin type, the following causes can certainly exacerbate your oily issues.

Cause #2: Hormones

Think back—way back—to those early childhood memories. Ah—the playground, the glue eating, the perfectly-balanced skin.

Okay now think back to puberty. Urgh—the mood swings, the cliques, the Exxon-acclaimed oil-fields spurting from your pores.

What sparked the change?

One word—hormones.

You see, when you hit puberty, your hormones went into beast mode. And, as it turns out, your sebaceous glands (the pesky little buggers that secrete oil) are regulated by androgens (ahem, sex hormones).

After puberty, sebum production slows down for most people.

But, for others, it doesn’t. And the reason behind it is largely unknown. Although it’s suspected that us oily-skinned people have a hypersensitivity to the “normal levels of androgens” in our bodies.

Cause #3: PMS

No, you’re not just imagining things:

Oil levels do hit an all-time high one week before your period.

Again, there aren’t any studies that investigate the why’s and the how’s. But, some people believe that the sudden spike in progesterone is responsible for the grease-face effect.

Cause #4: Diet

For a while, dermatologists adamantly denied the association between diet and skin.

But some fairly recent studies have shown that certain foods can indeed trigger sebum production (and, for that matter, acne).

First up on the sebum watch list is dairy.

In the 90’s, researchers set-up a series of three studies that examined dairy intake and teenage acne. Considering all the anecdotal evidence, it’s not surprising that all three of these studies found a positive correlation between the two (study 1, study 2, study 3).

They hypothesize that the androgens and the 5α-reduced steroids contained in milk can ramp-up oil production (which can ultimately lead to acne).

Second up are junk foods.

Eating high glycemic foods (like candy, french fries, and white bread) will inevitably elevate your blood sugar. When that happens, your body goes into freak-out mode and starts (over) producing insulin.

Studies have shown that increased levels of insulin lead to increased sebum production (study 1, study 2).

Hey, maybe my skin would be less oily if I rehabilitate my T-bell addiction?

Cause #5: Environment (Summertime Oiliness)

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that your sunscreen isn’t necessarily the culprit behind your mega-oily shine.

The bad news is that summer’s inescapable heat and humidity is.

In 2005, researchers studied the link between seasonal change and sebum production. What they found was that skin becomes statistically (and significantly) oilier in the summer months. They also found that skin types change with the seasons…but that’s another story.

Cause #6: Dehydrated Skin

Let’s be clear:

Oily skin is a skin type—it’s permanent.

Dehydrated skin is a skin condition—it’s transient.

Unlike oily skin which is characterized by an overproduction of (yep, you guessed it) oil, dehydrated skin is characterized by a lack of moisture.

When oily skin types suffer from dehydration, their skin overcompensates for moisture loss by seeping out even more oil.

So, if you’re oily af and you don’t know why, you may very well be dehydrated.

Tip #1: Just Say No To Bad Alcohol(s)

Before we get started, let’s get one thing straight:

Not all alcohols are evil.

Fatty alcohols (like cetearyl alcohol & stearyl alcohol) are actually emollients, making them moisturizing.

But, as you might have guessed from the title of this section, some alcohols do more harm than good.

While “bad” alcohol might minimize oil on contact, continued use can lead to things like irritation and dryness. And, when oily skin is dry and irritated, it’s liable to leach-out more oil.

Here’s a short list of “bad” alcohols to look out for:

  • Ethanol/Methanol
  • SD alcohol
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Alcohol (plain and simple)

Tip #2: Use Blotting Papers

No, this isn’t a treatment—not by any stretch of the imagination.

But sometimes you need a quick fix.

And blotting papers can do just that. Pressing them onto your skin can rid you of excess oil—without disturbing your makeup.

I can personally vouch for the Clean and Clear sheets. But there are a ton of other options, especially in the Asian Beauty world.

Pro tip: If you’re in a bind, lock yourself in a bathroom stall and blot your face with toilet seat covers. You’ll be oil-free. And no one will ever know how you got there.

