Combination skin is the most common skin type, and yet it’s the toughest one to care for. That’s because skin types don’t really fall into clear categories. They exist on a spectrum, and combination skin encompasses the center of that spectrum almost in its entirety.
This means that tons of people have combination skin, and despite having the same skin type, they’re also very different from one another. Taking care of combination skin means bringing in strategies to address both dryness and oiliness, which in itself requires a fine balance.
So listen up, you beautiful enigmas, this post is dedicated to you! We’ll give advice on creating the best skincare routine for combination skin, with an individual approach that never forgets what makes you different.
Article at a glance:
- What is combination skin?
- Signs you have combination skin
- What causes combination skin?
- Basics of caring for combination skin
- Combination skin concerns
- Best skincare products for combination skin
- Example skincare routine
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is combination skin?
Combination skin is a skin type that doesn’t fit neatly into either the dry skin or oily skin categories. This skin displays markers of both skin types, producing more oil in some regions of the face while feeling dry in others.
Generally, dermatologists don’t really talk about combination skin, but in 2005, a group of researchers set out to create a definition based on both regional variations in oil production as well as how the skin changes from season to season.
According to them, combination skin produces different amounts of oil in different regions of the face, but it also changes its oil production levels from season to season, with oilier skin in summer and drier skin in winter.
The reality is that the vast majority of people have combination skin. That’s because the skin type categories are much more of a spectrum than rigid, defined types, so combination skin encompasses the largest part of the spectrum.
The reason why dermatologists don’t usually talk about combination skin may be that it's often less problematic. Sure, those with combination skin can experience any number of skin concerns, but these skin concerns are less likely to be tied to your skin type.
Dermatologists and other professionals often concentrate their energy on those who exist on the ends of the spectrum because that’s where skin issues tend to crop up. Combination skin, on the other hand, is a little less likely to have issues, since those with combination skin are often producing the healthiest amounts of sebum.
Signs you have combination skin
Learning what combination skin looks like isn’t easy since it can come across as a little oilier or drier depending on the season. Here are the key signs that’ll give you an idea as to whether you have combination skin or not.
- Your oil production is concentrated on specific parts of your face - especially the T-zone (i.e., forehead, nose, center of the cheeks, and chin).
- You have less visible oil production in the U-zone (jawline and sides of cheeks).
- Your pores vary in size in a way that correlates with areas of oiliness and dryness. In other words, your pores are larger and more visible in the T-zone when compared to the U-zone.
- You experience fluctuations in oil production from season to season, usually with oily skin in summer and dry skin in winter.
- You’re simply unsure of your skin type. You experience symptoms of both oiliness and dryness, and occasionally your skin just seems “normal”.
If you’re still unsure, check out our complete guide to figuring out your skin type!
What causes combination skin?
Short answer: There’s nothing specific that causes combination skin.
Oil production is something that’s largely controlled by the androgens (male sex hormones) that cycle through our body, and that is also informed by our genetics.
With that in mind, combination skin is the most normal way for skin to behave. In fact, we’d argue that “normal skin” doesn’t exist - it’s just combination skin on good behavior.
Basics of caring for combination skin
Before we dive into the products that make up the ideal skincare routine for combination skin, there are a few key tips we’d like to start with.
- Learn to listen to your skin
Treating combination skin requires a lot of flexibility. Be observant and take note of how your skin behaves and reacts to products, so you can adjust your routine accordingly.
Listening to your skin means paying attention to how it feels from week to week: Is it tight? Do products sting when you apply them? Is it extra shiny? Are you breaking out a little more than usual?
You don’t want to become obsessive, though. Checking multiple times a day won’t help your skin, but it may drive you a little wild. If you’re prone to picking and prodding at your skin, consider focusing on how it feels rather than how it looks, and don’t get too close to the mirror.
- Adjust seasonally
Seasonal fluctuation can have major impacts on your skin. You might find yourself going from totally dry in winter to totally oily in summer. That’s why listening to your skin is important, but you can expect that as humidity gets low, you may need to focus more on hydration, for example.
- Don’t resort to extremes
To keep your skin thriving, stick to small tweaks to the level of moisture or exfoliation you give your skin. On the other hand, attempting to change the entirety of your skincare routine from one day to the next can do more harm than good.
- Focus on concerns
This last tip actually applies to all skin types. A great skincare routine should have realistic goals, like slowly fading acne rather than eliminating it overnight, or reducing oiliness in the T-zone rather than achieving totally matte, dry skin that never produces oil.
