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What Is My Skin Type?

Here we look at skin types, commonly categorised as normal, dry, oily, combination and sensitive. We look at the characteristics of each skin type and what can cause it or make it worse. Knowing your skin type helps you determine what products to use and what to avoid. It also helps you best care for your skin.

Skin is often divided into five main types, namely normal, dry, oily, combination and sensitive. Your skin type depends on a combination of three factors:

  • Water content – how much water is in your skin, which therefore affects how hydrated it is, along with its suppleness and comfort;
  • Oil content – how much oil you have in your skin, which affects its softness;
  • Level of sensitivity – how tolerant your skin is to certain substances, which affects how it reacts to the ingredients found in products.

Most skin types are inherited, though your skin type is not necessarily static. This means that your skin can change for a number of reasons, including getting older, changes in the environment and season, illness and medication.

Normal or balanced skin is naturally moist, smooth and supple. It has the right amounts of oil, water and special chemicals called “natural moisturising factors” – a collection of water-soluble compounds found in the top layer of the skin (the stratum corneum).

Here is a look at each skin type’s characteristics and how best to care for it.

Normal Skin Type

Normal (or balanced) skin has the right amounts of water and oils, therefore creating a good balance overall. Of course, there may be days where skin is drier or oilier than others, or the odd blemish appears, but these are not things that are too problematic or difficult to resolve. 

Normal skin has:

  • No or few blemishes
  • No severe sensitivity
  • Barely visible pores
  • A radiant and smooth complexion

If you have this, then lucky you! Ultimately, you can use lots of different makeup products, don’t get excessively shiny or have a dull complexion.

Dry Skin Type

Under normal circumstances, 95 percent of each of our skin cells is made up of water. In short, it’s the water content that determines how moist or supple your skin is. Dryness happens when the sebaceous glands don’t produce enough oil to keep the water in. Dry skin varies from a general feeling of tightness after washing that is easily eased with moisturiser, to skin that is itchy, inflamed or scaly. We also call dry skin “dehydrated skin”.

Characteristics of Dry Skin

If you have dry skin, it may be prone to some of these things:

  • Almost invisible pores
  • Dull complexion that looks matte and rough
  • Flaky dry skin patches
  • Red patches
  • Less elasticity
  • More visible lines and wrinkles
  • Dry skin can also make you more prone to scaling, cracking, irritation, eczema and infections
  • It can be sensitive

What Can Cause or Worsen Dry Skin

  • Hereditary factors
  • Ageing or changes in hormones
  • Weather such as sun, wind or cold
  • Living or being in a dry climate
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning beds
  • Indoor heating or air conditioning, as they dry out the air causing a low humidity
  • Ingredients in cosmetics or household products
  • Excessive washing and bathing, especially in water that is hot, and using harsh products that strip the oil from your skin
  • Medications and illness

How to Care for Dry Skin

Dry skin cannot be treated by drinking extra water or eating oily foods. The water needs to be trapped into the skin by oil. However, there are some simply things you can do to ease dry skin or avoid making it worse:

  • Use gentle soaps that are “super fatted” as they tend to dry out your skin less.
  • Avoid medicated, abrasive, herbal and deodorant soaps or ingredients that are drying to the skin such as alcohol or witch hazel.
  • Use a rich moisturiser after washing, showering or bathing and keep applying as needed throughout the day. Basic moisturisers generally do as good a job as more expensive ones too! They will utilise oily ingredients to trap water in the skin’s surface, reducing moisture loss.
  • Use cosmetics designed for dry skin.
  • Repeated contact with water makes dry skin drier, as the water-holding cells in the skin leach their water when they come into contact with water. So wear gloves when cleaning or washing up, and avoid long, hot baths and showers.
  • Protect your skin from the elements, so use sunscreen in the sun and a barrier cream in cold or windy conditions.
  • Don’t let indoor temperatures get too hot and dry – a humidifier can put moisture back into the air.
  • Don’t use or sit in air conditioning for long periods of time.
skin types dry
Some dry skin closeup and products designed just for dry skin, including moisturiser and barrier cream.

Oily Skin Type

This type of skin occurs when the sebaceous (oil) glands in the skin secrete too much oil. This can lead to problems like acne, blackheads and blemishes.

