Help I Have Oily Skin! What Can I Do About It?

By Seppo | Acne basics

28

Most acne patients suffer from oily skin. Excess sebum produced by the skin causes clogged pores and acne – not to mention looking ugly. In this post I’ll share some scientifically proven remedies that can cut down sebum production by 50% or more.

Genes make acne-prone skin sensitive to hormones, and those hormones boost sebum production in the skin. Lucky for us science has given us effective treatments for oily skin. These include topical treatments that mitigate genetic sensitivities, and diet and lifestyle changes that reduce the levels of acne-causing hormones.

Brief intro into what causes oily skin

Let’s start by understanding the problem. In acne patients sebum production hinges on two things: genes and hormones. Genetics make acne-prone skin more sensitive to androgen hormones.

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These hormones then act on the skin and increase sebum production. What happens is that the skin converts free testosterone from the blood into much more potent DTH. DHT can be up to 10 times more potent on the skin than testosterone. This conversion happens through an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase, which is over-expressed in acne-prone skin, thanks to genetics!

As with acne, you have to attack oily skin from two sides. Topical treatments can reduce the effect of hormones, and with smart diet and lifestyle changes you can reduce the levels of these hormones.

Topical treatments

You can fight oily skin at the skin level with substances known as 5-alpha reductase inhibitors. These substances inhibit the enzyme 5-alpha reductase that increases the conversion of testosterone to DHT, and that way increase sebum production.

Here are some natural 5-alpha reductase inhibitors:

  • Green tea is perhaps the best one I know. In one study green tea lotion reduced sebum production by 70% after 8 weeks of use, see the green tea and acne page for more info. Unfortunately this study hasn’t been replicated, and that’s why we can’t say for sure yet.
  • Fatty acids. Quick search found several fatty acids that inhibit 5-alpha reductase. The most potent are gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) (found in evening primrose oil and many seed oils), alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3) and that lauric acid (in coconut oil) and oleic acid (in olive oil). Though many of these need to be confirmed by good quality human studies.
  • Minerals. Certain minerals can inhibit the enzyme. We have best evidence for zinc (addition of vitamin B6 and azelaic acid can increase inhibitory power). Other minerals that show promise are cadmium and copper.
  • Saw palmetto. There’s a lot of talk about saw palmetto at hair loss forums. It’s also been found moderately effective in a handful of studies. Hair loss is also linked to DHT and 5-alpha reductase, so what helps with hair loss could help with acne also.

Studies that measure effect on sebum production in humans

Most of the above mentioned studies are in vitro (test tube) studies. While useful many substances that show effect on test tube turn out to be useless in live humans. So let’s look at studies done on humans that measure sebum production.

Saw palmetto, sesame seed and argan oil combination

I already mentioned the study with green tea. Another study showed good reduction with cream containing saw palmetto, sesame seeds and argan oil. The study showed 20% reduction in overall sebum levels and 42% reduction in oily areas after 4 weeks. The green tea study showed similar results, and had they continued this study for another 4 weeks the results would have likely been better. In the green tea study the results really kicked-in after week 4.

When you look at the ingredients in the cream these results are not surprising. Argan oil is high in GLA, linolenic and oleic acids, sesame seeds contain GLA and saw palmetto itself is effective inhibitor.

Java tea extract

I also found a report of two studies using java tea (Orthosiphon stamineus) leaf extract. The paper says 2% java tea leaf extract reduced sebum more than formulation containing 1% zinc gluconate (ingredient frequently used in oily skin care products). Unfortunately I don’t have access to the full-text report and they didn’t mention percentage reductions in the abstract.

Conclusion on topical treatments

Because of genes acne-prone skin is extra sensitive to androgen hormones. You can mitigate this with topical treatments that contain 5-alpha reductase inhibitors. Some of the most promising are green tea extracts, gamma linolenic acid, saw palmetto and zinc. Studies have shown over 50% reduction with these ingredients.