Tip #3: Don’t Skimp On Sunscreen

I know what you’re thinking.

Sunscreen will make your skin look oilier.

And I can’t argue with that—some formulations aren’t made with us greaseballs in mind.

Regardless, it’s always important to layer it on + reapply it throughout the day.

One study, conducted on hamsters, found that UVB damage caused an increase in sebocyte production by over 100%. Considering that sebocytes are the cells that make-up sebaceous glands, their findings are kind of a big deal.

Aside from the sebocyte-conundrum, sun exposure can also lead to things like skin cancer, premature aging, and hyperpigmentation. So, you might want to consider adding sunscreen to your routine if you haven’t done so already.

Tip #4: Moisturize, Goddammit!

The thing is, oil and water (ahem, hydration) are two different beasts.

Your stratum corneum (your skin’s outermost layer) needs to be adequately hydrated in order to function properly. When it loses moisture (and becomes dehydrated), it’s unable to keep your skin protected from things like pollutants and bacteria.

After stripping your skin of its oils (like when you’re cleansing or toning), it’s always important to re-up your hydration game via a light-weight moisturizer.

And remember:

Moisturizers, specifically humectant-based ones, are your friends (not your foes).

Tip #5: More Products, More Problems

When you’re oily, you’ll try anything to make your skin look a little less greasy.

That includes:

  • Washing your face more than 2x a day
  • Using multiple actives in one routine
  • Scrubbing the heck out of your skin
  • Piling on extremely harsh products

All the points on the list above can actually give rise to dryness and irritation.

And you know what that means. Yep, more oil!

FYI: Salicylic acid and tretinoin (retinoids) are both superstar oil-slayers. But you shouldn’t mix them together—they’re way too harsh that way.

Tip #6: Don’t Touch

Touching your face is a big no-no for any skin type.

But, when you’re oily, it’s particularly troubling.

By spreading the dirt/sebum via your fingertips, you might trigger a breakout or two.

Treatment #1: Niacinamide + Zinc (The Oily Grail)

The users of Reddit’s /r/skincareaddiction have spoken:

The Ordinary’s Niacinamide + Zinc is the bee’s knees when it comes to treating oily skin.

And, in this case, the glowing reviews are backed-up by science.

Niacinamide:

According to a 2006 study published by the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy, topical applications of niacinamide in 2% cream formulations decreased oiliness in just 2 weeks.

Zinc:

Another double-blind study found that lotions containing 1.2% zinc hampered sebum secretion rates after just 3 weeks. And, at 12 weeks, oiliness was further reduced.

No wonder why Deciem (The Ordinary’s parent company) decided to put these two powerhouses together in one product.

Treatment #2: Salicylic Acid

A lot of you might recognize salicylic acid from your favorite acne products.

I’m glad to report that SA’s do more than just treat acne.

SA’s are lipophilic (oil-loving). Unlike their hydrophilic (water-loving) counterparts which work their magic on your skin’s surface layer, SA’s are able to penetrate deep into your pores to dissolve sebum.

Be careful: Products containing SA are notorious for drying the heck out of your skin, so go slow when adding these types of products into your routine.

Treatment #3: Topical Retinoids

Shout out to retinoids, my favorite skincare ingredients of all time!

Why are they so special?

They do two things better than anything else I’ve tried:

  • Clear away fine lines
  • Reduce oil production (and blackheads—hip-hip-hooray!)

And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

A 24-week study found that once-daily applications of tazarotene (0.1%) cream minimized pore size. While the association between pore size and sebum excretion isn’t clear, it’s reasonable to think that smaller pores excrete less oil.

Yet another 56-day study found that applications of adapalene decreased the amount of facial sebum after only 42 days. Again, it’s unclear why this is the case. But, I’m not going to argue with the study’s results.

Pro tip: Accompany your retinoids with a thick layer of sunscreen—ALWAYS.

Treatment #4: Green Tea

If you’re into “natural” skincare, green tea might be your savior.

