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What Is My Skin Type?

Are you dry, oily or sensitive? No, not your personality – your 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 as well as what to avoid. It also helps you best care for your skin.

Skin is often categorised as one of five types – normal, dry, oily, combination, and sensitive. Your skin type mainly depends on a combination of three factors:

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

Most skin types are inherited, though your skin type is not necessarily static throughout your life. This means that your skin can change for several reasons. This can include getting older, changes in the environment and season, illness, or 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”. These are a collection of water-soluble compounds found in the top layer of the skin (called the stratum corneum).

We are now going to look at each skin type, including the main 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 the skin is drier or oilier than others. Likewise, the odd blemish may appear. However, these things are not 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. And it is this water content that determines how moist or supple the skin is. However, dryness happens when the sebaceous glands don’t produce enough oil to keep the water in. So it is a lack of oil that leads to dry skin.

Dry skin can vary from slightly dry to really inflamed. For example, slightly dry skin can have a general feeling of tightness after washing that is easily eased with moisturiser. At the other end of the scale, really dry skin can be itchy, inflamed, or scaly.

Dry skin can also be known as dehydrated skin.

Characteristics of Dry Skin

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

  • Almost invisible pores.
  • A 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 dries out the air causing 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. Rather, oil is needed to trap the water in your skin. This can be achieved by using moisturising oil-based products.

There are also other things you can do to ease dry skin – or avoid making it worse:

  • Use gentle soaps that are superfatted, as they tend to dry out your skin less.
  • Avoid medicated, abrasive, herbal and deodorant soaps. Likewise, avoid 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. Oily ingredients trap water in the skin’s surface, leading to a reduction in 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, to stop this, wear gloves when cleaning or washing up, and avoid hot baths and showers.
  • Protect your skin from the elements by using 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 help put some 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

When the sebaceous (oil) glands in the skin secrete too much oil it can lead to oily skin. It can also create 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 skincare products labelled as non-comedogenic, 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. Hence, this is why it is called combination!

The most common area to be oily is the T-zone – which is essentially the nose, forehead and chin. These features form a T-shape on your face, leading to the obvious name!

The highest number of active oil glands are found on the nose, followed by the chin and forehead. 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 cause an imbalance in how much and where lipids are produced.
  • The weather.

How to Care for Combination Skin

  • Combination skin may benefit from using two different types of skincare products – namely, one for the T-zone and one for the rest of the face.
  • There are also 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 reacts negatively to certain cosmetic products.

If your skin is sensitive, it is helpful to find out what causes it. This allows you to stay away from the things that make it react. You may have sensitive skin for a variety of reasons, but it’s often in response to particular cosmetic ingredients or certain types of 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 some of the common culprits that cause a reaction to a product.
  • Other ingredients to watch for are alcohol, acids (like alpha-hydroxy acid 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”.
  • Skin can also be irritated by jewellery and clothing labels. Nickel is used in some jewellery and is a common cause of irritation.
  • 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 sensitivity 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, stop using it immediately and remove it carefully from your skin. It is advisable to 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 hypoallergenic, dermatologist-tested or allergy-free. They are marketed for sensitive skins, so should have less chance of triggering a reaction, but it is not a guarantee. This is why it is important to understand what causes your skin to flare up 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, if 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 can cause reactions in sensitive skin, so don’t assume that because it’s natural it won’t irritate!
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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