Normal, dry, acne-prone, sensitive—figuring out your skin type (a.k.a. the physical properties of your skin) will help you determine which products work best for your complexion. Sounds simple enough, right? It turns out the process is more nuanced than you may think.
This is because, technically, there isn’t a clearly defined scale for skin type used by dermatologists. “It’s not really an archetype we’re taught in dermatology textbooks,” says Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor at the University of California, San Diego.
The bucket categories as we know them are based off of diagnosis, behavior, and performance, and are used as a general guideline that’s easier for patients to understand, she explains. Now, onto the nuance.
Your skin type isn’t static, and will probably change as you age.
A person’s skin type is primarily based on genetics, but you’re not tied to one skin type throughout your lifetime. Age, hormones, pregnancy, weather, climate, stress, allergies, medications, and overall health can all play a role in what makes up your skin type. (Using the wrong products can also peer pressure your skin into shifting from, say, normal to dry or combination to sensitive.)
Skin type isn’t necessarily to be looked at as being on a spectrum where you fall into one category and might overlap with another. “They’re more like descriptors, and any individual may have any combination of one or multiple of these skin type descriptors at any point in time,” says Kathleen Suozzi, M.D., director of Yale Medicine’s Aesthetic Dermatology Program.
So if you find that your skin type doesn’t fall neatly into one category (or even two), that’s okay.
“When your face has multiple needs, don’t use a one-size-fits-all routine,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Address each of your skin’s needs separately by applying certain products only to the areas of the face that need them.”
Below, dermatologists reveal exactly how to figure out your skin type—and once you’ve got it nailed down, how best to maintain it.
How to determine (and care for) your skin type
What it is: If your skin is normal, this means it’s not too oily and not too dry or sensitive, nor does it take much effort to maintain healthy-looking skin. Normal skin is uber-chill—it rarely exhibits signs of acne, redness, or any other forms of skin irritation.
You can also use or try pretty much any skincare product without fear of reaction. “This is skin that’s very tolerable of most, if not all, treatments and products without any or minimal side effects,” says New York-based cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, M.D.
How to manage it: Because there’s very little drama associated with normal skin, the only thing you need to focus on is maintaining this skin type, says Dr. Palm, who recommends the classics like cleansing twice a day, using an antioxidant serum in the morning and retinoid at night, moisturizing, and slathering on broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen.
What it is: Oily skin produces higher-than-normal levels of oil, which can strike in the T-zone or throughout the entire face. “Oily skin often looks shiny,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Your face may feel greasy or heavy and your pores may be more prominent.” Odds are, blotting papers play a recurring role in your skincare routine. You may also find that you’re more prone to breakouts, but not always.
How to manage it: Oily skin does need balance, but it’s important to steer clear of harsh products, like alcohol-based toners, that can strip the skin and cause it to overcompensate, producing more oil.
Start by cleansing with a lightweight cleanser, and follow with a toner to help open the pores. “Select a toner with alpha-hydroxy, salicylic, or glycolic acid,” says Dr. Green. “These ingredients facilitate cell turnover, control oil, and remove dead skin cells.”
Finish with a lightweight, gel-like moisturizer (yes, you still need one!) that contains hyaluronic acid, which keeps skin feeling hydrated without feeling too heavy. “These elements provide your skin with the nourishment it needs without clogging pores,” says Dr. Green. No matter the products you choose, make sure they’re noncomedogenic and oil-free.
What it is: Combo skin tends to have a blended spectrum of skin types—usually, dry in some areas and oily or normal in others. “The T-zone, where we have the richest density of oil glands, tends to be where sebum (oil) production is most prolific,” says Dr. Palm.
The primary challenge of this skin type is having areas of your skin behave on polar opposite spectrums of the oily-versus-dry scale, with weather or environmental changes exacerbating the issue.
How to manage it: Since combination skin has contradictory needs, buying separate products to specifically target each issue might be necessary. “Alternating skincare cleansers is often required to maintain balance in the oily/dry areas,” says Dr. Green.
You can also experiment with meet-in-the-middle ingredients that act as a sweet spot between the opposing forces of your skin. The best way to do this is to choose lightweight products that effectively treat both dryness and oiliness without aggravating the skin.
