Sebum- the Acid Mantle, and How Hormones Control it All.

The more active your androgens are, the more sebum your body may produce. Although progesterone — a female-specific sex hormone — isn’t an androgen, it does appear to have an effect on sebum production. Progesterone weakens the effect of the enzyme 5 alpha-reductase. 5 alpha-reductase activates sebum production.

What Is Sebum and Why Does It Build Up on Skin and Hair?

What is sebum?

Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands. It coats, moisturizes, and protects your skin. It’s also the main ingredient in what you might think of as your body’s natural oils. So, what exactly is sebum made up of? As an article from Harvard Medical School explains, “sebum is a complex mixture of fatty acids, sugars, waxes, and other natural chemicals that form a protective barrier against water evaporation.” To be more specific, sebum contains  triglycerides and fatty acids (57%), wax esters (26%), squalene (12%), and cholesterol (4.5%). If you have very oily skin, your body may be producing an excess amount of the mixture of lipids (fat-like molecules) that make up sebum. Of course, what we call “oil” on our skin is made up of more than just sebum. It also contains a mixture of sweat, dead skin cells, and tiny particles of pretty much whatever else is in the dust floating around you.

Where are the sebaceous glands located?

Sebaceous glands cover the vast majority of your body. Although they’re often grouped around hair follicles, many exist independently. Your face and scalp contain the highest concentration of glands. Your face, in particular, may have as many as 900 sebaceous glands per square centimeter of skin. Your shins and other smooth surfaces typically have fewer glands. The palms of your hands and the soles of your feet are the only areas of skin without any glands at all. Each gland secretes sebum. To help you picture the process more clearly, it might be helpful to think of your tear ducts and the way they secrete your eyes’ natural moisture.  Although sebaceous glands are much smaller than tear ducts, they work in a similar way.

What’s the purpose of sebum?

Sebum production is a complex process that scientists don’t fully understand. That said, researchers do know that its primary function is to protect your skin and hair from moisture loss. Some scientists speculate that sebum may also have an antimicrobial or antioxidant role. It may even help release pheromones. Research into these potential functions is ongoing.

Sebum and your hormones

Your androgens help regulate your overall sebum production. Very active androgens, like testosterone, are produced by your adrenal glands and your ovaries or testes. These glands are, in turn, regulated by your brain’s pituitary gland. Your pituitary gland is in charge of your body’s entire endocrine (hormonal) system. The more active your androgens are, the more sebum your body may produce. Although progesterone — a female-specific sex hormone — isn’t an androgen, it does appear to have an effect on sebum production. Progesterone weakens the effect of the enzyme 5 alpha-reductase. 5 alpha-reductase activates sebum production. So, in theory, high progesterone levels should cause sebum production to go down. But that typically isn’t the case. Researchers have found that when progesterone levels spike, sebum production actually goes up. More research is needed to understand why.

Sebum and age

You might be surprised to learn that you begin to use your sebaceous glands before you’re even born. While in the womb, your sebaceous glands produce vernix caseosa. This white, paste-like coating protects and moisturizes your skin until birth. Your sebaceous glands begin to produce sebum after you’re born. For the first three to six months of life, your glands produce as much sebum as an adult’s. From there, sebum production slows until you hit puberty. When you hit puberty, sebum production may increase up to 500 percent. Male adolescents tend to produce more sebum than their female counterparts. This often results in oily, acne-prone skin. Your sebum production will likely peak before you reach adulthood. Although adult males produce slightly more sebum than adult females, everyone’s sebum production declines with age. This often results in dry, cracked skin.

What else affects sebum production?

There are several medications, underlying conditions, and other outside factors that can make your sebaceous glands more or less active. This, in turn, affects how much sebum your glands produce.

Increased production

Hormonal medications often increase sebum production. This includes testosterone, some progesterones, and phenothiazine. Parkinson’s disease has also been associated with an uptick in sebum production. In many cases, pituitary, adrenal, ovarian, and testicular conditions can cause either an increase or decrease in production.

Decreased production

Certain birth control pills, antiandrogens, and isotretinoin typically decrease sebum production. Starvation and long-term malnutrition are also associated with a decline in sebum production. As previously stated, pituitary, adrenal, ovarian, and testicular conditions can cause either an increase or decrease in production.

