The 6 Best—and Worst—Ingredients to Use If You Have Oily Skin

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If you have oily skin, you likely know to reach for non-comedogenic products, since they won’t clog pores, but there’s more to oily skin-care than that. “Oily skin is caused by an overproduction of sebum which can be due to many factors such as environment, hormones, diet, stress levels and more. Luckily, there are a few key ingredients that help balance the skin,” says New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD. Dermatologists share which ingredients are non-negotiable in your skin-care routine and which you need to avoid if you have oily skin.

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Use: salicylic acid

According to Dr. Russak, the most popular acid for oily skin is salicylic acid, and it’s for good reason. “Salicylic acid can break down blackheads and whiteheads and keep acne at bay, which most oily skin types experience,” says Dr. Russak. “Salicylic acid softens and exfoliates the skin, cleans out the pores and reduces inflammation, which will, in turn, help the skin balance itself and reduce the appearance of oily and inflamed skin.”

Charlotte, NC dermatologists Gilly Munavalli, MD and Hayley Leight-Dunn, MD say this beta-hydroxy acid can be found in all forms in skin-care products, including washes, toners, chemical peels, masks, serums and lotions. Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias notes that a cleanser featuring salicylic acid should be a go-to product for someone with oily skin. Some of his favorites include Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash ($7) and SkinBetter Oxygen Infusion Wash ($42).

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Use: retinol

Dr. Elias says you can’t forget to include a retinol or prescription retinoid product in your routine if you have oily skin. “Retinol speeds up the turnover of skin cells, getting rid of dead skin, which helps unclog pores that are full of sebum,” says Dr. Russak, who claims retinol is the most important ingredient for people with oily skin.

“There are even some prescription retinoids that have been found to decrease the size of the pores, which in turn will reduce the amount of oil your skin expels,” says Dr. Russak. Drs. Munavalli and Leight-Dunn explain that the collagen-stimulating properties are what can help minimize the apparent size of the pores on the skin.

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Use: hyaluronic acid

People with oily skin are often hesitant to use moisturizers liberally for fear that it may increase oil. However, Dr. Elias says, “the common misconception that you don’t want to moisturize with oily skin is a big mistake as your skin will compensate for the lack of moisture by producing more oil.” He adds that light moisturizers are a must for those with oily skin, which is where hyaluronic acid comes in.

“Hyaluronic acid pulls moisture from the air to your skin to keep it hydrated and balanced. With proper hydration, oily skin can actually become much more normalized in sebum production,” explains Dr. Russak. Some moisturizers Dr. Elias likes for more oily skin include Neutrogena Hydro Boost ($24) and SkinMedica HA Rejuvenating Hydrator ($178), which he says “can really produce radiant skin.”

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Use: niacinamide

Drs. Munavalli and Leight-Dunn say niacinamide is a great product for oily skin. “Studies have shown this vitamin to be effective at reducing inflammation in acne and improving overall sebum control, both by limiting the overproduction of sebum and slowing down the sebum excretion rate,” they explain.

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Avoid: intense exfoliants

It may seem intuitive to employ scrubs to try to rid your skin of excess oil, but experts warn against overdoing it with exfoliants. Dr. Elias says scrubs can actually induce more oil production. “Although acids and exfoliants are beneficial to reduce oil production, too much exfoliation can strip the skin and cause your body to work overtime and over-produce oil. When the skin is balanced with hydration, this does not happen,” explains Dr. Russak.

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Avoid: heavy ingredients

“Classically, treatment for oily skin involves avoiding heavy products that can clog your pores,” says Dr. Elias. “So trends like slugging, using petrolatum products would be a no go.” Opt for lightweight products that won’t add additional oil.


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