woman with a natural, healthy glow

As my skin has become somewhat oily, I’ve become more interested in the causes of oil and the best ways to handle it. When I started to dig deep, I discovered that most of what I thought I knew was wrong, and I had been on a slippery slope of exacerbating the problem. Let’s start with some insights into oily skin, as well as some surprising dos and don’ts.

Did you know that air pollution causes skin to become oily? The skin treats toxins in the air as irritants that need to be flushed out by producing sebum (the secretion from the sebaceous glands that we colloquially refer to as oil). Hormones can also be a culprit, including DHT and hormone surges around pregnancy, puberty, menopause, and menstruation.

Here’s where things get extra tricky: Treating oily skin with harsh exfoliants, scrubs, cleansers and some anti-aging products can make matters worse. For example, retinol — unless properly buffered by other ingredients — dries up sebum. Cells then desperately try to make new sebum to compensate, resulting in overworked skin that goes through a cycle of dry-oily-dry-oily. 

But this doesn’t mean you should avoid exfoliators altogether; on the contrary, exfoliation is very important. When your body produces an excess amount of sebum and dead skin cells, the two can build up in the hair follicles. Together they form a soft plug, creating an environment where bacteria thrive. If the clogged pore becomes infected with bacteria, inflammation and blemishes occur.

It’s important to remember that we don’t want to eliminate sebum — the right amount is vital for maintaining the protective acid mantle. We want to control it. So it’s really a question of choosing the right products. With all this in mind, here are my Five Best picks for oily skin types. 

  • Dr. Dennis Gross Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask

    Dr. Dennis Gross Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask ($42 in the shop). You don’t need blemishes to benefit from this sulfur and clay mask. Both of these ingredients will blot slick skin. Sulfur is the true star by reducing the activity of oil glands and dissolving dead cells on the skin’s surface. And while sulfur and clay sound like a mess, this overnight treatment is more like a light cream. Another useful ingredient is licorice, in which there is a molecule licochalcone that helps control oil production and soothe acne-prone skin.
  • I Pekar Moisturizer

    I Pekar Moisturizer ($78 in the shop). This moisturizer is a good choice for a host of reasons. If the body has a shortage of coenzyme-A it will allow lipids to accumulate in the sebaceous glands, resulting in increased sebum excretion. How does the coenzyme-A deficiency come about? A shortage of pantothenic acid, or vitamin B5. I Pekar has pro vitamin B5, plus collagen-boosting peptides and raw honey, which has antibacterial properties. Although a rich cream, it is not at all greasy and my oily skin does very well with it.
  • Skinfinite Platinum PM Cream 1% Retinol

    Skinfinite Platinum PM Cream 1% Retinol ($79 in the shop). The long-living, desert-dwelling creosote bush produces something called nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA). This compound is known to be an antioxidant, a possible cure for acne and it may be able to shut down sebum production by over 50 percent. Skinfinite’s night cream has NDGA, as well as retinol at 1 percent. The well-balanced formula will control sebum without being too drying, thanks to hyaluronic acid and shea butter.
  • Your Best Face Defend Daytime Treatment

    Your Best Face Defend Daytime Treatment ($130 in the shop). Studies have shown that turmeric root extract helps control sebum production. This may be due to the fatty acids and steroids in curcuminoids. Turmeric is also a useful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Your Best Face Defend is a cleverly thought out day cream that features, amongst other interesting things, turmeric. Some of the other ingredients that are more than worthy of a shout out are a peptide that protects against future UV damage, called preventhalia, and another that regulates all sorts of cell activities. I find this an essential addition to my daily regimen.
  • Sevani Serum Vitale Essential Nutrient Oil

    Sevani Serum Vitale Essential Nutrient Oil ($65 in the shop). Who says that facial oils are the enemy of oily skin? Certainly that’s the conventional wisdom and it is true that some oils are, well oily. However, well-chosen oil can actually be very helpful. Argan oil has lignans that reduce sebum. In one clinical study, argan oil and saw palmetto reduced sebum by 20 percent. Sevani’s Serum Vitale feels luxuriant and rich without leaving a slick residue. The formula is focused around fatty acids with oils that include rose hip, olive, sea buckthorn and argan.