As a teen and young adult I suffered greatly from excess oiliness and acne—it was not a fun time. Back then, I did all the things you shouldn’t do when you struggle with oiliness: washed my face with a stripping cleanser, used that alcohol-based toner to “dry out” my breakouts, and even skipped on the moisturizer. No wonder that my face became even oilier, my poor skin barrier struggling to keep equilibrium.
It took many years until I understood that oily skin needs to be treated with the same gentle care as any other skin type, respecting and protecting the delicate skin barrier by feeding it all the right stuff. And yes, that also means moisturizing it daily. Now in my 40s, my skin has happily settled into oily-combo status, but I still need to be smart about what ingredients I add to my routine to keep sebum levels well-balanced.
Excess sebum has a number of causes, the most common ones are hormonal fluctuations, stress, and environmental factors such as humidity levels or pollution. Aging will slow down the production of sebum, so usually oily skin tends to be a problem for younger people. And here is the good news: We oilier skin peeps tend to develop wrinkles later than people with dry skin, plus our skin also has that natural glow so many people covet and work hard to achieve.
It took many years until I understood that oily skin needs to be treated with the same gentle care as any other skin type, respecting and protecting the delicate skin barrier.
Here are the top five ingredients to look for when choosing products for your oily skin.
There are few skincare ingredients better researched than retinol, a form of vitamin A. It truly is a magical ingredient for anyone suffering with oiliness and those pesky breakouts or even bouts of acne that so often accompany the excess sebum. Retinol speeds up cell turnover, leading to smoother, softer skin with less noticeable pores (very often, oily skin types also struggle with enlarged pores). There are a number of retinol derivatives on the market, with retinoic acid the most potent one, usually only available with a prescription.
No matter what type of retinol you choose, it is important to start slowly and be very patient when it comes to seeing results. It can take a good three months to really notice a difference! Retinol can be very drying, so make sure to provide your skin with plenty of hydration. Use retinol products at night only, after your water-based products and before any oil-based products such as your night time moisturizer. And do not forget to use sunscreen during the day to protect the newly revealed skin!
Salicylic acid is a BHA, short for beta hydroxy acid, a group of acids that have lipophilic properties, meaning they are oil-soluble. Thus, products containing BHA can help dissolve excess oil on the skin’s surface. BHAs can also penetrate deeply into those oil-filled pores and clean them out, preventing clogging that can lead to blackheads. Similar to its equally popular AHA counterpart glycolic acid, which works on the surface of the skin to smooth rougher textures, salicylic acid also helps to dissolve the “glue” that keeps dead skin cells stuck, thus revealing newer, more even skin.
Salicylic acid is the most widely used BHA, with its ideal dosage usually around 2 percent for maximum effect without too much irritation. But even products with a lower concentration such as peeling pads or toners can help lessen excess sebum and give skin a more mattified, even-toned look.
As with all acids, it is important not to overdo it and start carefully, preferably one to two times a week at night, slowly building up tolerance. More doesn’t always help more, so if you have sensitive skin with oiliness issues, go for a lower dosage and keep exfoliation days to a minimum—you will still reap the benefits and avoid harming your skin barrier. If you also use retinol, I would suggest alternating between these actives during the week.
A true oily skin superstar ingredient, niacinamide is not to be missed in a routine aimed at balancing out sebum levels. Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3, also commonly referred to as nicotinamide. It’s actually been a staple skincare ingredient for many years now, but only recently have people started to go wild for it. And no wonder, given its amazing properties: Niacinamide can help balance out excess sebum levels, soothe redness thanks to working as an anti-inflammatory, and help refine the appearance of enlarged pores.
As with salicylic acid, the correct dosage is key, and using too much can lead to all sorts of skin problems such as itchiness, redness, and that tight feeling you get when your skin is dehydrated. Aim for products with a dosage of around 5 percent, which is the sweet spot for niacinamide to be gentle and yet still effective. Now, most booster serums contain around 10 percent niacinamide, which specialists say is the highest dosage you can (but do not have to!) use without seeing adverse effects. So, 10 percent niacinamide is basically still fine to use on your skin, but you won’t really see any extra benefits compared to a 5 percent dosage. I personally mix a few drops of a higher percentage niacinamide serum into my hydrating serums and ampoules to get the right balance.
By the way, it’s a myth that you cannot use vitamin C and niacinamide in one routine—they are absolutely fine to use together and do not cause flushing unless you have very sensitive skin, in which case waiting a few minutes after you apply your vitamin C serum will prevent the flush reaction.
If you love Korean beauty products, you probably have come across this popular skincare ingredient before, as it’s been around for a while now. Thanks to maskne-related issues dominating the skincare needs and wants of the past year, products containing Centella asiatica have become trendy again, with many new so-called “cica” products being released right now. Most of the products centering around Centella asiatica tend to be aimed at people with acne-prone or oily skin that is also sensitive, due to the exceptional benefits this herb has for those skin problems.
Centella asiatica, also known as tiger grass, Indian pennywort, or gotu kola, has been used in Asian cooking and as a medicinal herb for centuries. Its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial superpowers make it a great ingredient for oily skin types, helping to lessen redness and soothing any angry breakouts thanks to clogged pores. If your skin type is that dreaded mix of sensitive and oily/acne-prone, Centella asiatica can be a godsend, helping to both soothe sensitivities while also clearing up skin. One of its active components, madecassoside, is also often added to anti-aging products due to its high antioxidant levels, which help combat UV ray damage and premature aging.
It is a common misconception that oily skin doesn’t need to be hydrated or moisturized, and loss of water can actually make it produce even more sebum. Maintaining proper hydration levels is crucial for a healthy skin barrier and will also help balance out oil levels. Hyaluronic acid is a great ingredient to add to an oily skin care routine, since as a so-called humectant it basically “grabs” water and keeps your skin nicely hydrated.
Some people don’t do well with this humectant, however, and can develop redness or whiteheads when using too much of it. If you are one of these people, glycerin is a great alternative, as it’s similarly “water-grabbing.” You can find both hyaluronic acid and glycerin in a number of hydrating serums and creams, or you could try adding a hydrating toner with these ingredients to your routine.
Don’t forget to use an occlusive cream or facial oil on top of your humectant layers, so that you can prevent transepidermal water loss, which causes dehydration issues. This is especially important if you live in drier climates, since any humectant will struggle to grab water from dry air, potentially leading to loss of moisture from the skin’s surface instead.