In theory, going into Sephora to shop for skincare products should be a whole lot of fun: The masks! The moisturizers! The facial mists! But when you actually step foot inside, seeing all those products can be seriously overwhelming. Where the heck are you supposed to begin? Knowing your skin type is a crucial first step. Why? “It’s important to know your skin type in order to choose the most effective skincare products and in-office treatments to promote skin wellness and slow aging,” says licensed esthetician Kimberly Bates. Keep reading to learn exactly how to figure out your skin type and put together a regimen targeted to your specific skin type and concerns.
How to Determine Your Skin Type
Not totally sure what skin type you have? The next time you cleanse your face, don’t apply any further products (even moisturizer!). Check out how your skin looks and feels about an hour later, then compare your skin’s feel and appearance to these common signs that can help you figure out whether you have oily, dry, combination, or “normal” skin.
One of the biggest signifiers of oily skin is large pore size as well as an especially shiny T-zone (the part of your face that includes your forehead, nose, and chin), says Bates. “Another giveaway [of oily skin] is grease residue that builds on [the] skin’s surface during the day and easily transfers to anything pressed against the face, whether it’s a blotting tissue or your smartphone,” says Sonya Dakar, celebrity esthetician.
The telltale signs of dry skin are tightness or itchiness. “You may also notice rough patches, flaking, or even cracking and bleeding,” says Dakar. Those with dry skin often experience peeling around their noses, says Jennifer Holman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. If your skin feels tight and uncomfortable after cleansing, then you probably have dry skin, says Bates.
Are you a little oily here and a little dry there? Then you might have combination skin. “Typical signs of combination skin would be an oily T-zone with possibly dry skin elsewhere,” says Bates. “However, the oily regions can be around the hairline on the forehead only.”
The word “normal” is kind of a misnomer because having oily or dry skin doesn’t mean you’re not normal! In the parlance of skincare, “normal” skin just means you don’t have any recurring, stand-out issues. “Your skin can be classified as normal if it isn’t particularly oily or dry and if anti-aging, acne, and sensitivity aren’t concerns on your radar—in other words, the skin type all of us wish we had,” says Dakar.
What determines your skin type?
Your skin type is determined by your genetics to some degree. For instance, if your dad had acne, then you might have him to thank for your own breakout woes, says Dakar. If your mom’s always complaining about having a flaky nose, she might be to blame for your dry skin! Hormones affect your skin type, too. “When you are on your period, your skin may experience breakouts, causing you to think your skin is oily,” says Dakar. “But once your period is over, the breakouts [might] clear right up and your skin can become flaky.” Your skin might even change seasonally depending on how much, or little, moisture is in the air. You might notice oilier skin in the summer and drier skin in the winter, says Dakar. Lifestyle factors like smoking, stress, and how well (or poorly) you sleep also play a role in how your skin appears, says Tori Burns, a certified physician’s assistant. Using the wrong products can exacerbate your skin issues, says Holman. If you’re piling on retinoids for wrinkles, this can cause peeling and make dry skin worse, says Holman. Plus, there’s nothing we can do to stop aging, and you can expect your skin to change in appearance and texture over time due to aging as well, adds Holman.
The Best Skincare Routine for Every Skin Type
Now that you know which skin type you have, it’s time to put together the best skincare routine for you.
The Best Skincare Routine for Oily Skin
“Although drying out [oily] skin feels logical, it’s not,” says Dakar. “You should avoid using stripping and dehydrating products with 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.” Dakar likes treating oily skin with oil to balance it. “It may sound crazy, but feeding [oily] skin a healthy oil like omega-rich flaxseed oil sends your skin a message that it does not need to produce any extra oil on its own,” she says. Bates recommends looking for oil-free moisturizers and sunscreens to avoid excess greasiness. Retinol is a great ingredient to use when you have oily skin, says Burns. It increases cell turnover, getting rid of dead skin cell buildup in your pores, which can lead to acne.
The Best Skincare Routine for Dry Skin
Steer clear of foaming cleansers, which will be too stripping for your dry skin, and stick to oil cleansers instead, says Bates. Dakar is a fan of cleansing oils for dry skin, too. “Cleansing oils will melt away makeup and dirt while leaving skin very soft and hydrated,” she says, adding that you should wash your face with lukewarm water because hot water is dehydrating. Moisturizer is key to maintaining a healthy skin barrier, says Bates. (Your skin barrier keeps moisture in and irritants out.) Dakar suggests looking for ingredients like resveratrol, grapeseed oil, and antioxidants. “Caring for dry skin may be as simple as eliminating harsh environmental factors or kicking an old habit to the curb,” says Dakar. “Being exposed to dry air regularly and spending time in the sun without protection can cause skin to dry out. Bad habits including smoking or poor hydration are surefire contributors to dry or itchy skin.”
