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How to choose the best face serum for oily skin

The right, expert-approved products can help you fight the shine and stop potential acne breakouts in their tracks.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 4, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
Woman Holding a Bottle and Dropper of Face Serum
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 4, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

Understanding oily skin 
More

There’s no one-size-fits-all in skincare. What works for one person may not necessarily have the same results for someone else. But it’s only natural to want the best! Luckily our team of licensed dermatology providers are regularly reviewing and assessing products on the market and are happy to offer a few recommendations! So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our standards.

If you have oily skin, it means your skin is producing too much sebum, a viscous oil naturally found in the skin that lubricates and moisturizes it. To reduce sebum production, you’ll need more than just a few bottling papers. A face serum for oily skin may be more effective in controlling oil production and nourishing your skin.

However, with so many face serums on the market, choosing the right one may be challenging.

Here, our licensed dermatology providers explain what you need to know about oily skin to help you select the best face serum for your skincare needs. 

Understanding oily skin 

Oily skin is one of the most common dermatologic issues. It occurs when the sebaceous glands produce excess sebum.¹ Sebum production spikes during puberty, and doesn’t decline until after menopause for women and at around age 60–70 for men—so people can deal with oily skin beyond their teen years.²

The root cause of excessive sebum production isn’t clear. However, common risk factors are well-documented.³ 

Gender

Men are more likely to have oily skin than women due to higher testosterone levels that result in them producing more sebum.⁴ However, women may have more oily skin during ovulation due to increased progesterone levels.⁵ 

Genetics

Genetic makeup often influences the productivity of sebaceous glands. A twin study investigating sebum secretion found that sebum secretion was the same between monozygotic twins.⁶ This means people with the same genetic makeup may likely have similar skin oiliness. Further, genetic studies have identified genes that may possibly influence the function and activity of sebaceous glands and the inflammatory response.⁷

Hormonal changes 

Skin oiliness may also be affected by hormones such as androgens that regulate sebum production. High levels of androgens could stimulate the sebaceous glands to become more active, leading to an overproduction of sebum.⁸

Diet 

Diet may also play a role in skin’s oil production. For instance, a high intake of dairy products, sugars, and meats may increase sebum production and, in turn, cause acne. High alcohol intake may also impact sebum content.⁹

Caring for oily skin 

While oily skin may make you more susceptible to acne breakouts, it may also have some benefits. For one, oil helps safeguard the skin and those that have oily skin may have fewer wrinkles.¹⁰ However, it’s important to properly manage oily skin to maintain your skin’s overall health.

Here are a few tips on how to do that:¹¹ 

  • Cleanse regularly: Use a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser for oily skin to wash your face twice a day. 

  • Pick your skincare products carefully: Check that the skincare products you use are suitable for oily skin. Opt for water-based or oil-free skincare products, including sunscreen, moisturizers, and cleansers.

  • Moisturize daily: Use an oil-free, lightweight moisturizer like Curology’s The Moisturizer to keep the skin hydrated which is still important even in oily skin!

  • Wear sunscreen: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays may affect your skin health. Wearing a broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen such as Curology's Sunscreen, may help protect your skin from harmful UV rays.

  • Avoid touching your face: Touching your face may transfer dirt and bacteria to your skin. Make sure your hands are clean before touching your face.

Everyone’s skin is different. As such, what may work for one person may not work for another. If you have concerns about your skin’s oil production or need more help managing oily skin, consult a licensed dermatology provider for additional advice. 

Understanding facial serums 

Facial serums are lightweight skincare products that typically have high concentrations of active ingredients, which can help with yielding targeted results for users. 

Concentrated active ingredients 

Serums may contain high concentrations of active ingredients such as salicylic acid, niacinamide, and antioxidants. These ingredients offer various benefits to the skin: For instance, salicylic acid helps to treat acne since it is fat-soluble, making it a good choice for oily skin. It’s often used in concentrations ranging between 2% and 70% to treat acne and other skin conditions.¹² Niacinamide may help reduce sebum production as well.¹³ 

Targeted skincare 

Face serums allow you to address various skin concerns. Serums for acne-prone skin may contain ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and tea tree oil. These ingredients help keep the skin healthy by controlling excess oil production¹⁴ and inhibiting proinflammatory mediators.¹⁵

Customizable skincare routine

Since serums are lightweight, have a thin consistency, and have a light texture, you can easily layer them with other custom acne products. You can apply facial serum after cleansing and toning, before applying moisturizer.

How do face serums benefit oily skin? 

Face serums deliver potent skincare ingredients deep into the skin that may help improve hydration, oil control, and overall skin balance; specifically, they offer the following benefits: 

  1. Facial serums have a lightweight texture that makes them easy to absorb into the skin without leaving a greasy residue.

  2. Facial serums for oily skin may contain active ingredients such as salicylic acid, niacinamide, or alpha-hydroxy acids, for example. Such components may help reduce acne breakouts as well as treat and prevent acne.

Essential ingredients in face serums

The ingredients in face serums are what help set them apart from other cosmetic products. The ingredients to look for in a face serum for oily skin include: 

Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), allowing it to penetrate deep into the skin and exfoliate it from within. It helps unclog the pores and removes dead skin cells, improving the appearance of the skin.¹⁶ 

Niacinamide: Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) helps regulate sebum production and control excess oil.¹⁷ Facial serums with niacinamide may help balance the skin’s oil production without causing excessive dryness. 

