The Best Skincare Routine for Oily Complexions
If you've ever looked in the mirror only to see a shiny visage staring back at you, you're not alone—so many women struggle with oily skin. Luckily, there are plenty of expert-approved ways to care for this specific skin type. With that in mind, we tapped a few of the industry's leading dermatologists to determine, once and for all, the best skincare routine for oily skin.
First, understand what constitutes an oily skin type.
Before we get into combatting shine with a tried-and-true regimen, it's important to first understand what oily skin is. "Some people have more active oil glands than others," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner. "When high levels of oil are produced, it may leave the skin with a heavy or greasy feeling, which we call oily skin." This concentration of oil is often found within the T-zone (comprised of the forehead, nose, and chin), where the highest concentration of sebaceous glands are located—though oil can occur on any part of the face.
But what makes someone's oil glands more active than another's? "Oily skin can be caused by a number of factors, however the most common underlying cause is hereditary," Dr. Rachel Maiman says, noting that those with oily skin may hear that their parents suffered a similar fate. "Excess oil can also be the result of heightened hormone levels (as may occur during puberty), during parts of a woman's menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, and menopause," she adds.
Understand that you need oil.
The thing about oil glands is that, when balanced, they're beneficial to the health and appearance of the skin. In addition to hydrating your complexion, oil production helps to remove dead skin cells and other irritants by pushing them through and out of the pores, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban. "However, when overactive, the pores expand and experience a back-up of dead cells and sludge sticking to the walls of the pore, which is too heavy to be secreted," she says. The excess oil that is not used for natural hydration remains on the skin's surface, creating a shiny appearance.
Asses your skin.
If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you know you have oily skin—or have a feeling that you might. To help clear things up, Dr. Maiman says to take a look in the mirror. "If you see large, dilated pores, your skin is most likely oily," she says. "Another good trick is to wash your face and pat it dry, then assess your skin five to 10 minutes later without having applied any products. If your skin feels tight all over and you see flaking, your skin is dry. If it is perfectly comfortable, it is likely oily." The silver lining? Dr. Maiman says that research and real-life evidence show that people with oilier skin tend to develop fewer wrinkles over time, compared to those with complexions on the drier side.
Bookmark these ingredients.
The trick to managing oily skin is to know which ingredients combat shine—and which to avoid entirely. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, the founder of Entière Dermatology and clinical instructor at NYU Langone, exfoliating ingredients—think alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid and lactic acid, and beta hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid—work wonders to break up dead skin cells and built-up sebum, effectively cleansing pores to the core. "Due to salicylic acid's oil-loving properties, it penetrates oil glands more readily than alpha hydroxy acids," she explains. "For those with more sensitive skin, micronized formulations of salicylic acid are equally as effective but less irritating."
In addition to exfoliating acids, Dr. Maiman says to embrace hydrating hyaluronic acid (it will help balance your skin's oil production without clogging pores), oil-reducing niacinamide, and oil-absorbing clay, as well. And don't forget about retinol. "Among many other skincare benefits, retinol is the anti-aging holy grail in part because it builds collagen," she says. "Beyond helping to restore plump, more youthful-looking skin with fewer fine lines, retinol firms the skin and inadvertently tightens pores, resulting in less oil production and emission."
As for the ingredients to steer clear of? Dr. Zeichner says to stay away from heavy oils that contain saturated fats, like avocado, coconut, and olive, as he says they tend to clog pores and may lead to breakouts and even more oil production. Dr. Maiman says it's also a good idea to nix alcohol from your routine because, although it's marketed to remove excess oil, it actually dries out skin and prompts even more oil production.
Develop a routine—beginning with a workhorse cleanser.
Getting oily skin under control starts with an oil-free, non-comedogenic cleanser. More specifically, look for one formulated with exfoliating salicylic acid or, if your skin is on the more reactive side, glycolic acid (which is gentler); try Innbeauty's Project Foam Around Clarifying Daily Cleanser, ($22, credobeauty.com) if you're interested in the latter. Dr. Maiman says that using this type of cleanser will help unclog pores while working to balance oil production. If your skin is easily irritated, she adds that you may need to slowly work an exfoliating cleanser into your routine, substituting it with a gentle cleanser every other day.
Treat your skin with an antioxidant-rich serum.
Antioxidants (like vitamin C) are a must, says Dr. Maiman, because they not only repair damage caused by the sun, but they also minimize the hyperpigmentation that acne (which often accompanies oily skin) leaves behind; they're best absorbed in serum form. What's more, they can help diminish sebum production if used regularly. Scoop up OLEHENRIKSEN's Banana Bright Vitamin C Serum ($65, sephora.com) if you're looking to work this active into your regimen. As for an antioxidant to avoid entirely? Vitamin E—Dr. Zeichner says to steer clear of it, as it can cause breakouts for those with oily skin.
You don't want to encourage the greasy nature of your skin, so Dr. Maiman says to opt for a light, oil-free moisturizer, like Glossier's Priming Moisture Balance ($25, glossier.com). "Avoid heavy creams and, as with cleansers, look for products that are non-comedogenic and oil-free," she says. "I also recommend looking for moisturizers that contain hyaluronic acid to mitigate any dehydration from potent actives, which can trigger excess oil production."
Finish with SPF during the day and retinol at night.
No matter the weather—and regardless of whether or not you are headed outdoors—it's important to establish the habit of applying an SPF of 30 or higher each and every day. "I recommend physical sunscreens, meaning those containing minerals like titanium and zinc, over chemical sunscreens, as they tend to be less irritating and are less likely to induce acne," Dr. Maiman says, noting to, again, look for oil-free and non-comedogenic formulations, like EltaMD's UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 ($36, dermstore.com). At night, she says to swap SPF for retinol or a retinoid (we love Differin's Acne Treatment Gel ($29, ulta.com) and keep the rest of your routine the same.
Incorporate an exfoliant twice a week.
"In addition, I recommend incorporating hydroxy acids in a more concentrated form twice weekly," Dr. Maiman says. "Remember, over-exfoliating is not the key." Look to individual pads or cloths soaked with actives for this task—Cane & Austin's Retexture Pads ($60, caneandaustin.com) boast 5% glycolic acid and 2% salicylic acid for the ultimate BHA and AHA one-two punch.
Don't forget to mask.
"Adding in a clay mask once weekly also helps to decongest pores and reduce acne," Dr. Maiman concludes. We love Boscia's Charcoal Pore Pudding Intensive Wash-Off Treatment ($38, sephora.com) for this step.