No skin off your back: the sampling and extraction of sebum for metabolomics

C Géhin, J Tokarska, S J Fowler, P E Barran, D K Trivedi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


INTRODUCTION: Sebum-based metabolomics (a subset of "sebomics") is a developing field that involves the sampling, identification, and quantification of metabolites found in human sebum. Sebum is a lipid-rich oily substance secreted by the sebaceous glands onto the skin surface for skin homeostasis, lubrication, thermoregulation, and environmental protection. Interest in sebomics has grown over the last decade due to its potential for rapid analysis following non-invasive sampling for a range of clinical and environmental applications.

OBJECTIVES: To provide an overview of various sebum sampling techniques with their associated challenges. To evaluate applications of sebum for clinical research, drug monitoring, and human biomonitoring. To provide a commentary of the opportunities of using sebum as a diagnostic biofluid in the future.

METHODS: Bibliometric analyses of selected keywords regarding skin surface analysis using the Scopus search engine from 1960 to 2022 was performed on 12th January 2023. The published literature was compartmentalised based on what the work contributed to in the following areas: the understanding about sebum, its composition, the analytical technologies used, or the purpose of use of sebum. The findings were summarised in this review.

RESULTS: Historically, about 15 methods of sampling have been used for sebum collection. The sample preparation approaches vary depending on the analytes of interest and are summarised. The use of sebum is not limited to just skin diseases or drug monitoring but also demonstrated for other systemic disease. Most of the work carried out for untargeted analysis of metabolites associated with sebum has been in the recent two decades.

CONCLUSION: Sebum has a huge potential beyond skin research and understanding how one's physiological state affects or reflects on the skin metabolome via the sebaceous glands itself or by interactions with sebaceous secretion, will open doors for simpler biomonitoring. Sebum acts as a sink to environmental metabolites and has applications awaiting to be explored, such as biosecurity, cross-border migration, localised exposure to harmful substances, and high-throughput population screening. These applications will be possible with rapid advances in volatile headspace and lipidomics method development as well as the ability of the metabolomics community to annotate unknown species better. A key issue with skin surface analysis that remains unsolved is attributing the source of the metabolites found on the skin surface before meaningful biological interpretation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21
JournalMetabolomics : Official journal of the Metabolomic Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 24 Mar 2023


  • Humans
  • Sebum
  • Metabolomics
  • Sebaceous Glands/metabolism


Dive into the research topics of 'No skin off your back: the sampling and extraction of sebum for metabolomics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this