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Why does your skin get so oily?

Violence in the Middle East. Child immigrants crossing into the US from Mexico. Ben Affleck as Batman.

If I asked you to name the day’s most controversial issue you might have guessed one of the above. However, you would have been wrong.  Apparently nothing is as contentious as what controls oil production on your skin.

In a previous post on oily skin I reported on a 1974 study which indicated that the presence of oil on the skin’s surface sends a signal to the sebaceous glands to turn off. One astute reader, Kiera, was quick to point out that the study I cited is “old” and that the most comprehensive view of the literature confirms that skin does NOT have an external mechanism for regulating the level of sebum on the skin. More comments followed:

Lejla: “That study is old and has been falsified.”

Lyn: “Are the authors going to respond? Is the content of this post accurate or not?”

Ahj: “I also am very interested why Beauty Brains quote such a controversial study without further comments.”

Whew! Who knew this was such a touchy topic?

Why sebum production is so confusing

The controversy stems (at least in part) from the opinion of renowned dermatologist Albert Kligman who refuted this so called “Feedback Theory” in 1958. Kligman (and coauthor Shelly) said that “the sebaceous gland functions continuously, without regard to what is on the surface.” Yet, the theory once more gained credence in 1974 based on a paper titled “The regulation of sebum excretion in man.” (No word on how sebum is excreted in women.)

But *gulp* in 1976 the Feedback Theory was refuted again and there it stayed until new data became available in 1979.  In the 1979 study, researchers found, after controlling as many variables as possible, that the excretion process does indeed slow down over time. If you read the paper you can see for yourself that the authors refuted arguments against the Feedback Theory which include:

  • A wiping off effect
  • A “run off” of sebum
  • A resorption of sebum and changes in the physical property of sebum

They conclude by saying that “the Feedback Theory should not be too lightly dismissed.”

In 1981 the Feedback Theory deniers made a good case by reinforcing Kligman’s objections (“Sebum secretion and sebaceous lipids.” Dermatologic Clinics, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1983.) I couldn’t find any more recent studies so I assume that the controversy rages on. (Of course I may have missed something so I welcome our readers to poke around in the literature for more recent studies which may trump this one.)

So is there an answer or not?

Could the answer to this controversy be a question of language? When Kligman raised his initial objections he used the term “secretion” which can mean either production or excretion. The authors of the 1979 study were careful to point out that they only studied the excretion of sebum (in other words the “arrival of sebum at the surface of skin.”) This is not necessarily exactly the same as sebum production which is the creation of sebum by sebaceous glands. So, could both parties be right? Maybe the sebaceous glands are unregulated (as Kligman says) but the mechanism by which the sebum reaches the skin’s surface IS regulated by some kind of feed back loop.  Without further data, that’s my best guess and I hope it satisfies the hordes of passionate readers.

Is the Excretion of Sebum Regulated ? H. Eberhardt and G. Trieb Arch. Dermatol. Res 266, 127-133 (1979)



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • one-time-visitor December 16, 2014, 3:09 am

    This is my first and last visit to this website. What a waste of time! I’m sorry I accidentally stumbled upon this. The author of this article is just a master of snark rather than a reliable source of usable, understandable science-based information to help consumers make educated choices about cosmetic products. The level of medical literature searching skills demonstrated in this article is embarrassing. There is abundant, recent literature on clinical studies related to sebum production/excretion, and why a couple of articles from the 70s and early 80s were cherry-picked by this website to make a case for its response to a reader is highly disappointing and unprofessional (I’ve seen high school students conduct stronger reviews of the scientific literature. Asking your readers to “poke around in the literature” for more recent information and do your work for you was a particularly cringe-worthy highlight from this “helpful” post.) And yes, for those of us who have spent most of our lives suffering from oily, acne-prone skin (and not to mention spending too much $$$ on dermatologists with little or no and sometimes even harmful results), this is an issue that affects us everyday and we care deeply about. Clearly, this is not the site to come to for summaries of RECENT (or even the most significant) scientific findings for this topic.

    • Randy Schueller December 16, 2014, 10:57 am

      OTV: I’m sorry that you found our article so disappointing. We’re always willing to learn from the latest data and if you could point us to some of the recent clinical studies that you mentioned we’ll update the article. Thanks.

    • Bard September 27, 2016, 8:12 pm

      @one-time-visitor You are not helpful at all. The beauty brains is one of the few beauty websites where the authors are actually knowledgeable in the field and have studies to back up their information. Most beauty blogs now a days go on what’s trending and what celebs are doing without even mentioning any kind of research.

  • Pilgrim September 27, 2015, 9:04 pm

    Randy, excellent and refined response to OTV.

    when i saw the topic line, i thought the answer would be – HORMONES!

    as a teen, i had the super oily skin. the three years i was on birth control pills saw the acne go away. as i get older the skin changes and not necessarily in a bad way either.

    also thought the discussion would debunk the notion that chocolate gave one pimples. that must have been an old wives tale to get children to not eat chocolate.

    • Randy Schueller September 29, 2015, 8:21 am

      Thanks! (This job isn’t always easy…)