The Chemists' Oily Skin Routine Guide

First Posted on June 28, 2024 in:acneoily skin

When you’re dealing with oily skin, it can end up feeling like a constant battle. Managing the shiny T-zone, worrying about breakouts, and feeling frustrated trying out new products is so common and can be a lot to deal with. However, understanding the biology behind oily skin and implementing a science-based, tailored skincare routine can help manage all your oily skin woes. So let’s delve into the root cause of oily skin, the essentials of your daily and weekly skincare routine goals, and what active ingredients you might want to look for.

The Science Behind Oily Skin

To put it simply, oily skin is caused by an overproduction of sebum, an oily substance produced by skin’s sebaceous glands. Unfortunately, the rate at which your skin produces sebum is mainly determined by genetics and hormone changes – factors out of your control. That said, sebum really shouldn’t be considered a dirty word. Even though having a lot of sebum can be frustrating, it’s really skin’s natural way to help seal in moisture and protect itself from the environment. In fact, there are studies that show oily skin individuals may develop fine lines and wrinkles later than those with dry skin due to sebum’s protective properties.

Though sebum is a fantastic part of your skin’s natural defense system, an overproduction of sebum can lead to clogged pores, acne, blackheads, enlarged pores, and a general shiny complexion (and that’s not the sought-after dewy sort). To keep these side effects in check, a consistent, disciplined skincare routine for oily skin with added weekly treatments can go a long way in keeping skin shine-free and congestion-free. 

Oily Skin Daily Skincare Essentials

The three pillars of a fundamental skincare routine are cleanser, moisturizer, and sun protection – and it’s no exception for those with oily skin. Here are some tips to help you find success in each of these steps:

  • Cleansing: It’s important to wash your face twice a day with a gentle cleanser. You might come across advice suggesting “foam” or “gel” cleansers. But hear it from the chemists - the format of the cleanser (foam, gel, cream, etc.) is not the end-all-be-all indication that it’s right for you. The right cleanser is the one that’ll encourage you to lather thoroughly and leave your skin clean but not squeaky clean post-wash-off. If you’re acne-prone, cleansers with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide are the way to go to help nip breakouts in the bud. Check out our comprehensive chemists’ cleanser science guide for more information.
  • Moisturizing: We get it…the thought of applying a product that could add to the heaviness and oiliness is not thrilling. But even oily skin can benefit from the right type of moisturizer. The key is to choose a lightweight, humectant-forward moisturizer that focuses more on the water-grabbing aspects of moisturizing rather than the occlusion aspects. “Gel moisturizers” that are high in ingredients like glycerin, glycols, and hyaluronic acid are a great place to start. Check out our chemists’ guide on decoding moisturizing ingredients for more details.
  • Sun Protection: Sun protection is an essential part in any skincare routine. In fact, for oily skin people, UV damage can exacerbate inflammatory acne and further clog pores with oxidized sebum. The key here is to look for a lightweight, watery type sunscreen rather than traditional greasy sunscreen. International formulas from Japan and Korea may be much better than those locally here in the US!

*A Note on Toners: As you’re dabbling in skin routine research, you may see a lot of skin gurus tout toners as a must have step for your oily skincare routine. However, we don’t really see it as a “must have”. From a formulation chemists’ perspective, toners are incredibly diverse with a lot of basically-just-water products that really serve no clear purpose in your routine. Where it could make a meaningful difference in your routine is the exfoliating toner realm. Exfoliating toners can be a great way to introduce some AHAs or BHA to your routine for simple daily maintenance.

Oily Skin Weekly Skincare Treatment 

Once you have your daily routine down pat, incorporating weekly treatments can significantly elevate the efficacy of your oily skincare routine.

  • Exfoliation: We’re not talking about those basic scrubby beads. Take full advantage of a weekly, in-depth exfoliation, by opting for a high-level home peel-type product with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acid). Keratinocyte buildup is one of the root causes of clogged pores, which eventually leads to acne, and chemical exfoliants is the perfect solution to keep hyperkertinization in check. Mandelic acid based products are a great starting place for the added antimicrobial benefits!
  • Clay Masks: clay masks are a fantastic once-a-week addition to an oily skincare regimen. Pro tip! Using a clay mask right before your chemical peel can help clear off access sebum that prevents AHAs from penetrating deeply. It’s a win-win combination.

Active Ingredients with Proven Oily Skin Benefits

Ready to put it all together? Here are some great ingredients that we think should be on your radar. Here we list active ingredients that have proven, clinical benefits to reduce sebum, reduce pore size, and keep acne at bay. If you’re looking for a place to start, consider adding these to your routine:

  • Niacinamide: One of the few active ingredients out there with proven benefits to reduce pore size over time. Look for a product that has between 2% to 5% niacinamide for daily upkeep without potential irritation.
  • Retinoids: Of course we can’t talk about oily skin routine without talking about retinoids. It is pretty much the category of proven acne fighters. Consult a dermatologist if you’re interested in prescription-only retinoids such as tretinoin, or start with OTC adapalene. 
  • Azelaic acid: A fantastic multi-functional ingredient for acne, rosacea, and hyperpigmentation. Check out our podcast for a more in-depth look at azelaic acid.
  • Sodium ascorbyl phosphate: Vitamin C derivative that has been tested on acne at 5%
  • Galactomyces Ferment Filtrate: Also known as Pitera, is the star of the iconic SKII essence. This ferment filtrate can be considered a light enough hydrator and barrier helper for oily skin types.

Key Takeaways

Shopping for skincare can be a frustrating experience for those with oily skin. But with the right combination of understanding oily skin’s underlying causes and implementing a consistent, structured skincare routine, you can keep skin happy and (mostly) congestion-free.

  • Stay on top of your skincare pillar of cleanse-moisturize-sun protection! The name of the game is to keep everything lightweight, gentle, and hydrating. 
  • Weekly treatments with clay masks and high levels of chemical exfoliants are crucial to cleaning out pores and keeping skin congestion-free
  • Look for proven oily-skin-friendly active ingredients to incorporate into your routine. Niacinamide, retinoids, azelaic acid, and vitamin C derviative, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, are great ones to consider.

Shop our Chemist Confessions oily skin collection for lightweight hydration and effective treatments! 


Sakuma, T. H., & Maibach, H. I. (2012). Oily skin: an overview. Skin pharmacology and physiology, 25(5), 227-235.

Chiu, P. C., Chan, C. C., Lin, H. M., & Chiu, H. C. (2007). The clinical anti‐aging effects of topical kinetin and niacinamide in Asians: a randomized, double‐blind, placebo‐controlled, split‐face comparative trial. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 6(4), 243-249.

Choińska, R., Dąbrowska, K., Świsłocka, R., Lewandowski, W., & Świergiel, A. H. (2021). Antimicrobial properties of mandelic acid, gallic acid and their derivatives. Mini reviews in medicinal chemistry, 21(17), 2544-2550.

Okoro, O. E., Adenle, A., Ludovici, M., Truglio, M., Marini, F., & Camera, E. (2021). Lipidomics of facial sebum in the comparison between acne and non-acne adolescents with dark skin. Scientific reports, 11(1), 16591.

Woolery‐Lloyd, H., Baumann, L., & Ikeno, H. (2010). Sodium L‐ascorbyl‐2‐phosphate 5% lotion for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a randomized, double‐blind, controlled trial. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 9(1), 22-27.

Oyewole, A.O. and Birch-Machin, M.A. (2015), Sebum, inflammasomes and the skin: current concepts and future perspective. Exp Dermatol, 24: 651-654.


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