As a disclaimer I have to mention that the evidence for these things is still fairly weak. Not too many human studies have been done, and even fewer have been replicated. So while these results are promising we should take them as preliminary.

Diet and lifestyle remedies for oily skin

You can also fight oily skin with diet and lifestyle changes that reduce the levels of acne-causing hormones. I covered this in detail in the hormonal acne page, so just a quick summary here. Sebum production is affected by hormones androgens, insulin and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

The best choice of action is to target insulin levels. Because IGF-1 follows insulin, and insulin and IGF-1 acts as androgen boosters (they stimulate androgen release from the liver and increase the effect androgens have on the skin). Since insulin follows blood sugar levels your goal is to maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Diet

Diet is perhaps the most important determinant of blood sugar and insulin levels. So let’s start with diet tips:

  • Eat balanced diet. Eating carbohydrates stimulates insulin release (as does eating protein but to a lesser degree). That’s why it’s important to somewhat limit carbohydrate intake. Studies show that ratio of 50/30/20 (50% of calories from carbohydrates, 30% from fat, and 20% from protein) is effective in reducing insulin and stabilizing blood sugar levels.
  • Low carbohydrate diets. Low carb diets are another way to go. They are effective but in my opinion unnecessary. The problem with low carb diets is that you have to eat a lot of fat to compensate for missing carbohydrates. This excess fat consumption causes insulin resistance, so when you eat carbohydrates your blood sugar and insulin levels go through the roof. So low carb diets work as long as you stick to them, but sticking to them can be a problem and cause a lot of stress and inconvenience. So they work, but not recommended in my books.
  • Focus on complex carbohydrates. Not only the quantity but also the type of carbohydrates matters. Eating carbs with high glycemic index (GI), such as sugars and processed (white) grains, increase insulin levels much more than complex, unprocessed carbohydrates. So focus on whole grains, beans, brown rice and other complex carbohydrates. Use glycemic index as guideline.
  • Moderate saturated fat intake, avoid trans-fats. When it comes to fats causing insulin resistance trans-fats are the worst. That’s a reason alone to avoid them as much as possible. When eaten in excess saturated fats can also cause insulin resistance. As far as possible limit saturated fat intake to 10% of total calories.

Other lifestyle factors

How you live your life also affects insulin levels. Pay attention to these things:

  • Sleep enough. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause insulin resistance. So make sure you get your sleep.
  • Manage stress. Stress is another proven factor behind insulin resistance and high insulin levels. Do your best to manage stress. One way is to listen to relaxation or meditation CDs. 15 to 20 minutes a day can make a big difference on your stress levels and skin.
  • Exercise and weight loss. If you carry extra weight do your best to drop it. Being overweight is perhaps the most important cause of insulin resistance. Consequently, pretty much all studies show that regular exercise reduces insulin resistance and insulin levels.

Conclusion

Oily skin is just one of the struggles we acne patients have to go through. Not only oily skin causes blocked pores and acne but it also looks ugly and feels nasty. It’s caused by combination of genes and hormones. Luckily science has uncovered effective remedies for oily skin.

Topical treatments can mitigate genetic sensitivity to hormones. Studies have shown over 50% reductions in sebum production after 8 weeks of topical treatment. Some effective remedies include green tea extracts, gamma linolenic acid, saw palmetto and zinc.

You can also reduce the levels of hormones that put the skin glands into overdrive. One way is to moderate carbohydrate intake and focus on low GI, complex carbohydrates. Regular exercise, proper sleep, and stress management also helps.

There’s no getting over the fact that as acne patients we were dealt a bad hand in the genetic lottery, and oily skin is one of the consequences. But you don’t have to remain a victim of your genes. By putting into action the tips covered in this article you can take a big step towards healthy and beautiful skin.

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About the Author

Seppo Puusa, a.k.a. AcneEinstein shares rational advice about natural and alternative acne treatments. Read more about me and my acne struggles at the page.

