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The main cause isn't your fault, and there are ways to correct your complexion.

By Audrey Noble
March 25, 2021
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An oily complexion is associated with a number of skin care and makeup concerns, including frequent break outs and worrying if your carefully applied makeup will stay in place. To keep all that excess oil at bay, experts agree that you need a well-curated skin care routine. But you might be wondering why your face is oily in the first place, and if there's a way to fix it once and for all. To get to the root cause of oily skin—and to determine how to best fight it—we spoke with board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, board-certified dermatologist at LM Medical NYC Dr. Morgan Rabach, and board-certified dermatologist at Capital Skin & Laser Dr. Geeta Shah.

woman inspecting face bathroom mirror
Credit: gradyreese / Getty Images

The signs of an oily complexion are pretty simple: If you have a shiny face or are prone to breakouts, there's a good chance you have oily skin. "Oily skin often looks and feels oily and greasy, especially in the T-zone area (which includes the nose, forehead, and jawline) and scalp," says Dr. Rabach. "People with oily skin are more likely to have larger pores, clogged pores, and acne-prone skin." From hormones to how often you wash your face, find out what's really causing your concerns.

Why is my face oily?

There are a lot of reasons why your face might be oily. First, Dr. Shah says that oily skin is generally determined by genetics, which means some people are just naturally prone to more oil production. Dr. Chwalek agrees, adding that hormones also play a big role in it. "When we are younger, [our] hormones, which start around the time of puberty, start to stimulate oil glands," she says. "So it is common to have oilier skin in our teens and twenties and then it usually starts to decrease with age."

Other factors include your living environment and daily eating habits. Dr. Chwalek says people who live in hot, humid climates tend to produce more oil than those living in cold and dry environments. She also says that diets that are high in sugar, carbohydrates, saturated fats, and dairy products can trigger our oil glands and cause an imbalance in oil production.

In fact, even your skin care routine can make your face oily, especially if you're not using the right products. Dr. Rabach says habits like over and under washing your face and using products with oil will only add to the problem. All that is to say that it's important to curate the right regimen to help regulate oil production and keep skin clear.

How can I fix my oily skin?

Because oil production is controlled by hormones and genetics, Dr. Chwalek says it's not always possible to completely stop your skin from being oily. What you can do, however, is control excess oil production. Dr. Rabach suggests washing your face two to three times a day with a gentle cleanser and looking for active ingredients like salicylic acid and retinol that will help reduce oil. For an option that works from the inside out, Dr. Shah says that hormonal medication such as birth control and antiandrogens such as spironolactone can also regulate hormones and control breakouts.

What products should I use?

Dr. Chwalek lays out a pretty simple skin care routine to follow if you're trying to squash excessive oil production: use a gentle cleanser, a lightweight, non-comedogenic, and oil-free moisturizer, and a daily sunscreen. If you want to use toners and exfoliants, she says to make sure they're not drying and avoid anything with alcohol in them. What's most important is using the right ingredients. Dr. Rabach says that retinol is the number one "hero ingredient" for oily skin. "They help reduce the oil that the sebaceous glands make, reducing pore size and clogged pores," she says. Other ingredients that help combat oil, she says, are beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid and alpha-hydroxy acids.

Dr. Shah agrees and recommends topical over-the-counter retinoids, like the Skinbetter AlphaRet Clearing Serum ($125, skinbetter.com). "An ideal product to combat acne and breakouts would have a combination of hydroxy acids to exfoliate and topical retinoids to decrease the oil-blockage in the oil gland," she says. "[This] combines a mild retinoid and salicylic acid to target the pores and improve the appearance of oily, acne-prone skin." For sunscreen, you want something lightweight and won't clog pores, too.

What products should I avoid?

All three experts agree that you should avoid anything that contains oil or can block your pores. "Products that contain oils, butter, and petrolatum are known to clog pores," says Dr. Shah. "If you are oily and prone to breakouts and blemishes, look for products that are labeled as non-comedogenic; these products will not contain ingredients that will lead to plugging and oil blockage in the oil gland."

Dr. Chwalek also recommends avoiding anything super drying—like products with alcohols or harsh scrubs—as that will only trigger more oil production. If you want to incorporate oils into your routine, she says to opt for oils like rosehip or jojoba. Both of these have higher linoleic content and are lighter and easier to absorb without clogging pores.

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