The Best Skincare Routine for Combination Skin
Use a gentle cleanser (so as not to over-strip your dry areas), says Bates. You may want to use two separate moisturizers: a more emollient one for your dry areas and an oil-free one for your oily regions, says Bates. Burns points out that applying two moisturizers isn’t always the most feasible option, so if you don’t think you’ll have time to commit to that, know that it may take some trial and error to find the one moisturizer that works for your entire face. Use an oil-free sunscreen and exfoliate your oily areas once or twice a week with a salicylic acid scrub, says Bates. Studies have shown that salicylic acid is effective at minimizing acne, a common skin concern for those with combination skin.
The Best Skincare Routine for Normal Skin
When you’re not too oily and not too dry, focus on cleansing and moisturizing well. You can pick whatever cleanser you like (lucky!). As far as moisturizer goes, Bates likes hyaluronic acid. “It’s the molecule responsible for skin hydration,” she says. “At age 20, we start to lose our ability to synthesize our own hyaluronic acid. By age 50, we have lost 50 percent of the capability to produce this molecule.” Because you’re not dealing with any major issues, make protecting your skin from sun damage and environmental stressors a priority. Bates recommends wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen and an antioxidant serum daily. She also suggests using an eye cream for hydration and a retinol product at night to promote cell turnover and improve wrinkles.
Common Skin Concerns and How to Deal
Beyond your skin type, there are concerns that lots of us deal with on the regular. No matter what your skin type is, you can experience all of these skin concerns, meaning having dry, acne-prone skin or dehydrated, oily skin is completely possible.
“Sensitive skin refers to a range of conditions, from genetic ailments, such as rosacea and eczema, to reactive skin and skin that’s been sensitized due to medication or harsh products and treatments,” says Dakar. If you have a reaction and notice itchiness or a rash, this could be sensitivity to an ingredient, like retinol, or a treatment, like a chemical peel. If you’re not sure what’s causing your sensitivity, you may need to take an elimination approach, says Burns. Try one product at a time until you figure out what’s bothering your skin, she suggests.
The Best Skincare Products for Sensitive Skin
“A good regimen [for sensitive skin] includes a gentle detergent-free cleaner,” says Dakar. Strengthen your skin by using a skin barrier–repairing moisturizer, says Bates. Stay away from products with fragrance, says Bates, since this can be irritating, and don’t forget to wear sunscreen daily.
Dehydrated skin is not the same as dry skin! Your skin will get dehydrated when there’s a lack of water in the top layer of your skin, says Bates. This is a problem because, as she explains, “When skin is dehydrated, often times it will produce more oil to make up for the missing water, which can cause breakouts and irritation.”. You can also have skin dehydration and oily skin, says Holman. This can occur when you’re using too many products that strip your skin of oil, which then causes your body to pump out more oil.
The Best Skincare Products for Dehydrated Skin
Dakar suggests feeding your face with a good facial oil and a particle-free gel exfoliator to dissolve the top layer of dead skin without over-stripping your complexion. Bates says a hyaluronic acid serum is another good product pick. “Hyaluronic acid is often referred to as a drink of water for the skin,” she says.
Acne doesn’t discriminate. While it’s often associated with oily skin (too much oil is a cause of acne), any skin type—even dry skin—can be prone to acne. “Acne is caused when the follicles in your skin get clogged, so an overproduction of oil is not the only culprit,” says Burns. “Dirt, dead skin cells, and makeup can also clog pores.” Plus, your skin gets drier as you age, but hormonal changes, like menstruation and menopause, could still be causing you to experience acne, says Dakar.
The Best Skincare Products for Acne-Prone Skin
If you have oily skin, you likely experience acne, so continue with your regular skincare regimen. If you have dry skin and acne, use a gentle exfoliator to cleanse your pores. Dakar likes lactic acid because it’s gentle yet clarifying. Bates suggests using a soothing cleanser and Dakar recommends spot treating acne-prone areas so that you don’t dry out your entire face.
We all get older–no shame in the game! But as you age, you might notice new skin concerns popping up. Collagen and elastin (two building blocks of skin) are produced less and less as you get older, says Bates. “When we’re young, fat in the face is evenly distributed, with some pockets here and there that plump up the forehead, temples, cheeks, and areas around the eyes and mouth,” says Dakar. “With age, that fat loses volume, clumps up, and shifts downward, so features that were formerly round may sink, and skin that was smooth and tight gets loose and sags.” While we’re all for embracing wrinkles with grace—they’re a sign of a well-lived life, after all—if you want to address some of these changes, there’s nothing wrong with that either.
The Best Skincare Products for Aging Skin
If you only have time to use two skincare products to address signs of aging, let them be sunscreen and a retinol, says Burns. The sun is the number one cause of premature aging, says Holman, which is why SPF is crucial. And according to a study published in JAMA Dermatology, retinol significantly improves the look of wrinkles. Time for one or two more products? Burns says an antioxidant serum will help protect you against environmental aggressors that cause aging. Vitamin C is a popular antioxidant that is readily available in skincare products. Studies have shown that vitamin C protects against photoaging and even boosts collagen production. Meanwhile, Dakar likes eye cream. “Our first signs of aging happen around our eye area where we have no oil glands, so eye cream is your best friend.”