How To Create A Skin Care Routine For Oily Skin

Your six-step guide.

Dermatologists weigh in on how to create a skin care routine for oily skin types.
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Having oily skin can lead you to have more questions than answers. For instance: Is this oil or sweat? Do I really still need a moisturizer? Are some of my products making it worse? What does my skin want from me?! Hence why it can be challenging when figuring out how to create a skin care routine for oily skin.

In short, your skin is on the oily side if you experience constant shine and oiliness on your T-zone (your forehead, nose, and chin) and/or around the rest of your face, according to Dr. Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. There are several potential causes for oily skin: a dairy and alcohol-filled diet, larger pores (they can stretch out with age), or even just genetics. Regardless of how you ended up here, the oiliness is usually the byproduct of excess sebum production. Sebum is an oily and waxy substance your skin naturally produces that, in healthy amounts, keeps moisture from escaping your epidermis. But too much of it can cause an overly oily complexion, which can lead to a domino effect of skin woes (like breakouts and pore congestion). That’s where your beauty cabinet comes in to keep things calm and balanced.

Dermatologists tell Bustle how to create the perfect skin care routine for oily skin so you can keep your complexion glowy (but not overly so).

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1. Cleanser

As the first step of your routine, you want to start off on the right foot. Think of cleansing as a reset for your face: You’re washing and wiping away all the grime, pollution, and product build-up that accumulates on your face.

To do this properly for your skin type, King recommends looking for cleansers that contain salicylic acid. “It penetrates into pores to remove excess sebum,” she explains of the popular beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). Charcoal and clay are also great for oily complexions, says King, as they’re both effective at absorbing excess sebum. If you want a physical scrub, make sure you pick one that has soothing and moisturizing ingredients like jojoba oil to avoid dehydrating or breaking the skin barrier, she tells Bustle.

Also key? According to Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare, you should stay away from thick cleansing balms because they can clog oily skin — even if they do work miracles for other skin types.

2. Toner

Some people are iffy about the importance of a toner, but King says the product is particularly beneficial for oily and acne-prone skin. “Toners provide another way to add active ingredients like salicylic acid and witch hazel to your skin care routine,” she tells Bustle. So exfoliants like those in a toner can also help keep your pores unclogged. They can also help ensure your complexion is thoroughly clean, so it can better absorb the rest of your regimen.

Look for toners that contain active ingredients like witch hazel, for one, says King, who explains it’s a natural astringent. “It temporarily shrinks your pores, and it has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe the skin,” she says. She also recommends chemical exfoliants like glycolic and lactic acids since they both work to remove excess oil. Then, to soothe and maintain moisture, King says humectants — aka moisture preservers — are also beneficial. Her picks? Aloe vera and glycerin.

3. Eye Cream

The skin around your eyes is thin and relatively more sensitive than the rest of your face. Those with oily complexions still benefit from keeping that area moisturized. According to Marmur, this skin type should look for lighter formulas that contain ingredients like aloe vera and hyaluronic acid, which add hydration without clogging your pores.

4. Serums & Treatments

In the world of chemical exfoliants, King says oily skin types reap the most perks from BHAs. While both alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and BHAs both dissolve dead skin cells on your complexion, BHAs are oil-soluble (the latter are water-soluble). “So AHAs work on the surface of the skin, while BHAs penetrate into your pores,” she explains.

She recommends using salicylic acid in your treatment products — aka serums and face masks — out of all ingredients in this category: “It helps to prevent pores from becoming clogged and can help remove clogs that have already formed,” says King. Another bonus of salicylic acid? It treats and prevents the formation of those pesky blackheads and whiteheads, she adds.

As mentioned previously, clay and charcoal are also beneficial for oily skin facial treatments, says King. That said, they can be drying, so she advises to not leave them on for too long (or look for clay masks that also contain moisturizing ingredients).

You could also turn to a more high-tech beauty treatment: Marmur recommends LED light devices for oily skin since they help to keep pores clear. “They are chemical-free and easy to use,” she tells Bustle, adding that blue light, in particular, can help kill acne-causing bacteria and soothe skin.

5. Moisturizer

After you apply your treatment product, it’s time to moisturize. And, BTW, having oily skin isn’t the same as having hydrated skin, so this step is important. “You still need to gently hydrate and nourish the skin with antioxidants and peptides, even if it’s oily,” says Marmur. King echoes this, adding that your moisturizer should be non-comedogenic and oil-free to avoid clogging pores. Pro tip: Look for those that are light, water-based gels or lotions. And steer clear of heavy creams or oil-based moisturizers, she says.

6. Sunscreen

Wearing SPF is key for absolutely all skin types, oily complexions included. Marmur recommends looking for non-comedogenic and oil-free sunscreens. And King also suggests powder sun protection products, as “they create a matte finish and they don't clog pores.” Whichever one you use, make sure to apply it all over your face — and stay on top of your reapplication game.

Studies referenced:

Bataille, V. (2002). The Influence of Genetics and Environmental Factors in the Pathogenesis of Acne: A Twin Study of Acne in Women. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Castro, G. (2011). Comedolytic Effect and Reduced Skin Irritation of a New Formulation of All-Trans Retinoic Acid-Loaded Solid Lipid Nanoparticles for Topical Treatment of Acne. Archives of Dermatological Research.

Lu, J. (2019). Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Exp Dermatol.

Meier, L. (2012). Clay Jojoba Oil Facial Mask for Lesioned Skin and Mild Acne--Results of a Prospective, Observational Pilot Study. Forsch Komplementmed.

Moghimipour, E. (2012). Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-Aging Agents. Moghimipour E. (2012). Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-Aging Agents. Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products.

Tang, S. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules.


Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare

Dr. Hadley King, MD, board-certified dermatologist based in New York City