What causes oily skin? 4 Reasons & 4 Solutions


Ever wonder what causes oily skin? Chances are, it’s something you’re eating or doing.

What Causes Oily Skin

Skin naturally produces oil (sebum) to coat, moisturize, and protect itself.

But, certain factors can cause your oil glands to produce excess sebum, which results in oily skin that is more prone to breakouts. (1)

The good news is, you have control over many of these factors. The first step to reducing oily skin naturally is to identify what’s causing it.

Here are some of the most common causes of oily skin.

1. Inflammatory Foods

Consuming too many inflammatory foods such as dairy, refined sugar, and refined carbohydrates can trigger oily skin.

How Dairy Causes Oily Skin

Commercially available milk is rich in progesterone and precursors of dihydrotestosterone (DHT). These hormones stimulate the production of sebum. Additionally, milk consumption increases the release of insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). (2) Research shows that higher levels of IGF-1 stimulate the overproduction of sebum. (3)

How Sugar Causes Oily Skin

Sugar and refined carbohydrates (eg. white bread, pasta, cereal, flour) are some of the most strongly associated foods with acne. One study found that people who frequently consumed added sugars had a 30% greater risk of developing acne, while those who regularly ate pastries and cakes had a 20% greater risk. (4)

How Excess Meat Causes Oily Skin

High animal protein diets have also been found to increase IGF-1, a hormone linked to increased sebum production and acne. (5, 6)  An Oxford study that included 292 British women found animal protein eaters to have IGF-1 levels that were 13% higher compared to those who abstained from all animal products. (7)

2. Hormonal Imbalance

Hormones influence your sebum production and inflammation. So, hormonal imbalances can lead to oily skin and acne. (8) It is well established that high androgen levels, such as excessive testosterone, increases sebum production. (9)

For instance, right before your period starts, estrogen and progesterone levels drop. Meanwhile, your levels of testosterone stay about the same, so before and during your period, your testosterone level is relatively higher than that of estrogen and progesterone. This can stimulate the sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum, which can clog your pores and result in breakouts.

It’s also common to experience oily skin once you stop birth control pills. This is because once you go off the pill, there is an increase in the hormone testosterone, which increases sebum production. In fact, it can take months for your body to regulate your hormones and get everything back in balance.

Why Is My Skin So Oily - Hormonal Imbalance

3. Chronic Stress

Chronic stress increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn increases sebum production resulting in oily skin, clogged pores, and breakouts. (10, 11) One study found that fear and weeping were associated with increased sebum production. (12)

Beyond just increasing cortisol levels, stress also causes a cascade of other chemicals to flood the body, including androgens, the male hormones that can trigger oil production, and inflammatory chemicals, which also contribute to breakouts.

4. Harsh Skincare / Over-Washing

Any sort of harsh skincare which dries out the skin can end up having the opposite of its intended effect, by stripping too much oil from the skin. This prompts your oil glands to produce more sebum to make up for the loss, resulting in oily skin.

Additionally, over-washing can also pose a problem. Many people believe that they need to wash or exfoliate their face often in order to dry out their oily skin. However, over-washing your face can strip your skin of its natural oils and trigger more oil production.

In the morning, a splash of water should be sufficient, and a cleanse is really only needed at the end of the day, or after a sweaty workout. It’s best to use a gentle, natural cleanser that won’t dry out your skin.

How To Reduce Oily Skin

There are many things you can do to reduce oily skin and overactive oil production.  Here’s how:

1. Reduce Inflammatory Foods

Avoid fried foods, refined sugar, high-glycemic foods (like white bread, crackers, and other baked goods), and excessive consumption of red meat. Instead, opt for anti-inflammatory foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, omega-3 rich seafood, and grass-fed meat.

Here are 6 top foods to help keep your skin clear. These foods help to replenish key skin-clearing nutrients and aid in balancing hormones, reducing inflammation, and regulating sebum production.

Why Is My Skin So Oily - Inflammatory Foods

2. Rebalance Hormones

One of the most important things you can do for your skin, and overall health, is to keep your blood sugar level stable. Aim to consume a low glycemic diet (one filled with whole foods, as opposed to refined foods).

Also, aim to consume at least 30g of fiber daily. Studies have shown that both a low glycemic diet, and a high fiber diet may reduce excess androgen and IGF-1 levels, and therefore, acne. (13, 14) Luckily, a low glycemic and high fiber diet go hand-in hand — foods that are high fiber are low glycemic.

You’ll find dozens of delicious low-glycemic and high fiber recipes here.

Getting an adequate amount of magnesium may also be helpful, as magnesium is a critical nutrient for hormone balance, yet is one many people are deficient in. Dark leafy greens are an excellent source of magnesium. Aim to consume at least 2-3 cups daily. Try this garlic sauteed chard, beans and greens, or Kale & Avocado Salad with Chickpea Croutons

If you notice that your skin tends to get oily around your period, be sure to consume adequate omega-3. Research shows that adequate omega-3 can help to reduce PMS symptoms including acne. (15) Consume 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed or chia seed daily, and consume omega-3 rich seafood like wild salmon, anchovies, and mackerel weekly.

3. Manage Your Stress

Incorporate mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques into your daily life. There are many different ways to reduce stress, such as yoga, meditation, breathwork, exercise, or spending time in nature.

However, don’t rely solely on the physical to ease your stress.

True stress reduction comes from changing your perspective.

You get to choose how you see every situation. Whether you allow something to stress you out, or if you view it as a part of life or a challenge to be conquered. Whether you keep your cool or flip your lid. I highly recommend the book Loving What Is by Byron Katie to help you change your perspective on stress. After reading this, you’ll be less likely to sweat the small – or big – stuff.

4. Use Gentle Skincare for Oily Skin

It may seem counter intuitive, but a more gentle skincare routine is more suitable for inflamed, acne-prone skin. 

Here are my top picks for natural skincare products.

Food and lifestyle will do the heavy lifting for clearing your acne, so keep it simple with your skincare routine.

Remember, everyone’s skin is different, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to acne. If you are concerned about the amount of oil your skin is producing or if you’re struggling with acne, check out my Clear Skin Plan, a  science-backed, doctor-approved program to help you clear acne naturally through dietary and lifestyle changes.

Clear Skin Plan

Clearer Skin in Just 3 Days

Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get the latest recipes, articles, & podcasts delivered to your inbox.

Plus, you’ll receive The Glow Up Guide right away, a delicious 3-day meal plan to reduce redness and bumps, fast.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Hi, I’m Maria and I’m an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach.

I help busy women lose weight or clear up their acne by developing healthier eating habits, based on a plant-based paleo diet.

Healthy by Marlowe Meal Plan
Wellness Shop

Glow Up Guide

Discover how to clear your skin naturally with this tasty 3-day meal plan designed to reduce redness and bumps, fast.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Follow Along @Mariamarlowe