Slapping on a good dose of moisturizer twice a day to help combat oily, acne-prone skin can seem counterintuitive. But, in fact, it can be one of the most effective ways to look after your skin. Now, while we're not telling you to grab the creamiest or thickest moisturizer you can get your hands on and clog your pores; what we are telling you is that hydration is key.
To get to the bottom of what causes oily skin, how best to look after it, and which products the pros recommend, we called in some of the top dermatologists to explain.
"The right moisturizer can help to balance your skin and regulate oil production by restoring the skin's natural barrier," Dr Thivi Maruthappu said.
What Causes Oily Skin?
Before we dive into the causes, you might be wondering whether you have oily skin. A simple way to check this, according to consultant dermatologist Emma Craythorne, is to wash your face and 20 minutes later, see if your skin has produced more oil since cleansing it. If it has, your skin type is on the oilier side.
"Oily skin happens when the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum," said London-based consultant dermatologist Thivi Maruthappu. "Oil is produced in sebaceous glands and sits on the top of the skin to prevent moisture loss. But oily skin can still dry out if you use harsh facial cleansers, which can damage the skin's natural barrier. This can trigger over-production of oil, meaning your oily skin can end up worse off than you started."
Because of this, "it's important to distinguish between oil production and hydration," said Dr. Maruthappu. "Your skin can be oily but still not be properly hydrated, which can lead to dull skin and sometimes make fine lines more apparent." This is where choosing the right moisturizer comes in.
Why Does Someone With Oily Skin Need a Moisturizer?
"The right moisturizer can help to balance your skin and regulate oil production by restoring the skin's natural barrier," Dr. Maruthappa said as to why someone with oily skin still needs to hydration.
Those with oily skin expect a lot in a moisturizer, and rightly so. Obviously, you need a moisturizer to, well, moisturizer, but it also should "help to control oiliness and regulate sebum production", says Dr Tiina Meder, dermatologist, cardiologist, and founder of Meder Beauty. Essentially, "moisturizers for oily skin should support cellular functions while avoiding greasiness or plugging the pilosebaceous units (the hair shaft, hair follicle, and the sebaceous gland), which will increase breakouts," adds Dr Charlene DeHaven, M.D., and clinical director of iS Clinical.
What Should Someone With Oily Skin Look For in a Moisturizer?
To reduce the amount of duds on your quest to find the right face moisturizer, the experts we spoke to shared their thoughts not only on what you should look for, but also what you should steer clear of when choosing a moisturizer for oily skin.
"The number one thing to look for when you're buying a moisturizer is a non-comedogenic formula," said Dr Maruthappu. This essentially means non-clogging, and has been specially formulated to minimize the chance of blocking your pores and causing breakouts.
But not all experts believe a standard moisturizer is the best route. Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme, an aesthetic doctor and medical director of Adonia Clinic, believes that people with oily skin might get on better with a serum or ceramide treatment instead. Dr. Maruthappu echoes this, recommending that you should look for a lightweight serum or gel formula.
If nothing else, John Quinn, founder and medical director of Bristol-based Quinn Clinics, says people with oily skin should at least use a good SPF. "SPF ranks a lot higher than moisturizer," he said. "During the day, swapping a moisturizer for a non-comedogenic, broad-spectrum sunscreen will shield the skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays. In the day, look for residue-free SPF formulas that are packed full of ingredients like niacinamide, which can help balance oil production." At night, try swapping your occlusive cream for a retinol regime (or even a prescribed retinoid) to bring the skin back into balance."
Still, experts understand that some people don't like the feel of a moisturizer. If this is the case, Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55 and author of The Skincare Bible, recommends you look for lightweight, water-based serums or lotions that have a gel-like texture. Additionally, look out for ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, niacinamide, or tea-tree oil which can help reduce oil production or reduce blockages within the pores.
Dr. Maruthappu notes other ingredients you may want to look out for include dimethicone, hyaluronic acid and glycerin, all of which prevent and calm dryness and irritation.
What Should Someone With Oily Skin Avoid in a Moisturizer?
Just like there are certain ingredients you should look out for when shopping for a moisturizer, there are some you might want to skip.
Both Dr. Mahto and Dr. Maruthappu explain that you should avoid creams and lotions with bases of petrolatum, such as mineral oil, as this can potentially act as occlusives and block pores. In addition to this, Dr. Craythorne notes that you may want to be cautious of using coconut oil, isopropyl myristate, and polyethylene glycol. This is especially important if you have very sensitive skin and are prone to irritation.
So, the bottom line when finding a moisturizer for oily and acne-prone skin is that hydration is key, whether that's from an oil-free SPF or a powerful serum with a cocktail of active ingredients. And while — like all skin-care products — there is an element of trial and error in finding the perfect one, there are certain ingredients and formulas you should look out for and also avoid.