A Complete Guide to Skin Types
From oily and acne-prone to dry and sensitive, we're explaining what you need to know about each.
Has a friend ever touted a specific skincare product to you, only for the very same formula to cause unfavorable results on your own complexion? There's a simple reason for this: Not everyone's skin is the same, something that ultimately comes down to skin type. "Skin can be categorized broadly based on different types, including oily, acne-prone, dry, sensitive, photo-aged, and combination," explains Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan. Ahead, you'll learn everything there is to know about the six main skin types. Plus, we explain how to determine the category you fall into.
Oily skin is just that—shiny and covered in oil. The result of overactive sebaceous glands, oily skin occurs when these glands create sebum, a fluid that contributes to skin hydration and protection. When your sebaceous glands go into overdrive, however, this good oil turns problematic. "An overproduction of sebum can accumulate and clog the pores, making you more prone to whiteheads, blackheads, and acne breakouts," says Dr. Chang, noting that those with oily skin often have pores that look bigger as a result of these clogs.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick agrees, adding that, while oil can affect the entire face, it's most commonly seen on the forehead, nose, and chin (an area known as the T-zone). "It can be genetic, but some people find their skin to be more oily in the summertime or during times of increased heat," she says. Unsure if you have oily skin? Consult this checklist, culled by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban, the founder of Ava MD, and co-host of The GIST.
- Skin is shiny or greasy several hours after cleansing
- Makeup appears to "slide" off
- Oily areas have comedones, blackheads, pimples, or other types of acne blemishes
- Pores look visibly enlarged in the T-Sone and on the cheeks
- Breakouts are common
- There is excessive oil or blemishes around your hairline
Next up, we have acne-prone skin, which often accompanies oilier types—this category, however, covers regular breakouts. "Acne-prone skin may or may not be associated with oily skin," Dr. Chang clarifies. "Although those with oily skin are prone to breakouts, not everyone who is acne-prone has oily skin." To be clear, in order to fall into this subset, you must regularly develop breakouts—and not just around your period.
Dry skin's main symptom? Chronic dehydration. "Dry skin feels tight and itchy and appears flaky and red," Dr. Garshick explains. "For some people, dry skin can also show up as fine lines or cracks." While there is a genetic component to this category, Dr. Garshick says that the environment—come colder weather or during times of low moisture or humidity—is also a factor. The biggest problem, apart from the discomfort, is that dry skin is often an indicator of a damaged or weak skin barrier. "This makes it easier for bacteria and irritants to penetrate the skin," Dr. Chang says, noting that patients with dry complexions tend to also be more sensitive. To understand whether or not your skin is dry, consult Dr. Shamban's roster of symptoms, below.
- Skin feels tight, uncomfortable, rough, or itchy
- Skin looks ashy in color
- Skin flakes regularly
- You experience redness and inflammation
- Fine lines and cracks appear
Dermatologists call an overlap in the above types combination skin. "When we talk about combination skin, we are usually talking about a mixture of oily and dry," Dr. Chang says. "These complexions tend to be dry in some areas and oily in others, and frequently changes depending on the time of year." If you've identified with symptoms from both the dry and oily categories, you likely fall into this one—especially if you also experience the below issues, says Dr. Shamban.
- Larger-than-normal pores in some areas, but invisible pores in others
- Areas of blackhead concentration, congestion, or clogged pores
- Shine in specific areas of the face (like the forehead or nose)
- Tone inconsistencies, dullness, and patchy redness
If your skin is prone to redness, irritation, bumps, and itching, you likely have sensitive skin. "Sensitive skin patients may react or have sensitivities to a variety of external stimuli or allergens, like fragrances and dyes," Dr. Chang says, noting that anyone with this skin type needs to be cautious when testing new skincare products or laundry detergents. These heightened sensitivities also typically point to underlying conditions, like eczema, contact dermatitis, and rosacea. To see if your skin falls on the sensitive part of the spectrum, use Dr. Shamban's list of symptoms as a guide.
- Highly reactive skin (not only to skincare product, but with fabrics, too)
- Prone to breakouts
- Little bumps that resemble pimples, but are actually dermatitis
- Broken capillaries
- Sun sensitivity
- High flush factor
- An eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis diagnosis
As you age, sun damage builds up on the surface of your skin. When this happens, your complexion becomes what dermatologists call photo-aged. "Photo-aged skin can present with brown spots, broken blood vessels, fine lines and wrinkles, and loose, crepe-y skin," Dr. Chang says, adding that photo-aged skin is also thinner and more prone to bruising.
At the end of the day, it's important to understand your skin type, as the products that work so well for some may not benefit you. "That said, it is also important to follow the key steps of a skincare routine, including cleansing, moisturizing, and sunscreen no matter what type of skin you have. You just have to find the products that work best for you," concludes Dr. Garshick.