On the surface, categorizing your skin sounds pretty basic—you’re either dry, oily, combination, or sensitive, right? Not so, say the experts. “The truth is, skin type is like a fingerprint, and everyone is different,” says Elena Arboleda, head aesthetician at New York City’s Mario Badescu spa. Since skin often takes on multiple personalities, most of us incorrectly assume we have combination skin, or miscast our complexions entirely—which can result in unsuccessfully battling the same pesky skin troubles for a lifetime.
Common Skin-Typing Mistakes
The overflowing cornucopia of today’s beauty solutions can be as much a curse as a blessing; product misuse can trigger reactions like redness and flaking, causing people to incorrectly label their skin as sensitive or dry. “People are usually hyperfocused on one or two things going on with their face and choose products for those issues alone, instead of focusing on all their skin needs,” says celebrity aesthetician Renée Rouleau. Telltale signs you’re using the wrong products for your skin type include stinging and burning, endless flaking, excessive oiliness, or inflammation.
Sensitive-skin claims have skyrocketed about 60 percent in the past couple of decades, and experts say overzealous use of the high-tech treatments du jour—retinols, microdermabrasion, alpha hydroxy acids, chemical peels—have resulted in red, raw, seemingly “sensitive” skin that is distinctly different from the true clinical use of the term. “I also find that people think they’re getting a better product if it’s labeled for sensitive skin, which isn’t the case at all,” says Arboleda.
Acne sufferers are notorious for overtreating breakouts with harsh ingredients like glycolic acid and retinols that are applied too often and in too great an amount. The ensuing—and inevitable—dryness is often placated with a heavy moisturizer, which only clogs pores and triggers additional product-fueled acne. Make sure your moisturizer passes the absorption test to determine if it’s a good fit. “Touch your skin five minutes after you apply moisturizer,” says Rouleau. “If you can still feel it, it’s too rich for you.”
And if you’re convinced you have combination skin, take note: The type is often mistaken for a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, a yeast overgrowth characterized by dry-looking patches slicked over in oil, which occurs more often in winter and is frequently accompanied by scalp dandruff. “It responds to dry-skin remedies to some degree, so people think they have it treated,” explains Nebraska dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Joel Schlessinger, MD. A true solution is typically a combination of a mild steroid cream and an anti-yeast prescription from a dermatologist.
Find Your True Skin Type
In the testing labs of big beauty brands, you may spot fancy equipment like the VapoMeter, which measures moisture content in skin cells and rapidly gauges an accurate skin-type reading. But for the rest of us without the Jetsons-like apparatus, there are still dependable ways to figure out your skin type—you’ll just need to part with the black-and-white thinking of old. “I don’t think of skin types. I think of what your skin is prone to,” says New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD. In fact, your skin is likely a hybrid of at least a couple of the following categories.
Dry: If skin feels taut at two crucial times—after waking and cleansing—try Rouleau’s tape test to confirm you have dry skin. Apply a piece of clear tape to the forehead, rub gently, and remove. If the tape is embedded with tiny pieces of flakes, your skin is dry.
Oily: Skin slick with shine upon waking is a feat accomplished by only true oily skin types. Another giveaway is grease residue that builds on skin’s surface during the day and easily transfers to anything pressed against the face, whether it’s a blotting tissue or a BlackBerry.
Sensitive/redness-prone: Sensitive skin often flushes red and burns or stings at the slightest provocation. There is usually a genetic component at play, and higher histamine levels in the body can make sensitive skin more susceptible to inflammatory conditions like psoriasis, rosacea, and eczema. Of all skin types, people with sensitive skin should consider seeing a dermatologist for guidance most, says Schlessinger.
Meanwhile, self-induced “sensitized” skin caused by aggressive use of products like retinols, alpha hydroxyl acids, and peels should self-correct shortly after scaling back or eliminating problematic ingredients.
Acne-prone: Whether it’s due to genetics, larger pore size, or overreactive skin, acne-prone types break out more easily than their peers. Age often determines whether the acne is bacterial, hormonal, or hereditary, and depending on the severity, consistent topical care can clear skin. For more stubborn cases, a visit to a dermatologist for antibiotic and retinol options may be in order.
Dull/aging: Depending on age and environmental factors like sun exposure and stress levels, aging skin can show symptoms ranging from a dull grayish tone, pigmentation spotting and blotching, fine line and wrinkle formation, and sagging that comes with collagen loss.
Dry: First, beware that you’re not confusing dehydrated with dry; dehydration is caused when water is stripped from skin by products and environmental factors, and dryness defines skin that produces little to no oil naturally. While dehydrated skin needs products that replenish water levels with a powerful humectant like hyaluronic acid, truly dry skin needs oil-based (albeit non–pore clogging) ingredients like olive and grapeseed oils to keep the moisture barrier intact. Be sure to read labels and avoid isopropyl myristate and isopropyl palmitate, which are commonly used in moisturizers to temporarily soothe skin but which can cause the cycle of dryness to worsen in the long run, warns Rouleau.
Oily: For skin that produces a lot of oil, it’s more about what you don’t use than what you do. Refrain from using sulfates—particularly sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate—foaming agents that leave skin feeling refreshingly clean after immediate use but that stimulate oil glands to produce more oil in the long run to overcompensate for the sudden shock of dryness, says Rouleau. Opt for a light water-based hydrator like hyaluronic acid to balance out skin (all our experts stressed the importance of hydrating oily skin), and look to cucumber for refreshment that won’t trigger oil production, says Arboleda.
Sensitive/redness-prone: Fragrance is perhaps the most common ingredient found in skin-care products and one that sensitive types should avoid at all costs. It may even be the root cause of your sensitivity, says Schlessinger. The goal is to aid barrier function without irritation, so look to soothing hydrators like aloe and niacinamide, as well as anti-inflammatory antioxidants like white tea. If you have rosacea, avoid propylene glycol, which can irritate and flare skin predisposed to redness.
Acne-prone: Like those with oily faces, acne-sensitive types should avoid sulfates like sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate, which can aggravate acne by increasing oil production. Heavy oils like mineral and petroleum and butters like shea and cocoa should also be avoided, as they plug already easy-to-clog pores. Instead, stick with light and noncomedogenic humectants like glycerin to moisturize and opt for gentle exfoliators like salicylic and lactic acid to speed up cell turnover without stripping skin. Also beware of hair products coming in contact with your face, as common ingredients like aerosolized plastic can coat skin and cause yeast overgrowth—which often appears as tiny acnelike bumps around the forehead and hairline, says Schlessinger.
Dull/aging: Stabilized vitamin C (which turns yellow or brown once no longer potent) is still considered the antioxidant standard for brightening dull complexions, while peptides are the workhorses of wrinkle and fine-line reduction. Retinols (over-the-counter) and retinoids (prescription) can have dramatic antiaging effects that double up to clear acne in the same shot—though sensitive and drier skins should cautiously start slow and low in dosage, while oilier types can often tolerate higher doses. Generally speaking, the higher the retinol or retinoid potency, the greater the results but the higher the risk of irritation