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Sebum? Oil? What's The Difference?

Sebum? Oil? What's The Difference?


    If you’re an oily skin individual, then you may find the sebum/oil on your face a bit annoying. After all, you want to look glowy and dewy, not greasy.

    But whether you like it or not, sebum plays a crucial role in your skin barrier function. And if you attempt to get rid of it (FYI: you can’t) by using harsh products, you may end up disrupting the entire protective function of your skin, leading to a plethora of not-so-pretty issues.

    That being said, it is possible to keep the sebum and oil on your skin under control.

    But in order to discuss that, you must clearly understand the difference between sebum and oil. Even though these two terms tend to be used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. In fact, according to our recent survey on Instagram, when asked “Do you know the difference between sebum and oil?” 76% of our respondents answered with “not really.” This shows that most people are not aware of the true definition of sebum (can’t blame you there)!

    To put it simply, sebum is just one component of the oil on your skin. Oil is more encompassing, being a mixture of sebum, sweat and other buildups that end up on your skin.

    So what is sebum? Where does it come from? What does it do? And why is it so important to our skin barrier? Let’s discuss!

    What is sebum?

    Here’s the basic definition: Sebum is a concoction of fatty acids, sugars, waxes, cholesterol and other natural substances that form a protective layer on your skin. To be more precise, this mixture is composed of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene and free fatty acids. The main purpose of this layer is to prevent transepidermal water loss from occurring too rapidly, leading to dry, dehydrated and flaky skin.

    You can think of oil as sebum with some extras. Aside from being composed of sebum, oil also contains sweat, dead skin cells and other environmental impurities, such as dust.

    So basically, oil is made up of sebum, among other things, while sebum is just one factor that makes up oil.

    How does our skin create sebum?

    If you’re an avid skincare lover, you may have heard of sebaceous filaments. They're those tiny black dots on your nose that look like blackheads, but aren’t actually blackheads?

    Basically, sebaceous filaments are the “tubes” that allow sebum to be transferred to the pores. And these filaments receive the sebum from the sebaceous glands that are underneath our pores. The sebaceous glands are what actually produce sebum. They are considered exocrine glands, meaning they deposit the sebum directly onto our skin’s surface, similar to sweat glands, mammary glands and tear ducts.

    Sebaceous glands actually cover the entirety of the skin on our bodies, and not just the skin on our faces. They're separated into those that connect to our hair follicles and those that do not. 

    The ones that connect to our hair follicles can also be referred to as sebaceous follicles and they are mostly found on our faces, behind our ears, on our chests and also on our backs. Particularly, you’ll find most of our facial sebaceous glands congregating around the T-zone. This is why you tend to be more oily in this area, which also makes it more acne-prone.

    Why does our skin need sebum?

    The quest to control excess oiliness and shine can be challenging. However, as we’ve briefly mentioned, sebum is a crucial component of our overall skin health. Without it, your skin could become very problematic. 

    Sebum acts as a protective layer, helping to prevent foreign substances from easily entering your skin and potentially causing havoc. Sebum also helps to maintain essential hydration levels by acting as an occlusive layer and preventing your skin’s water content from evaporating too rapidly through transepidermal water loss. 

    And here’s a lesser-known benefit of sebum: Thanks to its pH level and squalene component, sebum also has natural anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties.  

    As it turns out, sebum is slightly acidic, being a 4.5-6.0 on the pH scale. This helps to defend against certain types of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes. On the same note, the slightly acidic pH of sebum also creates an optimal environment for your skin microbiome to thrive. And if you’re not aware, the skin microbiome, or skin flora, is a complex ecosystem of thousands of microorganisms with over 1,000 different types of bacteria and up to 80 different types of fungi. And a happy skin microbiome equals happy, healthy skin!

    So basically, sebum has a dual function of keeping foreign, harmful microbes out, while keeping the natural microbes on our skin happy and healthy.

    Now, let’s talk about squalene.

    It’s one of the main components of our skin’s sebum that is naturally produced by the body. In fact, sebum is made up of about 13% of squalene. It’s been recorded to increase your skin’s resistance to sunburn and UV damage (although it still doesn’t replace your methods of sun protection). Squalene does have certain antioxidant properties, which protect your skin from skin-damaging free radical molecules that occur daily from environmental exposures. 

    However, the not-so-ideal thing is, once it becomes oxidized, squalene might be a strong acne trigger. Plus, as we’ve mentioned, sebum can also turn into oil once it’s been contaminated with other impurities, leading to clogged pores. The combination of oxidized squalene, also known as squalene peroxide, and clogged pores is a recipe for a breakout disaster.

    How does sebum production change throughout life?

    As you age, your body goes through many different changes. 

    For example, once you’ve entered your 40s or 50s, you may find that your skin becomes thinner, has more fine lines and wrinkles and is more prone to dryness. This is because the production of the substances that make up our skin (collagen, elastin, ceramides and hyaluronic acid) naturally slow down as we get older. 