Leave a Comment:

(28) comments

Kim August 6, 2012

Hello Seppo,
Thanks for all of this researched advice..
Ihave you ever tried the oil cleaning method? I was wondering what are your thoughts on this?
I currently am using the actual alie vera plant leaf juice, i apply this after steaming my face and then rub in grapeseed oul and then wash it all off w warm water.. Not sure if this is correct way?
Any tips.. Thanks

Reply
    Seppo August 7, 2012

    I’ve tried the oil cleansing method a few times, but it was so much hassle that I wasn’t consistent with it. So I can’t say much from my own experience.

    That said, I think the method is plausible. Not for any ‘detox’ or cleansing reasons though. There are differences in sebum composition between acne patients and those with clear skin. Acne patients are usually deficient in linoleic acid. And many oils used in the OCM are high in linoleic acid.

    Also, many fatty acids are DHT blockers. Gamma linolenic acid is quite potent. So using borage or evening primrose oil in OCM might reduce sebum production.

    I can’t really comment on whether you are doing it right or not. I’m by no means an expert on the subject.

    Hope this helps!

    Reply
daz September 22, 2012

Hi Seppo, great post, thx.
noticed a couple of typos;
you are getting some of linolenic’s & linoleic’s mixed up;
it’s gamma-linolenic acid (not gamma-linoleic acid), mentioned 4 times (1 in comments).
& it’s alpha-linolenic acid (not alpha-linoleic acid).
& you also mention just ‘linoleic acid’ twice in your comment above, not sure if you meant alpha-linolenic acid (ALA o3) or linoleic acid (LA o6) in that instance?

Reply
bob October 22, 2013

To anyone reading this guys article,

Inhibiting 5 alpha reductase and thus reducing DHT is a dangerous practice. Anyone who says to reduce this hormone (who is crucial for sexual performance of men, and is a far more potent hormone than testosterone) has no clue what he is talking about.

To all of you reading this and thinking about starting saw palmetto or something similar, first browse the internet for some examples of people who had severe side effects because of it. This “innocent” herb ruined their lives. This “innocent” herb is banned is some European country (can’t remember it’s name). Ask yourself, why would a country ban a herb? Google saw palmetto side effects. I might just save some of you from having your lives ruined(some might not get side effects, but there is evidence that the longer you take such an inhibitor, the higher the chance of getting the sides). This is no joke.

And to the author of this article, I have nothing against you personally. But please educate yourself more in-depth on the dangers of inhibiting this INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT enzyme. Google what happens to boys who are born with a 5 alpha deficiency.

To everyone: if none of this convinces you, go on propeciahelp and see the effects of finasteride, a powerful prescription drug that blocks DHT.. I promise you, browse one hour on that forum, and you won’t touch saw palmetto with a ten foot pole. Saw palmetto has had the same effects on some people that finasteride had. Drug companies lie about the number of afflicted victims. Do you want to be one of them?

I know that acne sucks, I have it myself. But trust me, permanently ruining your health and be on the verge of suicide like many victims of these inhibitors are… Nobody would trade having a good skin for that. You don’t know how good having a good health is until you lose it.. There are other ways of battling acne, safer ways. Trust me

Your welcome

Reply
    Seppo October 23, 2013

    Thanks for your comment, Bob.

    I do agree with you that one should not take systemic 5-AR inhibitors without a valid reason for doing so. And if you read the article, I never suggested them. In fact, I don’t even believe they are helpful in acne since in acne increased 5-AR enzyme activity happens mostly in the skin. That’s why I advocate the use of topical 5-AR inhibitors – not systemic.

    Reply
Renata November 30, 2013

Hi Seppo,

Very interesting article! I am wondering what do you think of these two skin care brands:
Aknicare: http://www.aknicare.co.uk/how.php
Clearogen: http://www.clearogen.com/ingredients.html

They both use fatty acids in their creams/lotions to bloke DHT conversion in the skin and I think Clearogen includes saw palmetto too. Do you think it would be better to use them, or do you still recommend Exposed with the green tea?