How to balance sebum production

You can typically use creams, soaps, and other topicals to help treat the symptoms associated with too much or too little sebum. Although more research is needed, there’s some evidence to suggest that your diet can affect how much sebum your body makes. If you aren’t able to easily identify specific triggers, you may find it helpful to try an elimination diet. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe hormonal medication or supplements to help balance your sebum production from within.

How to reduce sebum production if you have oily skin or hair

You may consider talking to your doctor about combination birth control pills. The combination of estrogen and progestin may help reduce your sebum production. If you’re already taking the progestin-only pill or a combination birth control pill, talk to your doctor about switching. They may be able to recommend a different pill that suits your needs. If you’re experiencing severe acne, your doctor may also prescribe isotretinoin.
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. This oral medication may lower sebum production by up to 90 percent.

Certain foods have also been linked to excess oil production and acne. Avoiding foods that disrupt your blood sugar levels or are high in saturated fat might help to curb your oil production from within.

How to boost sebum production if you have dry skin and hair

If you’re dealing with dryness, take an inventory of the products you’re using on your skin and hair. This includes shampoos, cleansers, makeup, laundry detergent — anything that comes into contact with your body. Alcohol, acids, and fragrances are all common ingredients known to cause irritation. If you can, switch to products catered toward sensitive skin or fragrance-free versions. Switching from hot to lukewarm showers can also help. Spending time in excessively hot water strips the oils from your hair and skin. And if you aren’t already using moisturizer on your face and lotion on your body, now is the time to start. Increasing your water intake and eating more healthy fats, like omega 3s, may also help. If you suspect that your lack of sebum is related to a hormonal imbalance, talk to a doctor or other healthcare provider. They may recommend testosterone therapy to help increase production.

The bottom line

Sebum is a necessary component of healthy skin. It moisturizes and protects the surface of almost your entire body. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, or too little. Everyone’s body is different, so there’s no exact amount to have. If you’re dealing with chapped and cracking skin, oily patches, or severe acne, talk to a doctor or healthcare provider. They may be able to recommend different things you can do at home to help restore balance. In some cases, they may also be able to prescribe clinical treatments.

What to know about female sex hormones

Female sex hormones, or sex steroids, play vital roles in sexual development, reproduction, and general health. Sex hormone levels change over time, but some of the most significant changes happen during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. In this article, we discuss the different types of female sex hormones, their roles in the body, and how they affect arousal.

What are sex hormones?
Female sex hormones affect bone and muscle growth. Hormones are chemical messengers that the endocrine glands produce and release into the bloodstream. Hormones help regulate many bodily processes, such as appetite, sleep, and growth. Sex hormones are those that play an essential role in sexual development and reproduction. The main glands that produce sex hormones are the adrenal glands and the gonads, which include the ovaries in females and testes in males.

Sex hormones are also important for a range of bodily functions and a person’s general health. In both males and females, sex hormones are involved in:

  • puberty and sexual development
  • reproduction
  • sexual desire
  • regulating bone and muscle growth
  • inflammatory responses
  • regulating cholesterol levels
  • promoting hair growth
  • body fat distribution

Sex hormone levels fluctuate throughout a person’s life. Factors that can affect the levels of female sex hormones include:

Sex hormone imbalances can lead to changes in sexual desire and health problems such as hair loss, bone loss, and infertility.

Types of female sex hormone

In females, the ovaries and adrenal glands are the main producers of sex hormones. Female sex hormones include estrogenprogesterone, and small quantities of testosterone. We discuss each of these sex hormones below:


Estrogen is probably the most well-known sex hormone. Although the majority of estrogen production occurs in the ovaries, the adrenal glands and fat cells produce small amounts of estrogen, too. Estrogen plays a crucial role in reproductive and sexual development, which begins when a person reaches puberty.


The ovaries, adrenal glands, and placenta produce the hormone progesterone. Progesterone levels increase during ovulation and spike during pregnancy. Progesterone helps stabilize menstrual cycles and prepares the body for pregnancy. Having a low level of progesterone can lead to irregular periods, difficulty conceiving, and a higher risk of complications during pregnancy.


Although testosterone is the main sex hormone in males, it is also present in lower amounts in females.

