What Is Sebum, Anyway? Here's What You Need to Know

Hint: It isn't the villain you may think it is.

Person observing face in mirror
Photo: Getty Images

Sebum gets a bad rap. Our scapegoat for common skincare woes such as a shiny forehead, clogged pores, and acne, the mere presence of the oily substance is enough to send us into a tizzy. In our quest for a healthy complexion, we reach for blotting papers, cleansers, and exfoliants, to remove the stubborn oily substance. However, after all is said and done we inevitably find ourselves confronting yet another breakout. What gives? According to dermatologists, we may not understand sebum as well as we think we do.

So what is sebum, anyway? Keep reading to find out what dermatologists want us to know.

What Is Sebum?

Sebum is an oily substance that's composed of fatty acids, waxes, sugars, and other substances. "It's produced by sebaceous glands all over the body," explains Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. It's also responsible for making both blackheads and whiteheads along with sebum plugs.

What Does Sebum Do?

Sebum production is our skin's natural way of moisturizing and protecting itself from the external environment, says Rachel Nazarian, MD, board-certified dermatologist. Combined with lipids (fat molecules in the skin), sebum provides a protective barrier to the skin. "This helps moisturize the skin, prevent transepidermal water loss, and defend against external aggressors," Dr. Engelman says. Sebum also wields both antibacterial and antifungal properties which shields skin from harm.

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How Can You Get Rid of Sebum?

Sebum plays an important part in maintaining a healthy skin barrier, so there's no reason to get rid of it unless it's being overproduced.

"Excess sebum can cause skin to appear too shiny or oily and clog pores, leading to breakouts," explains Dr. Engelman. "Getting excess sebum under control starts with skincare, like making sure to hydrate your skin enough as it's often your skin's way of trying to compensate for being overly dry."

After speaking to your dermatologists, you may also try some medications — such as retinoids — to decrease sebum production and the size of the sebaceous glands over time.

How Much Sebum Is Normal?

"A normal rate of sebum production for adults is about 1 mg/10 cm every three hours," explains Dr. Engelman. "In lay terms, this means that the skin should not feel overly dry, nor look visibly shiny or greasy."

But generally speaking, the amount of sebum you produce changes based on a variety of factors. "Internal hormone signals, stress, medication, and diet can alter the quality and thickness of sebum on the skin," says Dr. Nazarian.

When Should You See a Dermatologist?

If you are dealing with any chronic skincare condition, from acne to rosacea, consider making an appointment with your dermatologist. They will best be able to identify whether too little or too much sebum is a cause of your skincare dilemma and also recommend a remedy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can exfoliation remove sebum?

    Physical exfoliation removes dirt and oil at the skin's surface, however, it doesn't reach the sebum inside of your pores and isn't a good way to stop oil production, explains Dr. Nazarian. "You can't wash your way to less oily skin, so it's best to stick to chemical ingredients with science-based evidence that can target sebum production."

  • Does too much sebum cause acne?

    Yes. Too much sebum can clog pores and lead to a breakout. That's why it's so important to cleanse your face twice a day and exfoliate once a week to remove sebum and buildup from your skin.

  • What happens if you have too little sebum?

    A lack of sebum can result in dry skin. It can also cause your body to overproduce sebum to overcompensate for not having enough, which can lead to a breakout.

  • What should/shouldn't I eat for healthy skin?

    Fruits, vegetables, and foods with omega-3s (e.g. fatty fish and walnuts) can help support skin's health. Meanwhile, dairy and highly processed and/or sugary foods have been shown to negatively affect skin by contributing to breakouts.

InStyle uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lovászi M, Szegedi A, Zouboulis CC, Törőcsik D. Sebaceous-immunobiology is orchestrated by sebum lipidsDermatoendocrinol. 2017;9(1):e1375636.

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