    Another thing that affects sebum production is hormone levels. When we’re younger, think babies, our skin tends to overproduce and make an abundance of sebum. In some cases, this can even lead to a condition called seborrheic dermatitis (also known as cradle cap), which is a condition where red and oily patches appear on the skin, seemingly caused by an overproduction of sebum and a type of yeast called Malassezia. 

    This period of overproduced sebum slowly declines until we hit puberty and then it spikes again! This is why most people tend to suffer from acne breakouts as teenagers. Once we’ve gone through adolescence, our skin’s sebum production tends to become more manageable and steady until mid-adulthood. When we enter our 30s, sebum production starts to naturally decline again, contributing to drier and flakier skin. 

    Since women’s hormones are more prone to fluctuation, our skin’s sebum production also changes more often.

    For example, during a woman’s monthly cycle, her skin is affected by estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These hormone levels increase and decrease throughout the menstrual cycle, which can affect the amount of sebum produced. Or if a woman is entering menopause, her body will naturally make less of the estrogen and progesterone hormones. Thus, sebum production will also decrease. The results of these changes can range from a weakened skin barrier to breakouts!

    What happens when the skin makes too much or too little sebum?

    Just like with anything in life, balance is key. Having too much or too little sebum can cause our skin to act up.

    Case in point, if your skin produces too much sebum, it can lead to acne and breakouts. It could also lead to several skin conditions. One such example is a sebaceous hyperplasia. This condition occurs when excess sebum is trapped in our sebaceous glands, causing them to enlarge, leading to unsightly shiny bumps on the skin. While harmless, their appearances could still concern some people. Another example is seborrheic dermatitis. We’ve briefly mentioned it earlier, but this condition can affect adults and not just babies.

    So if having too much sebum is problematic, then people whose skin doesn’t produce much sebum are saved from a ton of troubles, right?

    Well, not really.

    Again, balance really is key. Having too little sebum means that your skin is prone to dryness and dehydration. And when your skin is dehydrated it tends to be flaky. Plus, fine lines and wrinkles are more visible since there’s no moisture to fill in those creases and keep them plump. Not enough sebum could also be a factor in some skin disorders, such as eczema, which signifies an impaired skin barrier function.

    How do you control excess sebum?

    Based on the same survey we did on Instagram, it seems that excessively oily skin is something that many of you are dealing with.

    In fact, as a follow-up question, we asked our audience “Is controlling excess sebum something you want to achieve with your skincare routine?” and 60% of our respondents answered “for sure!” 

    So, here are a few tips for controlling excess sebum:

    1. Double cleanse: For individuals with oily skin, it’s incredibly easy for sebum and oil to get trapped in their pores. This is why Ingrid and I are huge advocates for double cleansing, as this method can help you to get rid of the excess sebum trapped in your pores.

    This is especially important during warmer weather or if you’re someone who wears makeup regularly. Anyone can double cleanse whenever they think they need to. With oily skin, it becomes necessary when the skin starts to produce more sebum.

    Here’s a more intensive guide to double-cleansing. I recommend using something like our Aloe Milk Cleanser as your first step and then following up with our Face Foam for your second cleanse.

    Bottle of Aloe Milk Cleanser with sliced citrus in the background

    2. Exfoliate: Aside from double cleansing, exfoliating can also help you to get rid of excess sebum in your pores. I recommend using an oil-soluble exfoliant such as salicylic acid. Since it is oil-soluble, it can penetrate underneath the surface of your skin and clear out all the sebum and other impurities within your pores. If you’re looking for some options, our Face Foam is formulated with natural BHA from willow bark extract to gently cleanse and exfoliate your skin.

    Bottle of Face Foam with apples in the background

    Pro Tip: Leave Face Foam on your skin for 5-10 minutes as a mask. This gives the active ingredients in the product more time to work their magic.

    A physical exfoliant could also work if you’re someone who prefers to feel your skin being scrubbed. In this case, I recommend using our Bamboo Charcoal Sponge. It’s infused with activated charcoal to help absorb the impurities from your skin.

    Bamboo Charcoal Sponge beside pile of charcoal powder

    3. Use a clay mask: This is one of my favourite things to do to take care of my skin! I love using clay masks for two reasons. One, it forces me to slow down and take some much-needed time to myself, giving me the self-care that I need. As a business owner, this is especially important. Two, applying a clay mask to your face can help draw excess sebum and other impurities out of your pores. If your skin tends to produce extra sebum, regular application of clay masks can really help to balance out your skin. 

    I recommend applying a kaolin clay mask once or twice a week!

    Final Words 

    Sebum is a natural component of the skin. It makes up part of your skin barrier function and is crucial for your skin health. 

    Throughout your life, sebum production will vary depending on several factors, the biggest one being your hormone levels. This is why it’s important to listen to your skin and understand what it needs. Only then can you start to create a routine that fits your skin needs!

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    Image Credits

    Credit for main image: Ron Lach

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