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What is Sebum and Why is it Essential?

What is Sebum? Here's the Short Answer:

“Sebum is an oily secretion of the sebaceous glands. It is a cocktail of fats, wax esters, squalene, triglycerides, cholesterol and cellular debris, which is discharged as sebum through the sebaceous duct connecting the gland to the hair follicle”

The dictionary definition of Sebum is: “…an oily secretion of the sebaceous glands”

Great, so we now know what it is but…

What does it do? Who has it? Is it necessary? What is too much sebum? What is too little Sebum?

In the main, only people who’ve been blessed with trouble-free skin will be unaware of sebum or at best, they’ll only have a basic awareness of it. But those of us with less than perfect skin will be aware of how too much or too little sebum can affect our skin.

Ok, But In Layman’s Terms, What exactly is Sebum?

Sebum is a cocktail of fats, wax esters, squalene, triglycerides, cholesterol and cellular debris, which is discharged as sebum through the sebaceous duct connecting the gland to the hair follicle.

Where does Sebum come from?

Sebaceous Glands: As I mentioned earlier, sebum is a natural secretion of the sebaceous glands, which are small oil-producing glands that all mammals possess. Sebaceous glands are usually attached to hair follicles and it’s here that the fatty substance sebum is produced. These glands are distributed all over the entire body, with the exception of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, where having a thin layer of grease and oil would reduce their effectiveness to grip.

So what is Seborrhoea?

Seborrhoea is the medical name given to the condition of overproduction of sebum in the sebaceous glands, and those with this condition often suffer from excessively oily and greasy skin and hair.

Why do we need Sebum?

Sebum helps to maintain the skins flexibility by lubricating the surface of the skin with a very thin and slightly greasy film and in doing so it also prevents the loss of excessive amounts of water, which helps to keep the skin hydrated. Sebum also contains vitamin E, which has beneficial anti-ageing properties.

Does Sebum cause acne?

No, at least, not in and of itself, however, the over production of sebum coupled with other contributing factors can result in acne.

Acne occurs when the opening of the sebaceous gland to the surface of the skin becomes plugged up and blocked, the result of which is an accumulation of sebum in the follicle and sebaceous duct. This build up of sebum along with any cellular debris and bacteria that may be present can trigger an inflammatory reaction producing the visible outbreak of spots and pimples we know commonly as acne.

Why too much, Why too little?

In a word, Hormones! Throughout your life, your hormone levels and their effectiveness will vary greatly depending on your age and gender.

Hormonal imbalances can manifest themselves in both men and women at various life stages in many more ways than moods and mood swings. Fluctuations in hormone levels can result in weight gain, low libido, anxiety, depression, fatigue and the over or under production of sebum.

Some popular misconceptions about Sebum

  1. Sebum causes acne: Unfortunately it’s just not that simple, although over-production of sebum can exacerbate the proliferation of acne it’s not the cause.
  2. Make-up causes excessive sebum production: Once again, unfortunately that’s just not true either. (The real culprit is your hormones!)
  3. A greasy diet causes excessive sebum production: As oily skin is the result of hormonal shifts and not diet, it’s highly unlikely that a greasy pizza that you eat will trigger excessive oil production. That’s not to say that if you suffer from acne already, you won’t exacerbate the problem by eating junk food that can affect your hormonal balance.

Too much or too little sebum: What are my options?

Too little sebum (Dry skin): Let’s deal with too little sebum production first. Dry skin occurs when your skin doesn’t retain enough moisture to sufficiently hydrate your skin. The symptoms of too little sebum production could be red, rough, raw, itchy, dry, flaky and under-nourished sallow looking skin, the cause of which can happen as a result of too-frequent bathing, the use of harsh soaps, natural ageing, or certain contributory medical conditions.

Thankfully dry skin is easy to remedy with treatment in the form of skin moisturizers which are mostly available over the counter without prescription, although be wary of excessive costs as expensive doesn’t always equate to effectiveness!

As a first step in remedying dry skin, (too little sebum!) look for moisturizers that rehydrate the skin, with some or most of the following ingredients: Ceramides, Sorbitol, Glycerin, Lecithin, Hyaluronic Acid (moisture attracting humectants). Used sensibly, these ingredients shouldn’t clog up your pores.

As a general rule of thumb, the thicker or greasier a moisturizer is, the more effective it should be as it should take longer to be absorbed into the skin, and because they contain little water, they are best applied when the skin is damp. Ingredients in thicker and greasier moisturizers may include petroleum jelly, silicone, lanolin, and mineral oil all of which help seal moisture within the skin. Other emollients including linoleic, linolenic, and lauric acids all smooth skin by acting as a filler in the spaces between skin cells.

But be aware that thicker and greasier moisturisers are more likely to clog up your pores and sebaceous glands; so good, twice daily skin hygiene is recommended.

Too much sebum (Oily skin – seborrhea!) If you suffer from very oily skin, shiny skin, or acne it’s probably fair to conclude that your body’s own particular balance of hormones is contributing to an over production of sebum in your skin.

  1. Wash your face twice a day. If possible use a finely woven (100% cotton) muslin face cloth. This will gently remove excess oil and dead skin cells whilst you wash. Be gentle! You don’t want to irritate the skin. Wash affected areas with a gentle cleanser and use oil-free, water-based skin care products.
  2. Always completely remove makeup before going to bed. You will hopefully be asleep for at least six hours and with clogged up pores, hair follicles and sebaceous glands, you’ll be giving plenty of time for any trapped bacteria to cause inflammation.
  3. Regularly clean your makeup brushes and applicators with soapy water or renew them frequently.
  4. Maintain good personal hygiene and shower soon after exercising or doing strenuous work. It’s important to slough off excess oil and sweat on your skin, which can trap dirt and bacteria.
  5. Take a good long and hard look at your diet and where possible, eat raw unprocessed fresh foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Avoid sugar rich foods and beverages where possible as their consumption instantly affects your natural hormone balance due to your body’s natural reaction to pump out more insulin in a bid to stabilize your blood sugar levels.

Remember, sebum isn’t the enemy here, far from it. Your skin needs sebum to stay lubricated, remain flexible and to retain moisture, the key is to get the balance between too oily and too dry just right and you’ve got more chance of getting the balance right through managing and focusing on the cause of your hormone imbalances than applying expensive lotions and potions.

Always talk with your doctor before trying any treatment that has not been medically tested and approved.

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