Free shipping on all domestic orders over $39

How to Determine Your Skin Type

how to determine your skin type
December 2, 2014 Reviewed by Marta 5 Comments

It has taken many years of trial and error to determine my skin type. For many years, I assumed that my skin was dry on the basis that I am fair and freckly. Looking back, that seems slightly ridiculous, and at some point I must have recognized that and went with “combination.” I am not sure if that was ever true, either. To make matters worse, it’s all something of a moving target since the skin can change due to seasons or hormonal activity from day to day. And then, of course, there are changes wrought by age.

So, what’s my skin type? My verdict is oily and dehydrated. No, this is not an oxymoron. My skin is a little oily, but nevertheless is prone to lines and wrinkles. This is a sure sign that the reservoir of water in the two lower layers of the epidermis are depleted. Heavy moisturizers don’t help me, but since I figured this out, my skin does do well with water attracting and retaining ingredients such as sodium hyaluronate.

Recently a 20-something asked me for a regimen recommendation for her “acne blighted” skin. Actually, she doesn’t have acne but is extremely sensitive to the heavy makeup she wears (to cover up the “acne” — a vicious circle if ever there was one). She certainly doesn’t need and isn’t responding to classic acne treatments. What she needs to remove — by trial and error — are ingredients and products that cause her skin to react.

So, given the importance of the correct diagnosis, here are some quick tips for determining your skin type.

Do I have acne?

Acne is when the skin's sebaceous glands (oil glands) plug pores and bacteria takes hold. Large pores become blackheads, while small clogs take the form of whiteheads. Inflamed acne creates lumps or nodules, not to be confused with isolated pimples or an itchy rash.

A good treatment for acne is blue LED light. This gentle, non-invasive solution uses blue light wavelengths to penetrate the skin and produce singlet oxygen, which destroys bacteria responsible for causing acne.

Do I have combination skin?

Combination skin is sometimes defined as “normal” skin, which seems a bit unhelpful to me. Combination skin is when there is an oily “T-zone” while the rest of the skin is dry.

The best approach for combination skin is to treat the areas differently. For example, only apply moisturizer after your serum, to your cheeks and not to the T-zone.

Do I have dry skin?

Normal skin has a light hydrolipid film composed of oil and water. Dry skin doesn’t have this hydrolipid film. As a result, it can appear tight, dull and show signs of aging. Skin that does not maintain the hydrolipid film loses suppleness and is susceptible to transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

To give dry skin the TLC that it needs, pick a cleanser that is nourishing and creamy, and introduce a facial oil into your regimen.

Do I have dehydrated skin?

The main water reservoir of the skin is located in the two lower layers, the dermis and hypodermis. With dehydrated skin, it is depleted, leading to crepiness and fine lines. 

Wetting dry skin, or using a light water-based moisturizer will not help at all. Look for water attracting and retaining ingredients, such as phospholipids, gluconolactone or sodium hyaluronate.

Do I have sensitive skin?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, "there are four distinct types of sensitive skin — acne, rosacea, burning and stinging, and contact dermatitis (allergies and irritants) — and they all have one characteristic in common: inflammation."

Steer clear of ingredients like alcohol, retinoids, vitamin C, glycolic acid and alpha hydroxy acids.

Do I have oily skin?

Large pores, acne breakouts, blackheads on the face and body and a shiny forehead, nose and chin all characterize oily skin.

Resist the temptation to treat your skin like a dirty frying pan that needs a good scrubbing. Opt for ingredients that help control oily skin — plant derivatives like clary, kukui nut oil, willow bark extract and antioxidants like those in white, red and green teas.

  • April 30, 2015

    by Marta

    Hi Lorraine, as it happens I just did a round of my Five Best with hyaluronic acid:

  • April 29, 2015

    by lorraine

    After reading your article I would have to say my skin is dehydrated, I thought it was just dry, so I haven't been treating it like dehydrated skin. I don't know which products contain hydraulic acid, or is that something you have to order? Thank you, Lorraine Liles

  • December 8, 2014

    by Karen

    Honestly, I'm glad that that Vicky L was easily able to determine her skin I am now confused and want to make sure I am using the right products.

    This sentence alone is what is confusing me, "Normal skin has a light hydrolipid film composed of oil and water. Dry skin doesn’t have this hydrolipid film. As a result, it can appear tight, dull and show signs of aging."

    How do I know if I have a light hydrolipid film composed of oil & water.

    Please help....I spend so much time and money on my skin care regimen, want to make sure I am using the right products...and I have been a member of the TIA community since 2008.

    Thank you!

  • December 8, 2014

    by Hollis

    After years (well, decades) of suffering from oily, acneous skin, I had developed a knee-jerk response to vetting products based on their suitability for acne. Times had changed, technology had changed, and I had changed. I still had oily skin, but it was also dehydrated and somewhat sensitive. No more Stridex! I switched to toners without alcohol, and forced myself to use moisturizer under the mattifier. Serums became my new best friend. I swapped out the regular Clarisonic brush for the Cashmere brush. Once in a while, a random zit reminds me of my troubled-skin past. But I am happy to have much more normal, combo skin. I step off a long flight looking dewey, not parched!

  • December 2, 2014

    by VickyL

    Great article Marta! Clear and easy to understand information. The seasons, your environment, aging, our on-going face product experiments all contribute to skin changes. It's good to reevaluate and this info is a good reminder.

    In my experience, having the right facial cleanser is critical for healthy skin. Even though it seems like you just put it on and wash it off so any old thing will do. Think about how much work a cleanser needs to perform - cleaning away environmental pollutants, makeup, and daily grime without stripping away the acid mantle. A great cleanser (plus some toner if you like) does all that leaving the skin ready to accept your serums and creams. You lose effectiveness of those expensive serums if you're applying them over poorly cleaned skin.

Join the discussion! Leave a comment below.

My Comment

Add a comment...

-or- Cancel Comment
* Required Fields
truth in aging's five best

Truth In Aging's Five Best

The very best to choose from for your skin concerns.

Read More

truth in aging videos

Truth In Aging Videos

Helpful how-tos and reviews from Marta and friends.

Watch Now

meet our contributors

Meet Our Contributors

The TIA community consists of our trusted reviewers.

Meet Them

be inspired

Be Inspired

Inspiring thoughts and women who are aging gracefully.

Read More