We have a love-hate relationship with our skin's sebum don't we?
On the one hand, dewy is IN - there's hundreds of memes out there admiring glowy skin (and sometimes it's even the glaze on a Krispy Kreme donut). On the other hand, we don't want OUR natural dew (sebum), we want fancy oils, serums, highlighters and face gloss, and not that there's anything wrong with that, but I thought I'd bring our focus back to the custom-formulated glow-giver that our body produces for us.
I remember when I was first introduced to the blotting paper in highschool, and it was equal measures disgust and fascination when you tested your t-zone with those tiny papers and saw the oil absorbed on it. 'Wow!', I'd think, 'I'm so glad this isn't left on my face!'. For many years, it was unquestioned - oil was something you wanted to remove, and just a byproduct of your face moving through the day. So whether it was a loose or pressed powder, a menthol-filled clay mask or a mattifying primer, it was all about making sure that oil was "sucked up" so to speak.
Since then, we've really begun to embrace sheen-y, shiny, glossy skin - full coverage will always be a favourite, but now you'll always add a highlighter on top, add some dimension and something to catch the light.
Our sebum is still so often misunderstood as the villain that seeps from our pores. I remember having a conversation with the sister of a friend talking about how our blackheads (oxidised sebum) were dirt in our pores that needed to be cleared out. That's not to say that treatments like extractions from qualified professionals aren't beneficial - often, really stubborn clogged pores can need a little extra help (especially if they start enlarging and stretching the pores over time), and very congested skin WILL see improvement from different topical and holistic treatments. It's the 'pore vacuums' and skin-tearing pore strips and tingling clay masks that tend to make the situation worse, not achieving anything more than causing some skin irritation and trauma (and often times, never actually removing anything other than some necessary layers of skin).
What am I getting at? Well, let's look at what our sebum actually does for us. I love this extract from a 2017 medical journal article about treating oily skin:
"Despite the pessimistic view of sebaceous glands as a result of their role in oily skin, they do play a vital role in the skin’s well being. Sebaceous glands display endocrine function (particularly androgen synthesis), compose the fetal vernix caseosa, and play a key role in the epidermal barrier and innate immunity."
The make up of our sebum looks something like this: 57% triglycerides and fatty acids, 26% wax esters, 12% squalene and 4.5% cholesterol. It's a lot more than just plain oil, and some people product it very efficiently (you might have more obvious pores for this reason), while others experience dry skin and need to add in extra moisture and hydration as a substitute.
Here's the thing, researchers still don't fully understand the production process of our sebum, there's a lot more we could and should know about it. Acne and healthy sebum production don't always go hand in hand, although sebum plays a part in an acne blemish forming, and excess sebum production is common for those with moderate to severe acne, but we've all known people who have dry, sensitive skin with cystic acne.
One of the best ways we can support our skin's natural sebum production is not to bombard it with products that will eliminate the balance of our skin (this means really foamy cleansers, lots of acids, clay masks and alcohol-based toners), and paying attention to our skin at different times of day. If you try to strip your face of it's natural protective agent over and over again, it won't be happy, and you WILL pay for it (if not immediately, then later).
Our skin has biological rhythms in place: "In studies from 1970 to 1993, it was reported that the rate of facial sebum secretion varies with a circadian rhythmicity, lowest during the night and peaking in the early afternoon." So if you look at it this way, your afternoon-sheen is less about skipping your matte primer, and more about your sebum stepping up and protecting your skin barrier from more exposure to the elements at this time.
If you've got the gift of oily or well-balanced skin, you may want to re-evaluate your "add-ons" like oils and moisturisers and see what your skin does without them. If you have irritated or sensitised skin (could be from stress, the elements or topicals), sometimes the path back to balanced sebum production starts with a little bit of discomfort (much like growing out a haircut). I know so many folks with dry skin would love to have a little more of what we've got, and yeah, the grass is always greener, but it's much easier to add an extra dusting of powder than it is to rejig our bodies to better produce a perfect barrier protector.
Our sebum is ~ exclusive ~ and even more bespoke than that cream that you can get made with your own blood in it (it costs $1400), so let's take some time to appreciate the goodness that appears on our faces daily and the natural shine it produces, and use our skincare routines to complement, protect and enhance what we've already got in the system.