Combination skin concerns
With any skin type, there are usually key concerns you might be worried about, whether you’re trying to correct something or prevent something from happening. It’s important to take note of these concerns since they’ll help direct you toward a goal-oriented skincare routine.
Plus, some skin concerns can also actually make it tougher to figure out your skin type.
Acne: Those with combination skin often deal with some acne, which can sometimes even lead you to believe your skin is actually oily (hint: it probably isn’t). That said, you’ll want to treat your acne with spot treatments, exfoliants, or serums while still caring for the dry portions of your skin.
Dehydration: Dehydration is what happens when the skin lacks water or struggles to retain it. It can make the skin feel tight and dry, and cause it to appear dull, rough, or flakey. It’s a confounding situation, and incredibly important to resolve through TEWL prevention.
Pore size in T-zone: Visible pores are quite normal, but the right exfoliants and treatment serums can still help you refine your texture and potentially minimize the appearance of your pores.
- Sensitivity: Having sensitive skin isn’t mutually exclusive with having combination skin. Look out for signs that your combination skin is sensitive, such as redness, stinging, rashes, or irritation.
- Premature/photo-aging: Even when all is well with your combination skin, you might still be interested in either staving off or reversing concerns such as wrinkles, loss of tone, and hyperpigmentation.
Best skincare products for combination skin
Those with combination skin often have the hardest time choosing skincare products. Many brands only market their products to the skin types on the far ends of the spectrum. Even if brands were to recommend products specifically to combination skin, there’s so much variation within the combination skin category that there’s no guarantee that those products would work for you.
With that in mind, you’ll probably do best with products that don’t market to specific skin types but instead focus on solutions:
- Providing hydration
- Cleansing gently
- Protecting the skin
- Addressing any other specific concerns, like signs of aging or acne
With each new product, focus on how your skin responds and how it feels after you’ve used it - you’ll usually be able to know if you’re over-cleansing or moisturizing adequately within a few days.
By focusing on a goal-oriented approach while making sure that your products balance each other out, you’ll be able to build the perfect skincare routine for your combination skin in no time.
With that out of the way, here are our tips for choosing specific skincare products for combination skin.
Moisturizer for combination skin
Finding the best moisturizer for combination skin takes balance. You don’t want a product that feels too rich for your skin, but you still need an adequate level of moisture.
Often, the texture of a moisturizer doesn’t have a major impact on how well it moisturizes, but it does impact how well you perceive it to moisturize. With combination skin, chances are that creams with a light to medium texture, like our Hydration Cream, will feel nicest on your skin.
That said, you may find you need to change your moisturizer from season to season, choosing something lighter in summer and a little richer in winter. Gel moisturizers often feel great when your skin is at its oiliest.
You’ve probably also heard suggestions that you use different products on different parts of your face. This suggestion isn’t very practical if taken at face value. That said, one way you can apply it is by using a light moisturizer all over your face, and then layering something a little thicker and richer only over the areas where you need more moisture, like your cheeks or under the eyes.
Cleanser for combination skin
Cleansing is an important skincare step, especially when your skin is feeling extra oily, but it’s also very easy to overdo.
Improper cleansing can disrupt your skin barrier, which will lead your combination skin into bad extremes. You can end up with areas of significant dehydration and other areas of excessive oiliness.
You can avoid this disaster by choosing gentle, light cleansers that’ll remove excess oil while keeping your skin feeling supple and strong. Look for gel or foam formulas that advertise themselves as hydrating or gentle.
When you do try a new cleanser, focus on how your skin feels. A great cleanser will leave your skin feeling almost the same as it did before cleansing. If you feel any tightness or irritation, it means the face wash you tried is too aggressive.
If you’re looking to correct texture issues, or you find that your skin resists absorbing skincare products, you can look for a cleanser that’ll double as an exfoliator. We champion simplified yet advanced skincare routines at Protocol, which is why our AHA cleanser is designed to remove excess oils, keep the skin supple and hydrated, and remove excess dead skin with a combination of alpha-hydroxy acids.
If your skin is prone to breakouts, you can also look for a cleanser with salicylic acid, which is a similarly gentle exfoliant that unclogs pores and helps fade blemishes.
Serums and treatments for combination skin
When it comes to choosing serums, your skin type doesn’t matter much. Serums give you the opportunity to address those niggling concerns you might be dealing with. The best serums for combination skin are designed for maximum absorption, so their textures tend to be light and appropriate for all skin types.
