Knowing your skin type is essential when looking at skin health – some cleansers are created for oily skin, moisturisers claim they target dry skin and night creams are specially formulated for sensitive skin.
In beauty jargon, skin types are typically categorised as oily, dry, sensitive, normal, combination and acne-prone. Knowing your skin type helps in not only finding the best skincare products but also the one that your skin should respond the best to, as well as avoid skin irritations or breakouts.
In her book Pretty Honest, the beauty columnist for The Guardian, Sali Hughes, notes that “unlike make-up, hair and nails, skin is about so much more than appearance. It’s your body’s largest organ and the only one able to give you a daily visual update of its general health.”
Yet, skin types are not as straightforward as product labels make them out to be and, while defining your skin type is useful, it is not an exact science. Certain internal factors (hormones, water intake, diet, stress) and external ones (climate, pollution, sun exposure) may cause changes in skin type; and they should be taken into account when shopping for beauty products.
Cape Town-based specialist dermatologist Dr Vanessa Lapiner explains that external factors such as ultra-violet exposure and cold weather in winter may lead to dry skin, while hot showers and air conditioning lead to skin dehydration. Internally, our cell turnover slows down as we get older, which leads to skin dehydration; this is partly due to the decline in the production of hyaluronic acid, one of the skin’s naturally occurring substances with the main function of water retention.
And then, there are hormones; according to Lapiner, for women, an excess of progesterone can cause breakouts (which is why women may experience acne during pregnancy) while stress can trigger the production of cortisol, a hormone that instructs our glands to make more oil, thus resulting in oilier skin.
“The role between diet, gut health and the skin is more and more in the spotlight and at the practice we focus heavily on looking at skin holistically. If you want [healthy] skin, you have to look at the bigger picture. Otherwise you will not see the results you want to be seeing.”
While some of the factors that may affect the skin are out of our control, choosing correct products and sticking to a skincare routine is well within our grasp. Knowing and monitoring your skin is the best way to optimise the health and appearance of your skin, as is understanding the ingredients and products to use or lose.
Dry skin is a result of the skin not producing enough natural oil and is often confused with dehydrated skin, which is caused by a lack of water or moisture, not oil. Dr Maureen Allem, founder and medical director at Skin Renewal, explains that oil-dry skin is caused by the under-active production of natural oil, known as sebum, by the sebaceous glands (small glands inside our hair follicles that produce natural oils).
Those with dry skin experience flakiness and tightness and may also be more sensitive to products and external influences due to the fact that the skin’s natural barrier is impaired. To protect dry skin, Allem recommends products that include ceramides (fatty acid molecules), lipids (natural fats that help maintain the skin’s protective barrier) and a humectant like hyaluronic acid. She adds that salicylic acid should be avoided as it is a peeling agent and could lead to skin shedding.
“If you are not using the correct products you might strip your skin’s barrier even more, which ultimately leads to more problems,” she says.
Cape Town-based aesthetic practitioner Dr Cara Duminy states that oily skin type is often recognised by enlarged pores, shininess and an oily feeling to touch. This occurs when the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum that can lead to clogged pores, breakouts and, in some cases, acne.
Duminy suggests salicylic acid, an oil-soluble beta hydroxy acid that has the ability to penetrate the skin at a deeper level than alpha-hydroxy acids, their water-soluble counterparts. In an oily-prone skincare regime, this ingredient will cleanse the pores, prevent congestion and dissolve any undesired cells left on the surface. She advises staying away from occlusive products – rich creams and oils that are made up of large molecules and are unable to penetrate the skin – as these will cause or exacerbate existing congestion.
Dr Ian Webster, a specialist dermatologist practicing in Somerset West, adds that those with oily skin should use skin and make-up products that are oil-free and non-comedogenic (with no ingredients known to clog pores).
“One does not want to use greasy, oily products that will block pores and aggravate acne,” he says.
When selecting over-the-counter skincare products, Dr Allem explains that the label “for oily skin types” often means that the product contains alcohol. While this ingredient might make the skin feel less oily, it strips the skin of all oil and water, which could ultimately stimulate an over-production of oil.
“When using these products, you also completely destroy your skin barrier layer – and one of the functions of the barrier is to prevent pathogens and bacteria from entering the skin.”
The term “combination skin” usually refers to skin that is slightly oilier on the T-zone (the chin, nose and forehead) and more normal or drier on the cheek area. Lapiner says that a possible solution to targeting combination skin could be applying a topical form of vitamin A over the oilier areas followed with a clay-based mask over the T-zone to “normalise the oil production” in this section. Over the drier sections of the skin, apply a moisturiser with hyaluronic acid that will work to keep the moisture locked in.
According to Hughes, the majority of people will experience combination skin at some point.
“Most combination types prefer the texture, feel and staying power of oil-free moisturiser by day. This is fine, but I advise using balancing plant oils in the evening and regular use of a mild, liquid exfoliant.”
However, the mix of oiliness and dryness is not the only possible form of skin type combination. As our skin changes and transitions it may go through periods of dryness where it becomes more acne-prone. It’s important to note the changes and to adjust your products accordingly.
In the world of skincare, the term “normal” would typically describe a skin that is “well hydrated with the barrier of the skin completely intact and balanced oil glands, producing just enough oil to nourish the skin and hair without causing oiliness or acne lesions,” says Allem.
Duminy adds that normal skin types handle most skincare products and ingredients well and are not prone to redness, breakouts or flakiness. A consistent skincare routine using products with protective ingredients, such as antioxidants, would help maintain the strength of the skin barrier.
That is not to say that those with normal skin types won’t ever experience dryness or shine; however, these will most likely last for short periods of time.
“A little dryness during cold weather is to be expected in normal skin, as is mild oiliness and slightly larger pores in the T-zone, but this is rarely problematic,” explains Hughes. “Over-zealous treatment of oiliness or dryness may endanger your usually normal state long-term.”
Believing that acne only affects us in our adolescents and teenage years is a common misconception. Adult-onset acne is common, and the hallmark of this skin type includes open and closed comedones. Closed comedones are small bumps caused by blocked follicles while open comedones are known as blackheads, which are darker in colour due to the surface pigment. According to Lapiner, there are varying grades of acne. From blackheads alone and small red papules or pimples, to larger pustules and nodulocystic acne (large and painful “blind” pimples).
Creating a skincare routine for acne-prone skin can be tricky as the skin can either be very oily or very dry.
“Most over-the-counter acne products will contain a low concentration of salicylic acid (most around 2%), azelaic acid or tea tree oil. I like to use topical vitamin A preparations for acne-prone skin – this prevents the blackheads, which is really the start of the acne process. It also helps to lighten the pigmentation which the inflammatory lesions often leave behind.”
When it comes to inflammatory acne, Lapiner suggests using a product that contains benzoyl peroxide. However, she warns that these products can irritate the skin and individuals should start by using small amounts of the cream or ointment and build up as the skin becomes more tolerant.
“There is nothing worse than dealing with flaky, sensitised skin on top of your acne”.
For those with acne-prone skin, Lapiner advises that a simple skincare routine might be the answer.
“People are so focused on incorporating anti-ageing products into their skincare regimen that they end up aggravating their acne. Focus on getting your acne under control and then slowly reintroduce your more active products one at a time.”
If you’re unsure of your skin type and are looking for more guidance when choosing your skincare products, a visit to a licensed dermatologist is recommended. They will be able to give you professional advice on skin questions and concerns and help you figure out the best way to look after your skin. ML
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