Many of you will have heard of sebum – whether as a term thrown around in the Beauty World, or maybe even while having a chat to your local beautician during that latest facial. But what is sebum and where does it come from?

Sebum and Sebaceous Glands

As any keen Beauty Geek knows, our skin contains a huge number of hair follicles. These hair follicles are associated with sebaceous glands (see the picture below!), whose primary function is to secrete sebum – the natural oil produced by the skin to keep it hydrated and protected, but this is also what can make our skin and hair appear shiny and greasy. Sebum isn’t really one molecule, and is actually a mixture of free fatty acids, wax esters, squalene, cholesterol esters and cholesterol.

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Sebum has a very unique composition – the wax ester and squalene components of sebum aren’t found anywhere else in the body. Sebum has a number of functions other than to simply hydrate the skin: it provides photoprotection (protection from photodamage from sunlight), has antimicrobial activity, regulated inflammation and also enables the delivery of anti-oxidants which are dissolved in the sebum. That’s quite some multitasking!

The complete role of sebum in human health still isn’t completely understood, but we do know that change in the balance of secreted sebum is a key contributor to the development of acne.

Sebum and Acne

The skin condition acne is caused by a combination of factors, including seborrhoea (that’s excess sebum secretion), build of cellular debris on the skin and in the hair follicles, and colonization of blocked pores with Acne vulguaris. A.vulgaris is a bacterium commonly found on human skin, but in acne development there is overgrowth of these bacteria in the presence of blocked ducts and over-secretion of sebum. The infection triggers and inflammatory response, leading to those pesky pimples!

The degree of excess sebum secretion has been shown to correlate with the severity of acne, underlying its central role in the condition. Interestingly, changes in sebum associated with acne also include altered sebum composition. Acne sufferers have been found to secrete sebum with reduced wax ester content in their sebum, as well as increased levels of squalene. These wax esters are thought to be produced from linoleic acid, and decreased linoleic acid levels on the skin are thought to be a potential trigger of this acne-causing cascade!

Sebum and the Diet

Our diet is known also known to affect sebum production, which has led to further postulation about the role that our diet may play in acne formation. There’s a still a lot of debate as to whether diet actually affects how prone to acne we are, and there are a lot of conflicting arguments on the subject!

So that’s a little about sebum and its links to acne! It’s very tempting to want to get rid of all that sebum, with the hope of reducing shininess and oiliness on the skin (as well as trying to keep those spots away!), but remember – sebum has important functions in the body. Over-washing with shampoos and detergents can lead to further increases in oil production as the body attempts to rehydrate the skin and hair, so the best approach is to try and achieve a good balance! We’ve come across a range of products that include ingredients like jojoba oil, which mimics the skin’s sebum to help balance secretion levels without drying the skin out!


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