The Oily-Skin Myth Dermatologists Say You Need To Stop Believing

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins
If your skin type errs on the side of excessively oily, chances are you've taken countless different approaches to combat it: acids, mattifying primers, oil-free foundations... the list goes on. But there's one "tip" currently doing the rounds in the skin care-enthusiast stratosphere that has dermatologists less than thrilled.
You may have come across information that suggests your overly oily complexion could actually be a result of dehydrated skin, which lacks water or moisture and typically results in tightness, fine lines, and dullness. Some experts argue that this is what kickstarts our skin into producing more oil to compensate. Cue a number of people shelling out on expensive facial oils and occlusive moisturizers to counteract the shine — only to find their skin is getting oilier or breaking out.
Confused? We don't blame you. We asked dermatologist Emma Wedgeworth whether dehydrated skin really produces more oil to make up for a lack of moisture. She explained to us that oil production and skin hydration are two separate things, and the myth that oiliness should be combated with extra hydration is just that: a myth. "It's something we dermatologists see all the time," Dr. Wedgeworth said. "People often come into the clinic and I ask them to run through their skin-care routine and they tell me they've been using oils to hydrate, even though they've got really oily skin and [are blemish-prone]. It is really interesting."
So what really causes oily skin, if it's not overcompensation due to lack of moisture? "It's all about the 'settings' on your sebaceous glands, and everyone is different," Dr. Wedgeworth said. As dermatologist Anjali Mahto told us, much of it is genetically controlled; in fact, we "inherit" the size of our sebaceous glands in the first place. But there are other risk factors associated with oily skin, including exposure to humid climates, ethnicity, and conditions like PCOS that cause elevated androgen hormones. "People are referring to two different things here," Dr. Mahto said. "Dehydration is a lack of water in the skin (or increased water loss through the skin barrier), which can occur due to using harsh skin-care products or air conditioning, for example. But there isn't any evidence that oily skin is due to dehydration or lack of water."
Now that that's settled, you can stop overwhelming your already-oily skin with rich oils and heavy creams, and stock up on smart products that minimize oil production effectively — without leaving skin dehydrated, to boot. Ahead, the ingredients you need to know, and the one thing you should never, ever forget to do.
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