Hyaluronic acidHyaluronic acid acts as a humectant when used in facial serums. It attracts and binds water in the skin.¹⁸ It has the unique ability to attract and hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water.¹⁹ Hyaluronic acid offers a hydrating effect that helps improve the skin’s moisture barrier.

Antioxidants: Facial serums may include potent antioxidants such as vitamin C to protect your skin against environmental stressors and free radical damage.²⁰

Ingredients to avoid 

Not all cosmetic ingredients are suitable for sensitive skin. People with oily skin should generally avoid skincare products with the following ingredients as they may worsen their skin condition.

Isopropyl myristate: Some skincare product manufacturers use isopropyl myristate as an emollient to help lock in moisture and strengthen the skin barrier. While this ingredient might be suitable for normal skin, it's also highly comedogenic.²¹ Products derived from isopropyl myristate have the potential to clog pores and trigger acne formation. They may also worsen existing breakouts for people with oily skin.

Alcohol-based products: People with oily skin are usually drawn to them because they reduce sebum production and pore size. Products with strong alcohols may temporarily remove the excess oil but damage your skin barrier and cause skin inflammation.²²

Best facial serum for oily skin

Adding specific facial serums to your skincare routine may help improve your skin texture and health. Our dermatology experts offer some recommendations for effective facial serums for oily skin:

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 is a lightweight formulation that deeply hydrates the skin. The serum contains hyaluronic acid for plumping and making the skin more supple. It also contains vitamin B5 for superior hydration. The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 is suitable for all skin types, including oily ones.

No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum

This serum is formulated using hyaluronic acid and vitamins A, C, and E. It may replenish the skin with moisture to help it appear more youthful. 

The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum

This super serum contains 2% hyaluronic acid and peptides. It’s capable of hydrating the skin leaving it plump and supple. 

e.l.f. Beauty Shield Vitamin C Pollution Prevention Serum

This lightweight hydrating serum contains vitamins C & E, and pomegranate extract. It can help to protect from environmental aggressors and helps you get a youthful, glowing complexion.

Use science-backed ingredients to treat acne

Caring for oily skin shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially given the skin concerns like acne that might arise if you fail to do so. Aim to build a routine around effective products that align with your skincare goals. We recommend having a licensed dermatology provider develop a personalized routine to address your oily skincare concerns, such as acne. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If you constantly battle breakouts, consider switching to a custom acne formulation. Our licensed dermatology providers will work with you to formulate a custom acne cream just for your concerns. No need to leave the house—answer a quiz and snap a few selfies—and we’ll prescribe a personalized prescription formula to help you meet your skin goals.*

FAQs

Does oily skin need face serum?

People with oily skin may benefit from adding a serum to their skincare routine. Some serums can help regulate oil production, control shine, and hydrate the skin.

How do I choose a face serum?

Serums for oily skin may contain ingredients that address specific concerns such as acne, excess sebum production, and uneven texture. Identify your specific concerns and select a specially formulated serum to help manage them. 

Is hyaluronic acid suitable for oily skin?

Hyaluronic acid may help treat oily skin as it has been shown to decrease sebum excretion.

Does your diet affect the oiliness of your skin?

The food you eat will determine the oiliness of your skin. For instance, taking too much alcohol may impact the level of sebum in your body.

How much do treatments for oily skin cost?

According to an Amazon search, the price of products for treating skin oiliness ranges from a few dollars to $1000 each.²³

• • •

P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to:

  1. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (August 2017

  2. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  3. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  4. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  5. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  6. Picardo, M., et al. Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermato Endocrinology. (March-April 2009)

  7. Heng, A.H.S., et al. Gene variants associated with acne vulgaris presentation and severity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Med Genomics. (2021, April 13).

  8. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  9. Lim, S., et al. Dietary Patterns Associated with Sebum Content, Skin Hydration, and pH, and Their Sex-Dependent Differences in Healthy Korean Adults. (March 2019).

  10. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Control Oily Skin. (n.d.).

  11. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Control Oily Skin. (Ibid.).

  12. Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., and Hearing, V. J. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (November 2010)

  13. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  14. Jung, Y.R., et al. Hyaluronic Acid Decreases Lipid Synthesis in Sebaceous Glands. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (March 2017). 

  15. Borotová, P., et al. Chemical and Biological Characterization of Melaleuca alternifolia Essential Oil. Plants (Basel). (February 2022). 

  16. Reddy, S., and Brahmbhat, H. A Narrative Review on the Role of Acids, Steroids, and Kinase Inhibitors in the Treatment of Keratosis Pilaris. Cureus. (October 2021). 

  17. Draelos, Z.D., et al. The effect of 2% niacinamide on facial sebum. J Cosmet Laser Ther. (June 2006).

  18. Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. StatPearls [Internet]. (August 2022). 

  19. John, H.E. and Price, R.D. Perspectives in the selection of hyaluronic acid fillers for facial wrinkles and aging skin. Patient Prefer Adherence. (2009, November 3).

  20. Al-Niami, F. and Chiang, N.Y.Z. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (July 2017).

  21. Nguyen, S.H., et al. Comedogenicity in rabbit: some cosmetic ingredients/vehicles. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. (2007, n.d.).

  22. Chopin-Doroteo, M. and Krotzsch, E. Soap or alcohol-based products? The effect of hand hygiene on skin characteristics during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Cosmet Dermatol. (February 2023).

  23. Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

Maria Borowiec is a certified Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She received her Master in Nursing from University of California, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, CA.

*Subject to consultation. Subscription required. Results may vary. 

Restrictions apply. See website for full details and important safety information.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
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Maria Borowiec, NB-BC

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