Characteristics of Oily Skin

  • Enlarged pores
  • Dull or sallow-looking skin due to sluggish circulation
  • A shiny skin due to excessive oil
  • Blackheads, pimples, spots or other blemishes

What Can Cause or Worsen Oily Skin

  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Stress
  • Diet
  • Exposure to heat or too much humidity
  • Being rough with your skin, and scrubbing it too hard

How to Care for Oily Skin

  • Wash your skin no more than twice a day and after you perspire heavily.
  • Use a gentle cleanser designed for oily skin and don’t scrub as this can stimulate the oil glands to produce more oil.
  • Don’t pick, pop or squeeze spots. This prolongs healing time and may scar or damage your skin.
  • Use makeup and skin care products labelled as “noncomedogenic” as they don’t tend to clog pores.
  • Use cosmetics designed for oily skin.
skin types oily
Oily skins examples, and products designed for oily/combination skins.

Combination Skin Type

A combination skin type can be dry or normal in some areas and then oily in others. The common area to be oily is the T-zone – essentially the nose, forehead and chin (called this as these features form a T shape). The nose, followed by the chin and forehead, has the highest number of active oil glands. This skin type is sometimes referred to as “normal with an oily T-zone”.

Characteristics of Combination Skin

  • Overly-dilated pores in the oily areas
  • Blackheads or blemishes in the oily areas
  • Shiny skin in areas of oiliness

What Can Cause or Worsen Combination Skin

  • Genetic or hormonal factors that cause an imbalance in how much and where lipids are produced
  • The weather

How to Care for Combination Skin

  • Combination skin may benefit from slightly different types of skin care in different areas (though the difference between the T-zone and the cheeks are not extreme).
  • Use products designed for combination skin.

Sensitive Skin Type

Sensitive skin is a layman term, rather than a medical one. It generally refers to skin that has a reaction to cosmetic products. If your skin is sensitive, it’s helpful to find out what causes it so you can stay away from things that make it react. You may have sensitive skin for a variety of reasons, but it’s often in response to particular cosmetic products.

Characteristics of Sensitive Skin

  • Redness or high colouring on white skin – black skin will show darker patches
  • Inflammation, bumps and hives
  • Itching, burning, stinging and blistering
  • Dryness and flakiness
  • Peeling and scaling of the skin
  • Feels warm to the touch

What Can Cause or Worsen Sensitive Skin

  • Ingredients in cosmetics, in particular, fragrance and preservatives are the common culprits of a reaction to a product. Other ingredients to watch for are alcohol, acids (like alpha-hydroxyacid or “AHA”), bismuth oxychloride used in mineral makeups and sodium lauryl sulfate. Reaction from chemicals that come into contact with the skin is called “allergic contact dermatitis”.
  • Likewise anything else that contacts your skin can cause irritation, for example, jewellery and clothing labels. Nickel is a common cause of irritation from jewellery.
  • Using alkaline products can upset the skin’s natural acid pH, causing sensitivity or irritation.
  • Being rough with your skin and scrubbing it too hard.
  • Facial treatments and laser peels. Some mild irritation is inevitable, but this should subside fairly quickly.
  • The weather – cold, wind and prolonged exposure to the sun.
  • Recognised medical causes of sensitive include allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, rosacea, eczema and dry skin.

How to Care for Sensitive Skin

  • If you have a severe reaction to a product/item, stop using it immediately and remove it from your skin. Consult with a doctor.
  • To prevent future sensitivity, stop using the product or item that has created the reaction.
  • Look for products that are labelled as “hypo-allergenic”, “dermatologist tested” or “allergy free”. They are designed for sensitive skins, so should have less chance of triggering a reaction, but this is why it is important to understand what causes your skin to flare in the first place.
  • Use gentle products that are free of fragrance, preservatives, harsh exfoliants and anything else that may aggravate your skin.
  • Contact dermatitis can be caused by allergens or irritants. Basically, it you’re allergic to a substance, your immune system makes antibodies against it, which in turn causes a reaction. You can also be sensitive to irritants, but not truly allergic. To see if you are allergic to a substance, get a patch test done by a dermatologist. Even natural or organic ingredients, such as essential oils and fragrance, can cause reactions in sensitive skin, so don’t assume that because it’s natural it won’t cause irritation!
Some examples of sensitive skin and unfragranced cosmetic products.

Find Out More

Nordmann, L. (2007). Beauty Therapy: The Foundations: The Official Guide to NVQ/SVQ Level 2. London: Thomson.
Shields M., Lees M. (2001). Skin Care: How to Save Your Skin. New York: Delmar.
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