In females, testosterone affects:

  • fertility
  • sexual desire
  • menstruation
  • tissue and bone mass
  • red blood cell production

Role in puberty

Share on PinterestDuring puberty, the body produces more estrogen and progesterone. Females typically enter puberty between the ages of 8 and 13 years, and puberty usually ends when they are around 14 years old. During puberty, the pituitary gland starts producing larger quantities of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the production of estrogen and progesterone. Increased levels of estrogen and progesterone initiate the development of secondary sexual characteristics, which include:

  • breast development
  • hair growth on the underarms, legs, and pubic region
  • increased height
  • increased fat storage on the hips, buttocks, and thighs
  • widening of the pelvis and hips
  • increased oil production in the skin

Role in menstruation

Menarche is the first time a person gets their menstrual period, and it typically occurs between the ages of 12 and 13 years. However, menarche can occur at any time between 8 and 15 years of age. After menarche, many people have regular menstrual cycles until they reach menopause. Menstrual cycles are usually around 28 days long but can vary between 24 and 38 days. The menstrual cycle occurs in three phases that coincide with hormonal changes:

Follicular phase

The first day of a period marks the beginning of a new menstrual cycle. During a period, blood and tissue from the uterus exit the body through the vagina. Estrogen and progesterone levels are very low at this point, and this can cause irritability and mood changes. The pituitary gland also releases FSH and LH, which increase estrogen levels and signal follicle growth in the ovaries. Each follicle contains one egg. After a few days, one dominant follicle will emerge in each ovary. The ovaries will absorb the remaining follicles. As the dominant follicle continues growing, it will produce more estrogen. This increase in estrogen stimulates the release of endorphins that raise energy levels and improve mood. Estrogen also enriches the endometrium, which is the lining of the uterus, in preparation for a potential pregnancy.

Ovulatory phase

During the ovulatory phase, estrogen and LH levels in the body peak, causing a follicle to burst and release its egg from the ovary. An egg can survive for around 12–24 hours after leaving the ovary. Fertilization of the egg can only occur during this time frame.

Luteal phase

During the luteal phase, the egg travels from the ovary to the uterus via the fallopian tube. The ruptured follicle releases progesterone, which thickens the uterine lining, preparing it to receive a fertilized egg. Once the egg reaches the end of the fallopian tube, it attaches to the uterine wall. An unfertilized egg will cause estrogen and progesterone levels to decline. This marks the beginning of the premenstrual week. Finally, the unfertilized egg and the uterine lining will leave the body, marking the end of the current menstrual cycle and the beginning of the next.

Role in pregnancy

Pregnancy starts the moment a fertilized egg implants in the wall of a person’s uterus. Following implantation, the placenta begins to develop and starts producing a number of hormones, including progesterone, relaxin, and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Progesterone levels steadily rise during the first few weeks of pregnancy, causing the cervix to thicken and form the mucus plug. The production of relaxin prevents contractions in the uterus until the end of pregnancy, at which point it then helps relax the ligaments and tendons in the pelvis. Rising hCG levels in the body then stimulate further production of estrogen and progesterone. This rapid increase in hormones leads to early pregnancy symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and the need to urinate more often. Estrogen and progesterone levels continue to rise during the second trimester of pregnancy. At this time, cells in the placenta will start producing a hormone called human placental lactogen (HPL). HPL regulates women’s metabolism and helps nourish the growing fetus. Hormone levels decline when a pregnancy ends and gradually return to prepregnancy levels. When a person breastfeeds, it can lower estrogen levels in the body, which may prevent ovulation occurring.

Role in menopause

Menopause can cause sleeping difficulties. Menopause occurs when a person stops having menstrual periods and is no longer able to become pregnant. In the United States, the average age at which a woman experiences menopause is 52 years.
Perimenopause refers to the transitional period leading up a person’s final period. During this transition, large fluctuations in hormone levels can cause a person to experience a range of symptoms.

Symptoms of perimenopause can include:

  • irregular periods
  • hot flashes
  • sleeping difficulties
  • mood changes
  • vaginal dryness

According to the Office on Women’s Health, perimenopause usually lasts for about 4 years but can last anywhere between 2 and 8 years.
A person reaches menopause when they have gone a full year without having a period. After menopause, the ovaries will only produce very small but constant amounts of estrogen and progesterone. Lower levels of estrogen may reduce a person’s sex drive and cause bone density loss, which can lead to osteoporosis. These hormonal changes may also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.


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