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What is sebum?

If you’re prone to acne you’re probably well aware of the oil your skin produces. Yes, we’re talking about sebum. But do you know exactly what it is? And more importantly, any idea how you get rid of it?

Basically, removing excess sebum can reduce your acne – and that’s the name of the game! And to help you do just that here we explain what sebum is, what you can do to reduce sebum production and how you can clear sebum from your pores.

What is sebum?

Sebum is a natural oil produced by your skin. It is made up of roughly 57% fatty acids, 26% waxes (solid fats), 12% squalene oily fats and 4.5% cholesterol fats. The other 0.5% is sugars and assorted other molecules.

Where is sebum produced?

Sebum is made by glands embedded in your skin called sebaceous glands. These glands secrete oil from openings in your skin onto the surface. This usually happens through hair follicles but not always. You have sebaceous glands in all the skin on your body except for your hands and the soles of your feet. Having sebum there would make walking and holding onto anything much more perilous!

Some areas of your body have more sebaceous glands than others. For example, your arms and legs have less whereas your face has the most. Some parts of your face can have as many as 900 sebaceous glands per square centimetre of skin.

What does sebum do?

Sebum acts as a protective moisturising layer for your skin. As your sebaceous glands secrete sebum it collects on the surface of your skin and forms a protective barrier. It protects your skin and hair from moisture loss. It also lubricates your skin to reduce damage caused by things rubbing against your skin. Think of sebum as your body’s natural moisturiser.

There’s also evidence that sebum might have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. And that it may even release pheromones. Research is ongoing.

How does sebum cause spots?

Although sebum is good for your skin it can also block your follicles. Follicles (also called pores) are the structures in your skin that hairs grow from. They’re basically an opening in your skin that can become blocked. This is more likely to happen on areas of skin with a lot of sebum and when sebum mixes with sweat, dead skin cells, any products you use, dust, air pollution, pollen and whatever else your skin encounters.

  • Stage 1: A blocked pore can form a whitehead or a blackhead. This is stage 1 of spots. The black part of the blackhead is the actual blockage whilst a whitehead is a blocked pore that’s covered over.
  • Stage 2: Stage 2 happens when bacteria living on your face begin to feed on sebum and the dead skin as well as all the other delightful substances the sebum has trapped. As the bacteria feed and multiply your immune system identifies and attacks the bacterial infection. This produces inflammation and pus (pus is mostly a mixture of dead bacteria and white blood cells), giving you red spots filled with pus.
  • Stage 3: Stage 3 of spots – what we usually think of as more severe acne – happens when the bacterial infection in your follicles spreads and goes deeper into your skin. This produces bigger and more stubborn spots with more pus – like pustules and cysts.

How to reduce sebum production

Spots and acne are more likely on areas of skin where you have excess sebum production – most often your face. Reducing how much sebum your sebaceous glands produce can reduce your acne and make it less likely you’ll get spots. Try the following:

  • Eating a healthier diet: Foods that disrupt your blood sugar levels and cause insulin spikes are associated with higher levels of sebum production. Generally these are sugary foods and those rich in simple carbohydrates. We’re talking white bread, white rice and pasta.

Foods high in saturated fats are also associated with higher sebum levels. This includes fatty meat, dairy and fast food. Reducing or cutting out these foods completely and replacing them with wholegrains, fruit, veg, pulses, low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat can help lower sebum production.

  • Getting your hormones under control: Hormones (including testosterone) regulate how much sebum your glands produce. High levels or fluctuating hormone levels are associated with increased sebum.

If you have a condition that affects your hormone levels, treating it (and sticking with your treatment) can reduce sebum levels. If you’re taking a hormone therapy (like testosterone therapy) and you’re having problems with oily skin, changing to an alternative brand or form of therapy can help. Reducing your dose if possible can also help.

  • Using a prescription treatment: You can use prescription medications to reduce how much sebum your glands produce. These include Roaccutane and Isotretinoin.

How to clear sebum from pores

Reducing how much sebum your glands produce is one way to tackle acne. But clearing excess sebum from your skin can also help you fight back against spots. Try:

  • Adopting a daily skin care routine: Washing your skin daily with the right products can remove sebum build-ups and other substances (dead skin cells and dust) that can become trapped in sebum. Use warm rather than hot water, avoid soaps, use a toner and finish with a non-oily moisturiser. Read more about skin care for acne.
  • Blotting paper or medicated pads: You can find a range of blotting products and medicated pads in your local pharmacy or supermarket that are designed to soak up or remove excess sebum from your skin.
  • Treclin: Treclin is a prescription medication you apply to your face as a gel. It has a range of benefits including reducing inflammation and killing the bacteria in your spots. Importantly it also helps to remove sebum from your face including sebum trapped in pores. Read more about Treclin and order it online FROM MARS.

Sebum problems. What sebum problems? Now we’re talking.