Higher Levels of Male Hormones and Growth Hormone Are Mostly to Blame
The Essential Info
Two main hormonal factors are likely most at fault when it comes to why some people have oilier skin than others:
- Androgens (male hormones found in both males and females): Higher levels of androgens and/or higher sensitivity to androgens may lead to oilier skin.
- Growth hormone (IGF-1): Higher growth hormone levels may lead to oilier skin.
And one factor may result in less oiliness:
- Estrogens (female hormones found in both males and females): Higher levels may lead to less oily skin.
And there are two wildcards that may either increase or decrease skin oiliness:
- Neuropeptides: Depending on the body’s response to these small but powerful proteins, we can see an increase or decrease in skin oiliness.
- Diet: Diets high in simple carbohydrates like candy, white bread, and soda may lead to increased skin oil.
- Skip Down to What Can Be Done About It?
- Higher Androgen and Growth Hormone Levels Lead to Oilier Skin
- Higher Estrogen Levels Lead to Less Oily Skin
- Neuropeptides and Diet
- Other Factors That Might Affect Sebum Production
Oily skin, medically called seborrhea, is a condition that results when the skin over-produces skin oil (sebum), leaving the skin looking shiny and feeling greasy.
Expand to see technical definition of oily skin
Sebum is produced all over the body in glands called sebaceous glands, that are attached to the sides of skin pores. The face, scalp, and upper torso are most likely to experience excess sebum production.2-4
Even though too much sebum is unwanted, sebum serves several purposes for the skin, as noted in this illustration:
Higher Androgen and Growth Hormone Levels Lead to Oilier Skin
Higher androgen levels: Androgens are male sex hormones that are found in both males and females. Testosterone is the most commonly studied androgen. The majority of testosterone present in the body is produced in the gonads or adrenal glands (found above the kidneys), but it can also be produced in sebaceous glands themselves.
Many studies show us that people with higher levels of androgens tend to have oilier skin. However, higher levels of androgens may not always be required to develop oily skin. Some people may simply be more sensitive to androgens, and this sensitivity may lead to the development oilier skin.3
Expand to read details of studies
Higher growth hormone (IGF-1) levels: Growth hormones are hormones secreted by the pituitary gland (found at the base of the skull) that stimulate the body to produce insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).
Scientists believe that IGF-1 is involved in sebum production and acne development because people show the highest levels of IGF-1 during adolescence, which is also when people are most likely to experience acne.
One study found that acne patients had increased levels of IGF-1 and increased sebum secretion. Another study found that IGF-1 can promote the synthesis of fats in sebaceous glands. These studies, combined with other evidence showing that growth hormone disorders are associated with higher than normal sebum levels and acne, have led researchers to believe that IGF-1 levels are directly correlated with sebum production.2
Higher Estrogen Levels Lead to Less Oily Skin
Higher estrogen levels: Estrogens are female sex hormones that are found in both males and females. Estrogen works to suppress sebum production, leading to less oily skin. However, only females can be treated with estrogen.
Researchers have proposed three hypotheses to explain how estrogens might reduce sebum production:
- Directly counteracting the effects of androgens already in the body.
- Inhibiting the production of testosterone so less testosterone is produced to begin with.
- Controlling the activation of genes responsible for synthesizing fats. Since sebum is made of fats, this can decrease sebum production.
Regardless, estrogens work to reduce sebum production, and therefore different levels of estrogen may partly explain why some people’s skin is oilier than others’.10
Two Wildcards: Neuropeptides and Diet
Neuropeptides: Neuropeptides are small proteins found within nerve cells that help to regulate a variety of bodily functions, including sebum production.
Researchers have found that sebaceous gland cells can respond to different neuropeptides. Depending on the neuropeptide the sebaceous gland cell encounters, it may activate or suppress sebum production.4 Therefore, differences in how someone’s body responds to neuropeptides may also partly explain why some people have oilier skin than others.
Diet: Studies have found that two specific diets may decrease sebum production in the skin, but it’s important to keep in mind that the science that looks at diet and sebum production is still coming in.
The first diet is a low glycemic load diet, which is a diet that restricts the consumption of simple carbohydrates found in foods like candy, white bread, and soda. Research has found that a low-glycemic diet may cause a reduction in the amount of sebum produced. A typical Western diet contains many foods high in simple carbohydrates, which may cause increases in IGF-1 levels.4
The second diet is an extreme caloric restriction diet, also known as fasting. Two studies have found that fasting can reduce sebum production by up to 20% in the short term. The decrease in sebum production caused by fasting is reversed when the individual returns to a normal diet.4
Other Factors That Might Affect Sebum Production
Two other potential factors might influence skin oiliness:
- Ethnicity: Generally, people who have larger skin pores tend to produce more skin oil. Studies have found that the size of skin pores may differ across ethnicities. For example, women of Chinese background may have smaller pores while people of African background may have larger pores.
- Humidity: Humid climates might lead to oilier skin. Similarly, people’s skin might produce more skin oil at humid times of year, although not all studies agree on whether this occurs.1
So What Can Be Done About It?
Males & females: There are several treatments that can help, including non-prescription treatments (e.g. topical green tea) as well as prescription treatments (e.g. Botox®).
Females only: Hormonal treatments (e.g. oral contraceptives and/or anti-androgen medications like spironolactone) are an option.
- Endly, D. C. & Miller, R. A. Oily skin: A review of treatment options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol 10, 49‐55 (2017). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28979664/
- Smith, K. R. & Thiboutot, D. M. Sebaceous gland lipids: friend or foe? J Lipid Res 49, 271 – 281 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17975220
- Thibutout, D. Regulation of human sebaceous glands. J Invest Dermatol 123, 1 – 12 (2004). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15191536
- Makrantonaki, E., Ganceviciene, R. & Zouboulis, C. C. An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acne. Dermatoendocrinol 3, 41 – 49 (2011). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051853/
- Pochi, P. E. & Stauss, J. S. Sebaceous gland response in man to the administration of testosterone, ∆4-androstenedione, and dehydroisoandrosterone. J Investig Dermatol 52, 32 – 36 (1969). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4236132
- Marynick, S. P., Chakmakjian, Z. H., McCaffree, D. L. & Herndon, J. H. Androgen excess in cystic acne. New Engl J Med 308, 981 – 986 (1983). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6220224
- Lucky, A. W., McGuire, J., Rosenfield, R. L., Lucky, P. A. & Rich, B. H. Plasma androgens in women with acne vulgaris. 81, 70 – 74 (1983). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6223099
- Imperato-McGinley, J. et al. The androgen control of sebum production. Studies of subjects with dihydrotestosterone deficiency and complete androgen insensitivity. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 76, 524 – 528 (1993). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8381804
- Lucky, A. W. et al. Acne vulgaris in premenarchal girls. An early sign of puberty associated with rising levels of dehydroepiandrosterone. Arch Dermatol 130, 308 – 314 (1994). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8129408
- Lucky, A. W., McGuire, J., Rosenfield, R. L., Lucky, P. A. & Rich, B. H. Plasma androgens in women with acne vulgaris. J Investig Dermatol 81, 70 – 74 (1983). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6223099
- Thiboutot, D., Gilliland, K. & Lookingbill, D. Androgen metabolism in sebaceous glands from subjects with and without acne. Arch Dermatol 135, 1041 – 1045 (1999). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10490108
- Cappel, M., Mauger, D. & Thiboutot, D. Correlation between serum levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, and dihydrotestosterone and acne lesion counts in adult women. Arch Dermatol 141, 333 – 338 (2005). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15781674