You’ve probably seen the concept of rebound oil production, or reactive seborrhea:
“shampoos… strip the scalp of its natural oils and cause the scalp to overproduce oil to compensate”
“our skin naturally regulates perfect oil production”
“your skin will have to adjust to producing less oil”
“the oil tells the skin it’s no longer drying out, which helps to control excess sebum production“
This is a very common concept that is….well, impossible. But why do so many oily-skinned people notice less oiliness when they switch to more moisturising products?
Skin can’t sense how much oil is on it
There are lots of systems in your body that operate on something called a negative feedback loop. For example, when your body senses that its temperature is too high through receptors, it will send signals to sweat until the body returns to its normal state (homeostatis). Another example is when your blood sugar is high, receptors in the pancreas detect this and release insulin, which brings the blood sugar level back down.
The problem with applying this is that there isn’t any way for the skin to detect how much oil it has on it. Sebum is produced to a certain level on the skin, and is stopped by the physical phenomenon of surface tension, so you’ll end up with around the same total amount of oil on the skin, whether it’s natural sebum or skincare oil or a combination. The amount of sebum your skin ends up with depends on genetics and hormones – not on how much oil you put on the skin. Skin won’t “adjust” to the additional oil, no matter how long you wait (hence why no-poo simply won’t work for some people, such as me!).
Then why did I get less oily when I switched to a gentler cleanser?
There is a kernel of truth to this myth, and that is the fact that harsh products can sometimes leave you with more oil on your skin…just not for the reasons given. The sequence of events at some point in every oily person’s life goes something like this…
1. See oil on your face
2. Wash it off
3. Goodbye shine!
4. Wait…there’s more oil. Maybe I should wash harder?
(Repeat steps 2-4)
Washing is one of the most traumatising things people regularly do to their skin. Your skin is tough, but it can’t handle being scrubbed and stripped of oil all the time, and if your skin is oily, it’s really tempting to keep trying to wash the oil off. Overcleansing will damage your skin, which could potentially trigger your skin’s inflammatory response – to release the stored oil onto the surface of the skin, where it will sit instead of sinking in.
So it isn’t that more oil is produced – there’s the same amount of oil. It’s that the skin is damaged and the oil ends up in the wrong place.
- You’re noticing your oil more, because you’re seeing it go from almost nothing after cleansing to its normal level, which gives a bigger contrast
- Your moisturiser contains mattifying agents which help reduce the appearance of oil
What’s the difference then?
This means that if your skin isn’t damaged or dehydrated and it’s still oily, then no amount of oil cleansing or no-pooing will decrease your oiliness. Sorry!
But if you’re oily, and you ARE cleansing a lot (more than once a day, or with a foaming cleanser, or you scrub more than twice a week), or you’re seeing the signs of dehydration (tight-feeling skin, oil sitting on parched-feeling skin), you should try switching to a more gentle routine and see if things improve.
Is there anything else I can do about my oily skin?
Yes there is! You can soak up the oil with make-up (powders and primers) or blotting paper. Certain prescription medications can also help, like hormonal birth control, spironolactone and isotretinoin.
Your skin might feel oilier if it’s dehydrated, but if your skin is healthy and still oily, nothing you slap on your skin can change that.
C. Pierard-Franchimont, J. E. Arrese & G. E. Pierard, Sebum flow dynamics and antidandruff shampoos, J Soc Cosmet Chem 1997, 48, 117-122.
“Such a finding confirms the unreality of the so-called reactive seborrhea, in which the sebaceous excretion increases with the frequency of most hair washes… Another study has shown that those shampoos promoting seborrhea were those yielding some irritancy potential on the stratum corneum. The direct relationship between alterations in sebum flow dynamics and subclinical irritation is suggested, although not proven, by these studies.”