Oily skin is a curse in adolescence, torture in our 20s and something we eventually become accustomed to in our 30s. Then along comes a new challenge in our 40s, 50s and beyond—figuring out how to stave off the signs of aging while keeping the oiliness at bay.

Confusing matters? Most of the products created for mature skin presume that it’s dry, so they tend to be rich with emollients that oily skin doesn’t need. Great for parched skin but a fast pass to clogged pores and overall slickness for this skin type.

So what’s an oily-skinned gal to do when it’s time to deploy some age-fighting artillery?

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The Science: First off, it helps to understand the physiology. Oily skin occurs when oversized sebaceous glands produce excessive amounts of sebum. What you see: large pores and acne. Although factors such as diet, age, gender, ethnicity and climate play a role, it’s primarily hormones that regulate oil production. The “male” hormone DHT and the stress hormone cortisol both trigger sebaceous glands. A Belgian study in 2002 showed that women who used hormone replacement therapy (HRT) saw minor changes in pore size. Conversely those that weren’t undergoing HRT saw a slight decrease in oil production, but pores tended to enlarge.

But there is some good news to having oily skin. In her study of antioxidants published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (2009), New York dermatologist Jeannette Graf, M.D demonstrated that the vitamin E contained in sebum acted “as the skin’s first line of defense against environmental stress. So the more vitamin E available, the better defense the skin has against free radicals. (This may explain the common observation that oily skin…tends to age slower than drier skin.)

”Graf’s study also showed that vitamin E may have an anti-inflammatory effect—significant because aging is now considered an inflammatory process—and that it affords some sun-protection, so it can enhance sunscreen’s effect.

But Diane Berson, M.D., a dermatologist in New York, takes a counter-intuitive view: “Oily skin usually has more barrier disruption due to overzealous cleansing and scrubbing, and this disruption—aka irritation and inflammation—has aging consequences because anything harmful, like UV light and free radicals, can penetrate more easily.” Plus, Berson says, “Women with oily skin tend to wear less sunscreen because they feel it clogs their pores—so they can end up with more sun damage, which causes wrinkles.”

In any case, says esthetician Vicki Morav, “Your skin-aging destiny has less to do with whether you’re oily or dry, and more to do with genetics, lifestyle, bone structure and maintaining a stable body weight. All skin types need to do some of the same things as they age.”

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Oil and Water Solutions: “Oil is very good for the skin, so don’t try to get rid of it completely! The secret is to tell yourself your complexion is dewy. Dewy is youthful,” says Morav.

For oil-control, experts recommend gentle products over harsh ones, and don’t forgo the moisturizer. When oily skin becomes dehydrated, it lacks the water that keeps skin cells nice and plump (simply look for oil-free formulas). As for anti-aging products, seek out a water-based, non-comedogenic serum or gel.

The special challenges of oily skin as it ages are enlarged pores and breakouts. The solutions: exfoliation and cell turnover. The first clears away dead-skin cells that block pores (making them appear larger) and prevent moisturizer from penetrating. Retinoids, a family of vitamin A derivatives that accelerate cell-turnover, are especially beneficial to oily skin, says New York dermatologist Macrene Alexiades, M.D. “Retinoids reduce sebum and decrease the ‘stickiness’ of the cells in the infundibulum, the upper part of the follicle from which oils drain.” But they can also be irritating, so it’s important to find the right one and build up gradually. Additionally, the increased cell-turnover activity helps fade the excess pigment that causes brown spots, explains Dr. Graf.

The Regimen: Expert recommendations to minimize oil and maximize glow:

  • Cleanse twice daily with a gentle gel cleanser. “Skip the foams,” Morav advises. “They can be harsh.”
  • Tone with an alcohol-free liquid to restore pH balance.
  • Use an antioxidant serum by day, and a retinoid product at night.
  • Layer a moisturizer over the serum.
  • Use sun-protection without fail, says Dr. Graf, because retinoids increase sun-sensitivity.
  • Exfoliate once or twice weekly using an at-home peel, scrub or mask.

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