Oily skin can be an ongoing nightmare for many people. Reliance on skin cleansers, small lapses leaving you feeling greasy and ill, acne flare-ups at the drop of a hat; it can be miserable. What if, though, there was a natural way to help control it?
If you have oily skin, you've probably grown to fear oily foods and oil-based supplements. Oily creams and skin treatments don't do anything to help the problem, oily foods just give your body more to work with, and you end up feeling gross inside and out.
This sort of knowledge is, unfortunately, a mixture of true and tall tale. Oily skin is indeed affected by diet, but not in the ways you might think.
Oily Skin and Sebum
The "oil" on your skin is not the same sort of oil in the foods you eat. It's actually a substance called sebum. Sebum is a sort of oily, waxy substance created by the sebaceous glands in your skin.
Sebum is important to the proper function of the body, particularly the skin. Without it, your skin gets dry and brittle. It cracks and flakes, and it's less protected from things like dirt, sunlight, and wind.
You can almost think of it like wax on a car. Car wax makes the paint shiny and helps protect against scratches and abrasions. Sebum works the same way, except it's not one singular coating, but rather a constant low-level production of sebum to protect you.
Sebum itself is a pretty complex mixture of chemicals produced and found in the body. It's made up of fatty acids, sugars, waxes, and other nutrients, all meant to form a protective barrier that keeps your skin moist and keeps dirt out.
The "oil" on your skin is mostly sebum, but it's also made up of the crud that sebum carries away. Sweat, dead skin cells, dirt, dust, and whatever else is being ejected from your skin all builds up in the sebum and eventually is removed, by dry flaking, by scrubbing or washing, or whatever other method of cleansing you end up using.
What Influences Sebum Production
So your skin produces sebum, but what's the difference between your skin and the skin of someone who isn't as oily?
There are a handful of different factors that influence sebum production. The biggest, of course, is genetics. Some people are simply predisposed towards oily skin or dry skin, at either end of the normal range of sebum production. Some people are even further on one side or another, such as those with seborrhea, or extreme sebum production.
High levels of sebum production are associated with other skin issues, including seborrheic dermatitis – something similar to psoriasis – and acne. Oily skin is unpleasant, but it can range much worse.
Another of the main influencing factors in sebum production is bodily hormones. In particular, sex hormones – the androgens – control it the most. Androgens are produced by sexual organs, which are in turn controlled by the pituitary gland.
Thus, anything that influences hormones can influence sebum production. This can include anything from a disease in either the testes/ovaries or the pituitary gland, a systemic issue with the thyroid, and even something like taking progesterone supplements.
Sebum production starts at birth, though your sebaceous glands are working before birth to protect your fragile unborn body. For the first few months of life, sebum production is high. After those months, sebum production drops off, until around puberty. Puberty, as you might imagine, causes a spike in sebum production by as much as 500%. From there, it's all downhill; sebum production generally decreases slowly with age.
Since we're talking about high sebum production levels, it's worth thinking about things that risk increasing them so you can avoid them, as well as things that can decrease production.
Hormonal medications generally cause an increase in sebum production, even hormones that should, logically, reduce it. For example, sebum production is caused by 5 alpha-reductase. Progesterone is an inhibitor of that enzyme, so logically, progesterone should reduce sebum production. In reality, however, progesterone increases sebum production instead. Testosterone also causes an increase in sebum production.
Some birth control pills have been shown to reduce sebum production, though they aren't typically used for that purpose alone. Malnutrition and short-term starvation reduce sebum production, though obviously they are unpleasant enough you shouldn't try to use them as a skin care routine.
The Diet's Effects on Sebum Production
Nothing we've mentioned so far is helpful, right? You can't exactly poke your pituitary and get it to adjust its sebum production controls. You're not about to try to get a glandular disease just to cure your skin.
There's some evidence to suggest that diet can influence sebum production. Certain foods can interact with your hormone production, and too much or too little of certain nutrients can trigger stress responses in the body, which affect hormones and sebum production.
The simplest – but most tedious – way to see if something in your diet is affecting your skin is to try out an elimination diet. An elimination diet is simple: just spend a few weeks or a month cutting out a specific kind of food from your diet. For example, you might cut out processed sugars, or dairy, or carbs. Once your body adjusts to not eating that kind of food all the time, monitor your body's reactions. Maybe you feel better or have more energy. Maybe your digestive troubles disappear, as is common with undiagnosed lactose intolerance. Maybe your skin gets less oily.