“Lighter alpha-hydroxy acids (lactic acid, malic acid) and moisturizers (hyaluronic acid, ceramides) are likely best,” says Dr. Palm. “Peptides work well for skin rejuvenation, while retinoids may require use with moisturizer or a formulation with collagen and hyaluronic acid to tolerate it well over time.”
What it is: People with acne-prone skin tend to produce more oil (though not always) and are more susceptible to that oil—along with excess skin cells—getting trapped inside the pores, causing breakouts, says Dr. Suozzi.
There are many types of acne (blackheads, whiteheads, cystic acne) and those with breakout-prone skin can be susceptible to a combination of these forms due to various contributing factors, such as hormonal changes and increased stress.
How to manage it: “If you’re acne-prone, stick to cleansers that contain ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to treat pimples that you have and prevent new ones from developing in the future,” says Dr. Zeichner.
You should also include a treatment product in your routine that contains salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or retinol. “They should be applied at bedtime, as they can make your skin sensitive to the sun,” says Dr. Green. The moisturizer you finish things off with should be oil-free and non-comedogenic, like lotions or water-based gels.
Powder sun protection products are a particularly great choice to keep oily, acne-prone skin protected throughout the day, because they are easy to reapply and create a matte finish without clogging pores, says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D.
What it is: Dry skin can be a lifelong struggle for some (say, due to a condition like eczema), and intermittent for others (thanks to seasonal changes). People with dry skin also tend to skew sensitive, meaning they have a history of intolerance to personal care products. Fragrances, preservatives, or even active ingredients like vitamin C or hydroxy acids can cause your skin to become red, blotchy, and irritated.
“If it’s very dry, you might find that your skin cracks, peels, or becomes inflamed,” says Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf advisory board member. “It might also become rough and scaly, especially on the backs of your hands, arms, and legs.”
How to manage it: Stick to hypoallergenic, fragrance-free products with minimal ingredients. Use hydrating, non-lather cleansers (like cleansing oils and milks) to wash the face without compromising the integrity of the protective skin barrier, says Dr. Zeichner. Stay away from harsh exfoliating products or ingredients, like glycolic or salicylic acid, which may lead to more irritation than benefits.
“A misconception is that those with dry skin can’t use anti-acne and anti-aging ingredients, but this isn’t necessarily true,” says Dr. King. “Look for formulations made for dry skin that combine gentle forms of active ingredients with ingredients that support the skin barrier and moisturize.”
Instead of alcohol-based toners, for example, go for gentle, hydrating toners that contain ingredients like glycerin, lecithin, aloe vera, and rose water. Rather than use retinol to fight fine lines and wrinkles, add bakuchiol—a gentler, plant-based alternative—to your nighttime routine.
Look for fragrance-free moisturizers that contain nourishing, soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, ceramides, squalane, petrolatum, and niacinamide. As for sunscreens, go for mineral formulas that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as they tend to be less irritating, says Dr. Badreshia-Bansal.
What it is: Skin starts aging in our 20s. “When we start noticing lines, wrinkles, brown spots, enlarged pores, this is mature skin,” says Dr. Badreshia-Bansal. “This stage becomes more dry, sensitive, even leathery from extensive sun damage from years past.”
Mature skin manifests from intrinsic (genetic) and extrinsic (outside forces) aging. Hormonal changes and decreased skin cell turnover can lead to skin dryness and thinning, uneven tone and texture, and the appearance of wrinkles.
How to manage it: Use a mild, gentle cleanser, and exfoliate regularly (at least twice per week, or as often as your skin will allow without becoming irritated) to improve cell turnover.
Retinol can help to regenerate lost collagen, improve texture, and even out skin pigmentation. “Stable vitamin C formulas can also improve collagen restructuring and brighten skin tone,” says Dr. Badreshia-Bansal. Moisturizers that are thicker and more emollient are usually best for mature skin, and can act as a shield for your potent serums so they can do their thing sans interference.
Finish things off with a daily SPF—a must to protect and slow down the aging process, says Dr. Badreshia-Bansal. More mature skin can tolerate a sunscreen that’s thicker, though acne-prone skin will need an oil-free, non-comedogenic formula to avoid breakouts.
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