Figuring out your skin type often seems like a hurdle you have to overcome before you can start using skincare. How can you buy a moisturizer when you can’t tell if your skin type is oily, combination, or dry? For those of you in a hurry, here’s the quick but high-level summary on how to determine your skin type:
How to figure out your skin type:
- How much oil does your skin produce? Skin that gets easily greasy or shiny is oily while skin that remains naturally matte is dry.
- What’s your pore size? Large pores correlate with oily skin while smaller pores correlate with dry skin.
- What other concerns are you dealing with? Skin that gets red and itchy with ease is sensitive, dry skin is more prone to dehydration, and many other concerns can occur regardless of skin type.
And now, here's a secret: The truth is that it doesn’t matter as much as you think. Skin types are one of the more arbitrary distinctions in the skincare world, developed over a hundred years ago as a tool for selling cosmetics.
Nowadays, while it can be good to know your skin type, it’s much more important to know how you want to improve your skin. In this post, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the concept of skin types, including what they are, how to figure out yours, and, most importantly, why it doesn’t matter all that much.
Post at a glance:
- The origin of the concept of skin types
- How to know your skin type
- Main skin types explained
- The importance of knowing your skin concerns
The origin of the concept of skin types
The idea of skin types is over one hundred years old now. It was developed by one of the world’s first beauty moguls, Helena Rubinstein, as a way of selling her robust line of skincare products. Rubinstein was an expert saleswoman whose tactics are still in use today - the concept of skin types was one of those sales tactics.
In other words, the premise that you need different skin care based on your skin type isn’t rooted in dermatology or skin health. It can be a useful cosmetic distinction, but for the most part, it’s just a tool for brands to sell more products. Nowadays, while some dermatologists have adopted the language around skin types, it’s still not a major part of the medical literature. In fact, there are different systems that are sometimes referred to as skin types. The one dermatologists use the most is the Fitzpatrick system, which is more of a skin tone scale based on how the skin reacts to sun exposure.
How to know your skin type
While the concept of skin types isn’t medical, there are still moments when it can be useful. Skin type is basically a question of how much or how little sebum (i.e., a protective blend of lipids or “oils”) your skin excretes.
Skin types aren’t a perfect science because oil production exists on a spectrum, and it can change based on factors like age, hormonal fluctuations, and certain medications. The most valuable part of learning your skin type is actually learning to listen to your skin.
So without further ado, here are the fundamentals for figuring out your skin type:
- Oil production is the primary factor. If your skin often gets shiny during the day, perhaps even a few hours after you’ve washed it, you’re on the oilier side of the spectrum. If it doesn’t, you’re on the dry side of the spectrum. You can even touch your skin to see if it feels greasy. Since this is a spectrum, the determination isn’t binary!
- Pore size is a convenient shortcut, especially for those under 40. Larger pores often correlate with oilier skin, while smaller pores correlate with dry skin. You can expect the pores in the center of the face and the forehead tend to be larger than those on the cheeks and jawline. That said, with age, this becomes less prescriptive.
- Finally, and we’ll touch on this more below, don’t forget to consider your main skin concerns. We can simplify and say that those with oily skin are more likely to have acne and those with dry skin are more likely to experience flakiness or dehydration. More often than not, though, this can confuse the process, since it’s still possible to experience acne when you have dry skin or dehydration when you have oily skin. So definitely take note of your skin concerns, but don’t depend on them to determine your skin type.
Main skin types explained
From oily to dry with everything in between (along with the outliers), here are the main skin types, and what you need to know about each one.
That said, if you’re still at the beginning of your skincare journey, it’ll be useful to understand what makes a great skincare routine in the first place. To learn that, check out our full guide to the basic skincare routine steps.
Having dry skin means that your skin doesn’t produce a lot of oil. The key sign of having dry skin is that you never have to worry about looking greasy or shiny. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you're likely to have smaller pores. As you age, it's common to have larger pores along with dry skin.
In general, dry skin is more prone to dehydration which can make the skin feel tight, cause flakiness, and increase your chances of irritation. That said, this can also be confusing since dehydration is extremely common amongst all skin types. As such, don’t take flakiness or rough spots as a sign that you have a dry skin type - it could just be temporary dehydration.
Choosing products for dry skin
Look for richer moisturizers that will do a better job of replenishing the lipids your skin doesn’t produce. Our Hyaluronic Acid Hydration Cream is rich enough for daily use, especially if you apply it after your skin has soaked in a lot of water. However, you may also want to work in a thicker occlusive product immediately after showers when your skin is most saturated.
Your cleansers should be as gentle and non-stripping as possible. Avoid any products that leave your skin feeling tight after you’ve used them. Foam or gel cleansers are often a little more likely to strip the skin.