One thing you might have noticed is that nothing in the section above indicates that eating oily foods has an influence on sebum production. Indeed, consuming oil in your diet is more likely to have digestive effects than effects on your skin. You shouldn't be afraid of eating oils or oil-based supplements.
Conversely, oil-based skincare treatments might not be appropriate if you have oily skin. Applying oil topically can further trap sebum in your pores, which can exacerbate the issues you experience.
All of this leads us up to the supplement mentioned up there in the title: Omega-3s.
What Do Omega-3s Do?
Omega-3s are a fatty acid that your body cannot make on its own, but which are required for your body to function properly. You get them from a variety of dietary sources, but by far the best is fatty fish like salmon. In fact, the omega-3 supplements you can buy at a grocery store or pharmacy are mostly just fish oil capsules.
Omega-3 supplements have been a huge health craze for years now. They were first observed as part of a diet for Inuit tribes which eat primarily fish, and had unusually low incidence of heart disease. Correlation was made, and people started selling omega-3 supplements as heart healthy.
Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in a variety of different ways. Despite being an oil, though, there's some evidence to suggest that they can help with sebum production in the skin as well.
In particular, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the level of cortisol in your body. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and that hormone has been linked with sebum production. Taking omega-3s, then, can help regulate that hormone and reduce sebum production.
There's also some evidence to suggest that inflammation in the skin can lead to increased sebum production. There's not too much study into how this happens, but if you've ever been puffy and ill, you've probably noticed your skin seems to get more oily more easily.
Omega-3 supplements provide some anti-inflammatory benefits as well. They serve to help counteract omega-6 fatty acids, which we generally eat too much of in our normal diets. Taking a fish oil supplement, then, can help counteract this inflammation and reduce sebum production.
How to Help Reduce Sebum Production
Depending on how long you've struggled with oily skin, you may have tried all manner of different recommendations to minimize sebum production and reduce oily skin and acne breakouts. Unfortunately, some of those methods might have the opposite effect, because there's a lot of common knowledge that isn't actually beneficial or effective. Instead, try to do as many of these as you can.
First, start taking a regular fish oil supplement. If you're vegan and don't want to eat animal products, there are some plant-based omega-3 supplements you can try, but be aware that they're likely to be less effective than fish-based supplements.
As mentioned above, omega-3s can help lower sebum production in a few different ways. You might not see effects right away, though; you'll want to take the supplement for a few weeks at least. On top of that, you'll want to make sure you talk to a doctor; in some cases, taking a fish oil supplement might interact with another medication or an existing disorder and can disrupt ongoing treatment. Just be careful, you know?
Second, drink more water. Dehydration is a chronic problem amongst huge portions of the population. Sometimes it seems like no one actually drinks an appropriate amount of water.
Dehydration means your skin is more likely to dry out. While you might think this is a good thing, it's actually the opposite. Your skin will adjust to that dehydration by trying to produce more sebum to protect the skin that is otherwise dry and cracking, since cracked skin is a vector for infection. Thus, drinking more water and staying more hydrated can help reduce sebum production once your body realizes it doesn't need to work overtime to keep your skin a solid barrier against external compromises.
Plus, drinking adequate amounts of water has a huge array of other benefits. You'll have fewer headaches, you'll purge bodily toxins more readily, you'll have smoother digestion, and so on. Water is good for you, so drink more of it.
Third, try to cut out foods that cause acne. While oily skin and acne aren't necessarily guaranteed to come with one another, many of the foods that cause acne are causing it because of their adjustments to your hormones and bodily functions. In other words, cutting out these foods can help reduce the sebum your skin produces. Which foods should you cut out?
- Refined grains and sugars. Processed white sugar, white flour, and other heavily processed grains are all carbohydrates. Carbs like these wreak havoc on your bodily systems. They throw hormones out of control, they lead to insulin resistance and eventual diabetes, and they make androgens more active. All of this contributes to both bodily stress and to sebum production directly. Thus, avoid foods like white breads, crackers, pasta, white rice, and noodles made from white flour. Likewise, ditch the sugary beverages and sugar sweeteners. High fructose corn syrup is a huge offender here as well.
- Dairy. Studies have shown that dairy product consumption leads to increased risk of acne. You might not need to ditch dairy entirely, but you might consider looking for organic, hormone-free dairy sources.
- Omega-6 fats. These fats are present in a lot of corn and soy-based oils. Omega-3s can help counteract them somewhat, but it's good to reduce your intake as well.
Finally, try to reduce your daily stress as much as possible. Stress triggers a wide range of negative effects on the body, from hormone adjustments to cognitive issues to skin breakouts. Try to take some time to relax every day, reduce external sources of stress, and get plenty of sleep.