Thanks!

Renata

Reply
    Seppo December 2, 2013

    Both of those products look like decent options. It’s hard to say how they compare to Exposed, but you would probably do well with any of them.

    Reply
      Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 2, 2014

      I actually ordered a Clearogen bottle with Saw palmetto and with sulfur. I chose it instead of Benzoyl peroxide because my skin had an allergic reaction to it. That being said, I’m curious to see how the Saw palmetto cream is going to work. It contains Green tea as well.

      The clearogen creams are mostly design to prevent DHT conversion, that’s what the website states, in fact that’s what they’re after compared to other websites focusing on Benzoyl peroxide and such. So… perhaps the cream contain a lot of DHT blocker ingredients? I’ll report back once I start using it.

      Reply
        Seppo March 3, 2014

        Please keep us posted on your progress.

        Reply
Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 8, 2014

Hey Sep! I received my lotion last night and I used it. And I noticed that my skin was quite less oilier than usually. I know that it usually takes 4 weeks to see some real results, but my skin wasn’t an oil sleek when I woke up! There was a very thin layer on it, in fact my skin was quite ”normal” I added the acne lotion (without benzoyl peroxide but with Sulfur instead) To my morning regimen. It’s quite a hassle to use 2 lotions, the clearogen one and the Sunscreen/Antioxidants one

Reply
    Seppo March 9, 2014

    Sounds great. I hope it keeps working for you!

    Reply
      Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 9, 2014

      Yes i’ll keep you updated after a few weeks to talk about my results.

      Reply
      Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 9, 2014

      By the way I forgot to mention but the lotion contains fatty acids like Gamma Linolenic acid (GLA), Alpha Linolenic acid (ALA), Linoleic Acid, Oleic Acid + Saw palmetto AND Green tea.. So it does have some DHT blocking effect for sure!

      Reply
        Seppo March 10, 2014

        Yep, it looks like a promising product. Though I’m not so sure about saw palmetto. If I remember correctly, and I could be wrong about this, I think saw palmetto inhibits the wrong 5-alpha reductase enzyme (5-AR). There are, at least, 2 types of 5-AR. One is relevant when it comes to DHT blocking in the skin and another one when it comes to DHT production in the prostate. I think saw palmetto inhibits the prostate type 5-AR and may have no effect on the type found in the skin. There’s also a potential concern that topically applied 5-AR inhibitors get into systemic circulation and cause systemic effects. I recently read a case study where a spray containing tea tree oil and lavender caused man boobs in pre-teen boys. So I wouldn’t go overboard with those things.

        Reply
          Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 10, 2014

          On this website you can read about the ingredients that they’re using in their formulas

          http://www.clearogen.com/ingredients.html

          And on their united kingdom websites you can read about them and they’re associated by 3 case studies.

          http://clearogen.co.uk/publication.html

          Reply
          Seppo March 11, 2014

          Did you read the study where they actually tested Clearogen against 5% BP? I don’t mean to sound dismissive but their own results show the product doesn’t work very well. Neither BP nor Clearogen groups showed much of a reduction in pimple count in the study. Most studies on topical treatments I’ve read show about 50% reduction in pimple count. The Clearogen study showed only 10 to 20% reduction. Neither there was much of a difference in sebum output between Clearogen and BP groups. They put a mighty spin on the results in the text but if you look at the numbers you’ll see they are very underwhelming.

          I’m not saying the product doesn’t work. It probably does and the formulation looks promising. Anyway, what’s most important is how it works for you. So if you feel you are getting results then you should keep at it.

          Reply
          Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 11, 2014

          Hmm.. That’s interesting. I’m not using the BP lotion since my skin doesn’t really work well with it. I’m using the sulfur lotion and I can tell that my sebum reduction is slightly reduced.

          That being said, my skin isn’t oily slick. It’s a combination between normal/oily. And at this point I’m only applying the lotion where my skin tends to be really oily as my skin is dry/normal in some areas.

