Does Oily Skin Need a Moisturizer?

A lack of hydration can trigger a host of skin problems

When you have oily skin, you may think that using a moisturizer is the last thing you should do. But, as the body's largest organ—and the one that is arguably most influenced environmental conditions—the skin often needs a moisturizer to mitigate the loss of hydration even with it is oily or pimply.

Woman putting moisturizer on her finger
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By better understanding the biology of your skin and what is needed to keep it healthy, you can reap the benefits of daily moisturizing irrespective of your skin type.

Hydration vs. Oil

People often mistake skin oil for skin hydration. Skin oil is the waxy substance, called sebum, that is secreted by the sebaceous glands to help maintain the barrier function of the skin. Skin hydration is the process wherein water is absorbed into the layers of the skin, known as the epidermis and dermis, to maintain its plumpness, elasticity, and resiliency.

Although the excessive build-up of sebum can lead to oily skin and acne, it doesn't mean that the skin is well-hydrated. Moreover, the very act of stripping away these oils promotes the loss of moisture.

In the end, hydrated skin is healthy skin. Without ample moisture, the appearance and protective function of the skin can be severely compromised. With prolonged dehydration, your skin is at greater risk of inflammation, infection, wrinkles, and premature aging.

Dehydrated skin may even increase the risk of breakouts. When the skin becomes excessively dry, the body compensates by producing more oil to bolster the skin's barrier function. This can lead to the clogging of the pores and the development of more pimples.

Remember that just because your skin has a lot of oil doesn't mean that it has a lot of water. Things like cold weather, hot baths, and harsh astringents can all disrupt the integrity of the skin, leading to rapid moisture loss and dryness.

Acne and Moisturizing

Many acne ingredients have a profound drying effect on the skin. This includes topical retinoids like Retin-A (tretinoin) and Accutane (isotretinoin) or topical antibacterials like benzoyl peroxide. These drugs promote drying in two distinct ways:

  • Topical retinoids speed up the skin cell turnover cycle, increasing the rate by which skin cells are shed and leaving the remaining skin dry and flaky.
  • Benzoyl peroxide is sebostatic (meaning that it slows sebum production) and mildly keratolytic (exfoliating), the combination of which can lead to skin dryness.

Unless you replace the lost moisture caused by these substances, your skin will not only remain dry and flaky but also be more vulnerable to cracks, breaks, tears, and infection. Using a moisturizer daily is the single best defense to avoiding these and other common side effects.

Moisturizers for Oily Skin

There are many moisturizers created specifically for oily skin. These products are light, fast-absorbing, and won't leave your skin feeling slick or looking shiny.

A good moisturizer has three main properties:

  • Occlusive: An occlusive agent is an ingredient that seals in moisture by forming a hydrophobic (water-fighting) film on the skin. Occlusive agents like petrolatum, lanolin, mineral oil, paraffin, and squalene are usually quite greasy. If you have oily skin, silicone derivatives like dimethicone or cyclomethicone are not greasy if used on their own.
  • Humectant: Humectants are ingredients that keep the skin moist by drawing water from the lower-lying dermis to the outermost epidermis. These include ingredients like glycerin, sodium lactate, ammonium lactate, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, urea, and alpha hydroxy acids, all of which are suitable for people with oily skin.
  • Emollient: Emollients are ingredients that smooth skin by filling spaces between flakes in the stratum corneum (the crusty outer layer of the epidermis) with either oil or wax. There are some emollients that are less greasy (like ceramides) and others that are more greasy (like stearic acid, linoleic acid, oleic acid, lauric acid, and fatty alcohols).

Look for moisturizers labeled "non-comedogenic," meaning that they won't clog pores and cause comedones (blackheads or whiteheads).

On the other hand, steer clear of moisturizers containing mineral oil, cocoa butter, petrolatum, or petroleum as well as skin products with fragrances that tend to harsh on the skin.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to choosing a moisturizer for oily skin, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Take the time to choose the right moisturizer by reading ingredient labels and asking your dermatologist or esthetician for recommendations. Experiment with different products until you can find the one that is right for you.

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