Sebum & sebaceous glands: Function, location & imbalance in production

Sebaceous glands are small oil-producing glands found just about everywhere in the body except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The sebaceous glands are attached to the hair follicles and release natural oils called sebum. Sebum is a sticky, oily mixture of fats (triglycerides, wax esters, squalene and cholesterol) and cell debris, which are discharged and pushed through the hair follicles to the skin’s surface. Thanks to the fats, the skin and hair remain sufficiently moist and the skin is protected against skin damage caused by, for example, UV rays, fungi and bacteria. An imbalance in sebum production may lead to some skin problems. It is often possible to solve sebum problems yourself, but occasionally contacting a doctor is necessary.

  • Location of sebaceous glands
  • Composition of sebum
  • Functions of sebum
  • Hormonal control of sebum
  • Imbalance in sebum production
  • Excessive production of sebum
  • Underproduction of sebum
  • Factors that disrupt sebum balance
  • Diseases
  • Age
  • Medication and substances
  • Contact the doctor if you have problems with sebaceous glands


Location of sebaceous glands

Sebaceous glands are located over most of the body, although there are few on the hands and feet and none on the palms and soles of the feet. Sebaceous glands in the middle of the back, forehead and chin are larger and more numerous than elsewhere (up to 400-900 glands per square centimeter). They are also numerous in the ear canal and around the genitals.

Composition of sebum

Sebum is a complex and variable mixture of different types of fat molecules or lipids. Human sebum consists of 57.5% triglycerides and fatty acids, 26% wax esters and 12% squalene, a lipid. The composition of oils on the skin’s surface varies with age.

Functions of sebum

Skin wax has the following functions:

  • it protects the skin against infection by bacteria and fungi
  • it contributes to body odor
  • it reduces water loss from the skin surface
  • it is colonized by the bacterium Proprionibacterium acnes , which may play a role in immune system regulation


Hormonal control of sebum

Sebum production is controlled by sex hormones (androgens). T he most active androgens are testosterone, 5-testosterone (DHT) and 5-androstene-317diol. The gonads (ovary in women, testis in men) and the adrenal gland produce these hormones and other hormones. These glands are in turn under the influence of the pituitary gland in the brain.

Imbalance in sebum production

An imbalance in sebum production may cause skin problems.

Excessive production of sebum

If the skin is very oily, the body produces too much sebum, potentially leading to skin problems such as blackheads, pimples, acne, perioral dermatitis (rash around the mouth) and rosacea (redness and swelling on the face). The main cause of overproduction of sebum is hormonal imbalances, including due to puberty and pregnancy. In addition to hormones, heat, exercise and genetics play a role. Dehydrated skin and/or skin that is irritated due to the use of the wrong products may also lead to excessive sebum production. Skin care products containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid and retinoids are recommended. As with all new skin care treatments, it is important to start sparingly. If people overdo it with one of these ingredients, dry skin will develop more quickly, causing the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum.

Underproduction of sebum

Too little sebum or too few active sebaceous glands or too little sebum more often leads to dry, flaky and itchy skin. Some advice for people with dry skin is:

  • using a good moisturizer
  • using hypoallergenic skin care products
  • bathe in lukewarm water
  • drink a lot of water


Factors that disrupt sebum balance


The amount of sebum may change due to a disease:

  • disorders of the pituitary gland, adrenal gland, ovaries or testicles increase or decrease the amount of sebum
  • Parkinson’s disease (neurological disorder with tremors) increases the amount of sebum
  • Malnutrition reduces the amount of sebum in the skin



Sebum production increases up to fivefold in men during puberty. Sebum production decreases with age, especially after menopause in women

Medication and substances

The amount of sebum may also be reduced or increased by certain systemic medications. Exposure to allergens or harsh chemicals may also reduce the amount of sebum.

Contact the doctor if you have problems with sebaceous glands

Over-the-counter hypoallergenic skin care products often solve sebum problems. However, if you experience a recurring skin infection, pain or discomfort, excessive or persistent pimples, bleeding or other worrying or annoying symptoms, it is wise to consult a doctor.

read more

  • Acne: Skin condition with inflammation of sebaceous glands
  • Sebaceous gland adenoma: Benign tumor of the sebaceous gland on the skin
  • Sebaceous Gland Hyperplasia: Enlarged sebaceous glands with bumps
  • Meibomitis: Inflammation of the sebaceous glands of the eyelid
  • Steatocystoma multiplex: Condition with multiple sebaceous cysts
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