The best treatment ingredients, like retinol, vitamin C, and niacinamide, are beneficial for almost everyone, regardless of skin type. These ingredients help improve the way the skin behaves at a very basic level, which is especially useful when you have combination skin and find it difficult to balance your skin’s different needs.
For example, retinoids like the retinaldehyde in our Retinol Serum work by boosting the skin’s own self-renewal mechanisms. This makes them multi-beneficial: They can reduce signs of aging, but also help fortify the skin, speed up the healing of breakouts, and correct texture issues.
Niacinamide, another ingredient in our retinol serum, is slightly less active but still highly beneficial. It boosts the skin’s ceramide levels, which helps with dryness and dehydration, but it also reduces the overproduction of oil. In other words, it’s the ultimate balancing ingredient for combination skin, since it treats both dryness and oiliness at the same time.
Sunscreen for combination skin
A great sunscreen is a must regardless of skin type. For those with combination skin, the best sunscreens will fit seamlessly into your morning routine and feel great on your skin.
So what does a great sunscreen for combination skin actually look and feel like? There’s a lot of room to play around!
You may prefer a rich, moisturizing sunscreen in the morning, to save you the need for a daytime moisturizer - especially in winter when your skin can be more dry. On the other hand, you might prefer a more mattifying sunscreen in summer when your skin feels oily.
If you want to boost the efficacy of your sunscreen, our Vitamin C Superserum is another product to consider. Vitamin C helps to keep sunscreen stable while also protecting the skin from other external aggressors like pollution or cigarette smoke.
Example skincare routine for combination skin
So how do you put your products together? Here’s an example of how to construct a skincare routine for combination skin.
- Splash your skin with water, or cleanse when feeling extra oily.
- Apply a serum to address specific concerns - this is the perfect time for a vitamin C serum.
- If your skin is feeling especially dry, apply a thin layer of moisturizer and let it sink in completely.
- Finally, apply at least a ¼ teaspoon of sunscreen to the face and neck. If your sunscreen is rich or moisturizing, you can skip moisturizer.
- Cleanse your skin with a light foaming cleanser, or use an exfoliating or medicated cleanser as needed. Leave your skin damp.
- Apply a treatment serum to address specific concerns - nighttime is ideal for retinoids.
- Apply your moisturizer of choice.
- In areas where your skin is feeling dry, apply a light layer of a richer cream or ointment.
What to avoid if I have combination skin?
When you have combination skin, sometimes the best way to learn what to avoid is to try things and pay attention. What works for one person with combination skin might not work for another!
With that said, here are some common things to avoid with combination skin:
- Harsh cleansers or toners that leave your skin feeling tight.
- Soaps (as opposed to cleansers) have a high pH which can disrupt your skin’s acid mantle.
- Most alcohol-laden products run the risk of dehydrating the skin.
Do I need a toner for combination skin?
Toners can be a lovely skincare step, but they’re not mandatory. Don’t use a toner if you don’t have a clear understanding of what you want it to do for your skin.
For example, some toners are actually exfoliants with ingredients like glycolic or salicylic acid. If you need an exfoliant in your skincare routine, an exfoliating toner can be an excellent choice (even if we prefer saving time by using exfoliating cleansers).
Other toners can offer a light dose of hydration, similar to saturating your skin with water. If you feel like you need an extra hydration step in your routine, and you don’t necessarily want anything heavier than your current moisturizer, then a toner rich in humectants like glycerin can be helpful.
Finally, skip toners that are simply made up of water and alcohol or water and plant extracts. They have the potential to irritate your skin at worst, and they’re a waste of time at best.
Pay attention to your skin
Unlike other skin types, the diversity that’s possible within the “combination skin” category means that creating rigid rules is impossible, and even suggesting guidelines for how you should care for your skin is difficult.
Combination skin types, above all others, benefit the most from observant care. We often mention the importance of listening to your skin, but with combination skin, it’s doubly important.
This also means that the best way to figure out if products work for you is through trial and error (although the products you choose to try should be based on your individual skin goals and concerns). We created our SMOL set with that in mind.
This little kit contains a 30-day routine of the essential Protocol products: our Double AHA Cleanser, Enzyme-Active Retinol Serum, Vitamin C Superserum, and Hyaluronic Acid & Niacinamide Hydration Cream. If you think your skin is ready for a more advanced, balancing, and anti-aging routine, give it a try!