One study shows that a 3% green tea emulsion reduced sebum by as much as 60% after 8 weeks of daily application. These researchers suggest that the linoleic acid within green tea can inhibit 5α-reductase, an enzyme present in sebaceous glands.

Some people (via Acne.org’s forum) even believe that drinking green tea can help with acne, oil production, and redness.

Treatment #5: See A Dermatologist

There’s only so much you can do.

And, if you’re truly suffering from the negative effects of oily skin, there’s no harm in seeking professional help.

Once a dermatologist properly examines your skin, they’ll provide you with a prescription-based plan-of-action (and lengthy explanation to boot).

To prep you on the probable outcomes of your visit, here are the five general modalities that your derm can suggest:

  1. Oral isotretinoin (Accutane)
  2. Anti-hormone medications (Spironolactone)
  3. Lasers
  4. Photodynamic therapy
  5. Prescription topicals (Retinol)

Ingredients To Avoid

Whatever you do, be gentle. There’s no use in investing in oodles of harsh products that’ll make your skin worse in the long run.

Below is a list of ingredients that you should generally steer clear from—some are drying, some are irritating, and the rest are pore clogging:

  • Fragrance
  • Bad Alcohols (of course!)
  • Menthol
  • Peppermint
  • Camphor
  • Isopropyl palmitate
  • Pure petrolatum (oily skin is slug-life incompatible)
  • Physical exfoliants

Oily Skin Routine

I’m going to be honest with you:

Building any type of skincare routine is never easy.

You usually have to trial-and-error your way through an army of products (and product combinations) until you hit the sweet spot. While it can be discouraging at the onset, it’ll be totally worth it when all is said and done.

MORNING

1. Cleanser

Despite what you may think, oil is not the enemy. You don’t need to strip it all away. In fact, feeling tight after cleansing usually indicates irritation. That’s why I recommend using gentle cleansers.

Product Rec’s:

2. Toner (optional)

You don’t necessarily need toner. And you should skip anything that contains drying alcohols and/or tingling menthols.

Witch hazel, in alcohol-free formulations, has received a lot of traction in the oily-skin community. Just be careful, twice daily use can be a bit drying.

Product Rec:

3. Treatment (optional)

Sure, you can skip this step as well. But this is your chance to add-in an active like niacinamide or azelaic acid or even a Vitamin C derivative.

Product Rec:

4. Moisturizer

Thick moisturizers usually don’t mesh well with oily skin types. Instead, use lightweight moisturizers and layer them as needed.

5. Sunscreen

Hands down, physical sunscreens are way better than chemical ones. Look out for zinc oxide + titanium dioxide formulations that don’t contain oils (or any other unnecessary pore-cloggers).

NIGHTTIME

1. Double Cleanse

Now, it’s time to wash off all that sunscreen, makeup, and pollution. With all that gunk on your face, it might be beneficial to go with the double cleanse method. The first step is meant to break-down the nasties and the second step is meant to wash it all away.

Step 1 Product Rec’s:

Step 2: Use your morning-time cleanser.

2. Treatment

If your skin can handle it, I definitely recommend using some kind of a retinoid. For the good stuff, you need a prescription, but adapalene is OTC-available.

Product Rec:

*Salicylic acid and retinoids are not friends. Don’t use them in the same routine.

3. Moisturizer

WEEKLY

1. Mask

Clay masks are both absorbent and adsorbent, which means they can slurp up impurities like a champ.

Real talk:

It’s best to introduce one product at a time to give your skin a chance to adjust to it (and to make sure your shiny, new product isn’t breaking you out).

Say It Loud, I’m Oily And Proud

It stings when people ask you why you’re sweating when you’re really in the middle of an oil-producing frenzy.

But, sit back, my friends.

The time will come when things will shift in our favor.

When all your dry-skinned cronies are dealing with wrinkles, you’ll bask in the glory of your (relatively) smooth skin.

No, there isn’t any research that proves the wrinkle debate. But, when I compare my mom (oily skin) to my aunt (dry skin), I see a world of difference.