What is sebum?
Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands. It protects, moisturizes and coats your skin.
It’s also the main ingredient in what you might think of as your body’s natural oils.
What exactly is sebum, you ask? As an article from Harvard Medical School explains, “sebum is a complex mixture of fatty acids, sugars, waxes, and other natural chemicals that form a protective barrier against water evaporation.”
To be more precise, sebum contains triglycerides fatty acids (57%), wax esters (26%), squalene (1%) and cholesterol (4.5%).
If your skin is very oily, it could be because your body produces too much of the mixture of fat-like molecules that make up sebum.
Of course, what we call “oil” on our skin is made up of more than just sebum. It also contains sweat, dead skin cells and small particles of just about anything else that is floating around.
Your entire body is covered in sebaceous cells. Although they’re often grouped around hair follicles, many exist independently.
The most glandular areas are the scalp and face. The highest concentration of glands is found on the face. It can have up to 900 per square centimeter.
Your shins, and other smooth surfaces, have less glands. The only areas with no glands are your palms and soles.
Each gland secretes its own sebum. To help you picture the process more clearly, it might be helpful to think of your tear ducts and the way they secrete your eyes’ natural moisture.
Although they are smaller than tear ducts and sebaceous glands, their functions are the same.
Sebum production is a complex process that scientists don’t fully understand.
However, scientists know that the primary function of this product is to protect your hair and skin against moisture loss.
Scientists believe that sebum could also be an antioxidant or antimicrobial agent. It could even release pheromones. These potential functions are still being explored.
Your overall sebum production is controlled by your androgens.
Your adrenal glands and your testes (ovaries and testes) produce very active androgens like testosterone.
These glands are, in turn, regulated by your brain’s pituitary gland. Your pituitary gland is in charge of your body’s entire endocrine (hormonal) system.
Your body could produce more sebum if your androgens are more active.
Although progesterone — a female-specific sex hormone — isn’t an androgen, it does appear to have an effect on sebum production.
Progesterone can reduce the effectiveness of enzyme 5 alpha-reductase. Sebum production can be activated by 5 alpha reductase
The theory is that high levels of progesterone could cause sebum production and decrease.
But that typically isn’t the case. Research has shown that sebum production actually increases when progesterone levels rise. It is important to continue investigating the reasons.
You might be surprised to learn that you begin to use your sebaceous glands before you’re even born.
Your womb’s sebaceous glands secrete vernix caseosa. This paste-like, white coating protects and moisturizes the skin up to birth.
Your sebaceous glands begin to produce sebum after you’re born.
For the first three to six months of life, your glands produce as much sebum as an adult’s. The rate of sebum production decreases as you get older, until you reach puberty.
Your sebum production can increase by up to 500% when you reach puberty. Sebum production in male adolescents is higher than that of female counterparts. This leads to acne-prone, oily skin.
Before you reach adulthood, your sebum production will be at its peak.
Although adult males produce slightly more sebum than adult females, everyone’s sebum production declines with age. This can lead to dry and cracked skin.
Your sebaceous glands can be affected by underlying conditions and medications.
This in turn affects how much sebum you glands produce.
Sebum production is often increased by hormones. This includes testosterone, progesterones and phenothiazine.
Parkinson’s disease has also been associated with an uptick in sebum production.
Pituitary, adrenal and ovarian conditions can all cause an increase or decrease of production.
Some birth control pills, antiandrogens and isotretinoin can decrease sebum production.
Also, a decrease in sebum output is associated with starvation or long-term malnutrition.
As stated previously, production can be affected by pituitary and adrenal conditions, ovarian and testicular conditions, as well as ovarian and testicular issues.
To treat excessive or insufficient sebum, creams, soaps and other topicals are common.
Although more research is needed, there’s some evidence to suggest that your diet can affect how much sebum your body makes. If you aren’t able to easily identify specific triggers, you may find it helpful to try an elimination diet.
Your doctor may recommend hormonal medication or supplements for severe cases. These will help to balance your body’s sebum production.
How to reduce oil production in oily skin and hair
Talk to your doctor about combination birth controls. Your sebum may be reduced by using a combination of estrogens and progestins.
If you’re already taking the progestin-only pill or a combination birth control pill, talk to your doctor about switching. Your doctor may recommend a different pill to meet your needs.
If you’re experiencing severe acne, your doctor may also prescribe isotretinoin. This oral medication could reduce your sebum production by as much as 90%.
Excessive oil production and acne have been linked to certain foods. You can reduce your oil production by avoiding foods high in saturated fat or blood sugar.
How to increase sebum production in dry hair and skin
If you’re dealing with dryness, take an inventory of the products you’re using on your skin and hair.
This includes shampoos, cleansers, makeup, laundry detergent — anything that comes into contact with your body.
All common ingredients that can cause irritation include alcohol, fragrances, and acids. You can switch to products that cater for sensitive skin or are fragrance-free if you’re able.
You can also switch from hot water to lukewarm. You can also damage your hair and skin by using too hot water.
And if you aren’t already using moisturizer on your face and lotion on your body, now is the time to start.
A good way to help is to increase your water intake and eat more healthy oils, such as omega 3s.
Talk to your doctor if you think that your lack sebum could be due to hormonal imbalances. You may be recommended testosterone therapy to increase your production.
Healthy skin requires sebum. It protects and moisturizes nearly every area of your skin.
But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, or too little. Everyone’s body is different, so there’s no exact amount to have.
If you’re dealing with chapped and cracking skin, oily patches, or severe acne, talk to a doctor or healthcare provider.
They might be able recommend things you can do to help restore your balance at home. They may be able prescribe medical treatments in some cases.