I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but when you label your skin as one skin type: oily, dry, combination or normal, you are falling for a nationwide marketing ploy.
Unfortunately, you are not alone. I too like skin categories when I go shopping for skin products, as labelling my skin into a group makes it easier for me to narrow down and purchase products that I believe will work for my skin. However, the idea of labelling your skin, long-term, into one of four very generalized categories and letting these define you makes no sense to me. Every person has a different genetic makeup (skin pigment and pH) and various lifestyle and environmental factors (travel, diet and medication) that influence their skin type and change over time. Skin types have got to be more complicated than four classifications!
Don’t get me wrong, as most people’s skin falls more or less into one of the four skin types, skin categories are a good starting point towards understanding how skin differs from person to person. However, once you recognize these skin types and their characteristics, you can ask what causes your skin to fall into that group and expand your skin classification beyond the four types.
In general, skin type classification revolves around something called sebum; the skin’s natural oil. Sebum is produced by sebaceous glands found in the skin and near hair follicles. Although these glands are found throughout the body, they are most abundant on the face and scalp. This is why you find oil on your face and not on your legs. Sebum, although annoying at times, is important for keeping skin hydrated and guarding against bacteria growth. The amount of sebum your skin produces is an indication of whether your skin is oily, dry, normal or combination.
The Four General Skin Categories:
Those who have oily skin have overactive sebaceous glands that produce too much sebum and leave the skin looking shiny and oily. Figuring out if you have oily skin is quite simple. If you notice that throughout the day your skin develops an oiliness across the forehead, on the nose or on the chin, you’ve got some hardworking sebaceous glands (you can use a blotting paper to blot your face to see the amount of oil).
If sebum is so important for hydration, you ask; why is excess oil a problem? Well, the oil that you see on your face is more like a mixture of skin oil, sweat, environmental dirt and dead skin cells. When excess oil sits on your skin, it traps and clogs this sweat, dirt and dead skin cells in the pores (hello acne and blackheads)!
On the other side of the spectrum is dry skin caused by an under activity of the sebaceous glands. With a reduced amount of natural oils, the skin cells lose water and shrivel, causing moisture to be lost from the skin. Dry skin is the opposite of oily skin and usually looks matte and can have a “flaky” appearance. If you were to cleanse your skin and not put a moisturizer on afterwards, would your skin feel uncomfortable and tight? If you answer yes, you likely have dry skin.
While most people’s skin falls into one category, they don’t necessarily have that skin type everywhere. Combination skin is the broad category for people who have oily skin in some facial areas (commonly in their T-zone) and dry skin in other areas (jawline and cheeks). Given that there are a greater number of sebaceous glands in the T-zone area than other areas, those areas are oilier, while other areas tend to be dry. This means that the majority of people fall into the combination skin category (sounds super general doesn’t it?).
If I could yell at one person right now, it would be the person(s) who created the “normal” skin type category. By calling one skin type normal, they are immediately calling all those people with oily, dry and combination skin, abnormal; this is just WRONG! If you are classified as having “normal skin”, you have won the genetic lottery; congratulations! This means that your skin has a good balance of oil and moisture without any excessive oiliness or dryness.
I promise that, in later posts, I will detail how to create a skincare regime for each skin type. However, in this blog, I wanted to make it clear that the skin classification conversation goes way beyond oily, dry, combination and normal skin.
Factors That Affect Skin Type
Often with labels you forget to ask yourself “why”. For example, if your skin is producing excess oil, have you ever wondered; why is that? When labelling your skin, it is crucial to consider the impact of these factors and understand how they change over time.
Many skin characteristics are hereditary. This means that if one of your parents suffers from extremely oily skin, chances are you do too. Sebaceous gland size is a genetic trait that is passed on, so you can partially blame mom and dad for that oily skin.
It boggles my mind that skin colour was only recently recognized in the beauty industry when it clearly impacts skin type! For example, a darker tone is prone to hyperpigmentation and being of East-Asian decent can result in thin skin. This genetic characteristic needs to be addressed when developing a skincare routine, but can’t be if your skin is lumped into one of the four skin types.
Your skin is naturally acidic (average skin pH is 4.7) that is important for protecting against external damage and balancing bacteria in the skin. As you age, pH levels naturally increase (acidity drops and becomes more basic) that stimulates enzymes that break down collagen (cue faster aging). Also, disturbing the skin’s acidity through products that are not pH-balanced (products that have between a pH 4 and pH 7), as well as your own sweat, can lead to skin irritation that can trigger acne, eczema, redness and overall sensitivity. If you have the ability to determine your own skin pH, you can adjust your skincare routine to find that acidic balance.
Your body begins producing sebum immediately after birth. When you reach puberty, the influx of hormones initiates the sebaceous glands to generate sebum, hence, oilier skin. As you age, the sebaceous glands start to slow, and many adults begin to suffer from dry, flaky skin.
Temperature and Weather:
Your skin is sensitive to climate change. During the summer months, the higher temperature encourages your skin to secrete more sebum, producing an oilier complexion. It is the exact opposite in the winter; where dry skin is common. Air conditioning and cold wind can also reduce skin moisture. If you travel, note how your skin reacts to temperature changes.
A larger conversation is needed around skin and hormones because people don’t realize how intertwined the two are. If you know that sebum production increases when there is a surge of androgen hormones, then you can better understand why you find yourself getting oilier during puberty, menstrual periods, pregnancy and menopause (when androgens are at their peak).
I’m sure that most of you have experienced that pimple after consuming too much sugar or alcohol. So, you realize that what you consume is strongly correlated to skin health. However, you can go further than just reducing sugar and alcohol intake and, instead, choose a diet that aligns with your specific skin type. For example, if you notice that your skin is super dry, try foods that support your skin’s oil production such as olive oil, salmon, nuts and water-rich foods.
When talking about factors that affect skin, the list could go on. However, the point I want to drill home is that skin is complex and ever-changing. Saying that your skin is only one type is to look only at the skin’s big picture and disregard the smaller and more intricate details that indicate what is actually going on with YOU.
The Future of Skin Types
For years, the skincare industry has been trying to fit seven billion people’s skin into four categories and, I say, enough is enough! If you really think about it, all skin is a combination. If you expand the conversation beyond sebum, you’ll see that each person has their own unique blend of skin texture that ranges from flakiness to wrinkles to acne to pigmentation. Not only does this unique combination come from environmental and lifestyle factors, but from a person’s genetics. So, I am pleased to report that the future of skin analysis seems to be moving well beyond the oily surface and using a range of factors to personally customize your skin classification. Stay tuned!