          Reply
Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 10, 2014

With that being said, I said in another post that I’m going to use this every other day because it can be slightly drying for my skin at the moment.

Reply
    Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 10, 2014

    On a last note, I think someone would have put up a review on clearogen claiming that they started getting man boobs. I can’t find any reviews that claim something like this so far but I’ll keep my eyes open for one.

    Reply
      Seppo March 11, 2014

      How many would make the connection between man boobs and topical acne treatment? Very few, I think. Anyway, I just mentioned it as a possibility since I saw a case report of topical tea tree and lavender oil causing man boobs in pre-teen boys.

      Reply
        Adel-Alexander Aldilemi March 11, 2014

        Well.. I’ll keep this in mind if I start noticing my boobs hanging a bit low

        Reply
Tree Flower March 31, 2014

Good advice. I can also add using colorless powder. It really makes a difference. You can use regular powder as well, but as a color cosmetic it should be chosen according to your skin tone and that can be difficult. Plus, not everyone wants to use makeup and you can use colorless powder both after applying foundation / BB cream or on a bare face. It looks white but it doesn’t make your face white. Guys can use it too (it doesn’t look like makeup, actually, it is not noticeable at all) and if you don’t feel comfortable going to a drugstore to buy it you can always order online. Give it a try if you don’t want your face to glow.

Reply
Pius Bachmann October 25, 2014

Hi Seppo,

Your website is an amazing resource! For years, I ate a large amount of refined carbs and dairy while having very oily skin. Your website opened my eyes. I’ve used many of your recommendations in my new diet for the past month.

I’m wondering: How long does it take to see improvements in oily skin using diet? I’ve heard that hormones can take 3 to 6 months to settle down.

Reply
    Seppo Puusa October 27, 2014

    Glad to hear you guys like the site :)

    Oiliness is one of the hardest aspects of acne to treat. Insulin and hormones may indeed increase sebum production for some people, but I don’t think one could say it’s universally true.

    There’s some research to show something like 70% of variability in how much oil the skin produces is controlled by genes. That’s why I’m not too surprised when people say dietary improvements cleared their acne but didn’t reduce sebum production. Again, I’m sure it helps some people, just not everybody.

    Sebum production also depends a lot on environmental conditions. In hot and humid climate your skin likely produces much more oil than in a cooler climate.

    All this is to say that sebum production is a complicated issue and there probably are no simple and reliable solutions to it. By all means reduce carb and dairy intake. This will most likely help your skin, just don’t be too surprised if your skin still produces a lot of oil. I’d say give it 4 to 8 weeks to see what happens.

    I do think green tea and other topical treatments are a better option for oily skin. Botox should also work, if you are willing to do that far.

    If none of these work for you, then just learn to live with it. Oily skin is annoying, but it’s not like it’s a crippling problem. In my opinion it’s far easier to accept that some things we just can’t change and then learn to live with them. And if oily skin causes a lot of emotional pain, then the root problem is likely some emotional issue that triggers such a strong reaction.

    And if you have extremely oily skin, then you might want to talk to a dermatologist about low dose Accutane.

    Reply
Renata October 25, 2014

Totally agree, this website is a godsend, learned so much from it and found it incredibly useful as everything is backed up by studies, no random claims! Thanks Seppo for creating this incredible resource!

Moving to the question, I know the question is directed to Seppo, so I hope you don’t mind sharing my own experience. After quitting dairy and reducing easily digestible carbs, the oiliness never reduced for me personally, but the acne did (I have incredibly oily skin and scalp). The biggest impact was from quitting cheese, ice cream, cream and all fatty dairy. Sugar and crisps was a big acne culprit too, but it’s much harder to resist, so I have them in moderate amounts. I use EpiDuo gel (it’s a mix of BP and retinoid) alongside the diet and it keeps the majority of acne at bay, but even with EpiDuo if I eat pizza or ice cream, I get breakouts, and when I don’t eat dairy – acne is very minimal. Hope that helped.

Reply
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