Sebum, the oily substance we grow to loathe as teenagers, plays an all-important role in our skin’s health and vitality. However, there is an almost 100% chance you have experienced the skin issues that come with extra-oily skin. In this post, we debate the issue of sebum – is it just a slick friend or actually an oily nuisance?
WHAT IS SEBUM?
Sebum is composed of a complex combination of lipids (glycerine and free fatty acids), wax esters, and a small percentage of cholesterol. It is produced by our sebaceous glands, which exist on our entire bodies with the exception of the palms of our hands, the soles of our feet, and our lower lip. These sebaceous glands are attached to hair follicles (which we have in abundance, visible or not). The highest concentrations can be found in our face – but are also highly concentrated in our scalp, chest, and back.
Sebum production is regulated by hormones, particularly androgens (make sex hormones, particularly testosterone). The size of these glands, and the amount of their production, are largely influenced by genetics. Hence, if your parents had oily skin causing acne in their teens – there is a likelihood that you had it as well.
THE ROLE OF SEBUM
Despite its reputation for ruining high school yearbook photos, sebum actually has numerous roles in maintaining the health of the skin (when produced at balanced levels).
- Hydration – Sebum works to seal in moisture and prevent transepidermal water loss.
- Antibacterial/Antifungal Protection – The slightly higher acidity found in sebum defends against bacteria and other microbes.
- UV Protection – Although not a replacement for sunscreen, the squalene found in sebum does provide some UV protection.
- Detoxification – May contribute to heart health as it helps the body eliminate excess cholesterol and lipids.
WHEN DOES IT BECOME AN ISSUE?
The issues that arise with sebum mainly come from overproduction caused by imbalanced hormones or other factors such as skincare habits and diet. The symptoms of sebum overproduction can manifest in acne (at any age) and visibly oily skin (which can further complicate a skincare routine). Although rare, excess sebum may also cause inflammation or, more seriously, dermatitis which can cause itchy, flaky skin.
On the other hand, underproduction is caused naturally by the aging process, which is why dry skin can be more problematic with age. However, it can be worsened with harsh chemicals found in many drying cleansers, creams, and prescription medications such as tretinoin.
Sebum evidently has a very important role in overall skin health and vitality. Without it, we would be denying our skin its protective benefits, in addition to the anti-aging benefits due to its ability to seal in moisture. For these reasons, our verdict is FRIEND.
However, this is the type of friend you will want to keep our eye on!