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What Is Sebum?

Ever struggled with an oily complexion? Blame it on sebum—the oil secretions from the body’s sebaceous glands. Sebacious glands are most often found near hair follicles, but some are in hairless areas (like eyelids).

However, sebum does serve its purpose. All mammals secrete sebum, because it helps protect the skin by maintaining its moisture levels. In fact, sebum helped protect you even before you were born! It is present in the wax-like substance called vernix caseosa, which covers all babies at birth and gives them a rather cheesy appearance. Yes, it looks nasty—but the truth is, the sebum helped
protect the skin from wrinkling up in all the months of being “pickled” in the amniotic fluid. So, babies would actually look worse without it!

While sebum obviously serves an important purpose, the body sometimes produces too much of it. This happens during puberty, when the accumulation of sebum triggers the ever-dreaded acne outbreaks. Sebum can also cause body odors (thank goodness for deodorants). Acne outbreaks, and other sebum-related skin disorders like keratosis pilaris can be treated by a dermatologist.

However, ugly skin and a little stink are just a few of the milder problems that can be caused by too much sebum. Blocked sebaceous glands can lead to a sebaceous cyst. Not only is this prone to infection, but if the cyst grows and becomes tender to the touch, it may need to be surgically removed. In very rare instances the sebaceous glands may turn into a benign tumor, or worse, cancer.

Featured in Health