Want to learn more? We discuss this in detail in our guide to Skincare for Dry Skin.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s oily skin. This is when your skin produces more sebum, largely as a result of the levels of androgen hormones cycling through your system. This results in skin that often looks shiny even without moisturizer, especially on the forehead and center of the face. The pores tend to be more visible, as well.
While those with oily skin can experience any skin concern, clogged pores and acne are a little more common. It’s also very common for people with oily skin to overuse harsh cleansers or acne treatments and underuse moisturizers, which can lead to flakiness and dehydration in combination with the oiliness.
Choosing products for oily skin:
The ideal products for oily skin will usually help you feel a little more matte during the day. Consider applying fewer layers in the morning and choose sunscreens or makeup products with a matte finish.
It’s still important that you use a moisturizer at night, although you might get enough hydration from a lighter formula. For cleansing, we think it’s best to keep it gentle and mild, but you may find that you prefer gel formulas over very oily or creamy cleansers.
Finally, if you suffer from a specific concern like acne, consider speaking to your doctor - there are simple products that can help, like salicylic acid cleansers or retinoids.
Need more help? Check out our full guide to Skincare for Oily Skin.
Typically, “combination skin” usually refers to skin that’s dry in certain areas and oily in others, or that undergoes significant changes from season to season. That said, brands often use the term as a shortcut for slightly oily skin.
If your skin shows signs of dryness like flakiness along with extreme oiliness, chances are you actually have oily, dehydrated skin rather than combination skin.
Choosing products for combination skin:
With skin that’s somewhere in between, it’s all about finding your ideal level of moisture, so learning to listen to your skin is key. Chances are you’ll benefit from lightweight, hydrating moisturizer on most days. Then, on days when your skin shows more signs of dehydration, you’ll want to use a more occlusive product that’ll help you bind moisture to your skin.
Sometimes, sensitive skin is also included in the list of skin types. If you’re sensitive, it means that your skin can become inflamed more easily, and your barrier is easily disrupted. Usually, it’s a sign of having some sort of skin condition like rosacea or eczema, which may require a diagnosis and dermatological care.
Choosing products for sensitive skin:
With sensitive skin, it’s all about identifying your triggers and avoiding them. Products with fragrances or skin-resurfacing ingredients are slightly more likely to irritate your skin, but it’s very individual.
When in doubt, focus on products with simpler formulas, and with barrier-reinforcing or skin-soothing ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide, and oat extract. Budget-friendly moisturizers from dermatologist-approved brands like Vanicream are often fantastic for regular use, as well.
Always introduce new skincare by first conducting a patch test (i.e., applying products to a small spot on your skin for a few days to check for irritation).
There's a lot more to say about sensitive skin, so consider reading our guide to Skincare for Sensitive Skin.
The enigma of “normal” skin
So few things in life are “normal,” and that includes skin. This skin type is often described as being flawless, with the perfect level of oil production and no concerns. But who actually has skin like that?
In reality, we think normal skin is the term given to those with skin that’s just a little dry. There are no obvious issues with oil production but the dryness isn’t excessive, either.
Knowing your skin concerns
Generally, your skin type isn’t something you need to change with skincare, but just something you want to slightly account for. Skincare products are meant to visibly improve the look of the skin, especially when you’re shopping for serums with active ingredients.
To choose the right active ingredients, you need to consider aspects of your skin that you want to improve - we call those skin concerns, and here are the most common ones you might be dealing with:
- Dehydration: This is when the skin’s water content is low, often as a result of high transepidermal water loss.
- Acne: From blackheads to pimples, acne is an inflammatory skin condition that can take many forms, and is best addressed through the right combination of skincare and dermatological care.
- Signs of aging: With age and sun exposure, the skin loses its ability to create proteins that maintain its structure, which leads to fine lines, deeper wrinkles, and loss of firmness.
- Hyperpigmentation: Usually caused by inflammation or sun exposure, hyperpigmentation can look like diffused discoloration (i.e., melasma), freckles, or dark spots.
- Sensitivity, redness, and inflammatory skin conditions: These are usually markers of inflammation, which means the skin benefits from a gentle, soothing skincare routine, often in combination with dermatological care.
This is just a short list of common concerns. The reality is that the list can be nearly endless. While some concerns are cosmetic and can be addressed with the right skincare products, others are considered medical conditions that merit speaking to your doctor.
The importance of knowing your skin type
Fundamentally, we hope your biggest takeaway from this article is that you don’t need to take your skin type too seriously when choosing skincare products. More often than not, your skincare purchases should be made based on your specific concerns rather than on an arbitrary skin type.
After all, just because a product is supposedly formulated for your skin type doesn’t mean that it’ll help with what you’re really worried about, whether that’s dehydration, loss of elasticity, or frequent breakouts.
The greatest benefit of knowing what skin type you have is being able to identify how much moisture and occlusion you need. And this is actually best carried out as an ongoing process since your skin is ever-changing!