Why You *Need* to be Looking Beyond Your Skin Type
Main Image – Svitlana/Adobe
I’ve been a full-time beauty journalist for 7 years now, but even I sometimes find myself getting overwhelmed by the skincare aisles; despite having derms just a phone call away.
With brands often guiding us using skin type alone, it’s easy to think finding the right routine is that simple. Yet, the definition of skin types has barely changed in 100 years (crazy, right?!) and it’s still what many of us base our skincare and treatment options on.
It seems that relying on our skin type alone – which we are usually told right at the beginning of our skincare journey – *could* mean we are missing the trick to achieving healthy, smooth, glowing skin.
And, according to derms, it’s much more important to keep an eye on how your skin reacts to certain products and ingredients, after all, 2 people may have dry skin but it doesn’t mean their skin will react the same. And, surprisingly, most people don’t actually fit neatly into one of these categories.
On top of this, the old categories that we have been using don’t account for all of the ways we’re learning how the skin works and the ingredients now found in products.
That’s why we’re exploring whether we should be looking beyond just our skin type – because, while overcomplicating skincare needs no encouragement, nor does oversimplifying it.
The more I delve into the topic, the more I realise that actually, looking further than just our skin type might be the key to achieving the healthiest skin yet. That’s certainly been the case for me.
To find out more, I asked three top experts to share what we need to know about skin types.
*Spoiler: there’s more to the world of skin than being bucketed into a restrictive type!
What exactly is a skin type?
A skin type essentially looks at how oily the skin is, meaning how much sebum is secreted from the oil glands. Today, there are five cosmetic skin types: normal, oily, combination, dry, and sensitive. But that’s not always been the case.
The skin type was introduced in 1915 by famous businesswoman and cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, owner of her eponymous brand, which is still in production today. The endurance of a smart marketing tactic never fails to amaze me.
Back then, she determined three skin types: normal, oily (described as “over-moist”) and dry. Many of Rubinstein’s booklets and leaflets used language such as “your skin is individual” and “every woman’s skin is so different from every other woman’s”.
A groundbreaking way of shopping for beauty then.
Way ahead of her time, she was the first cosmetics brand to carry out proper scientific testing, noting the importance of science in beauty. Later, she introduced further concerns, noting products created “for wrinkles, for freckles, and for flabbiness and double chin” (though, in 2023, I’m *cringing* at the latter). This signalled that skin type was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to treating skin.
Along the way, we’ve adapted the skin types to suit 2023’s market, but they’ve largely stayed the same. The addition of combination and sensitivity starts to introduce skin types beyond just oil gland secretion:
Typically referring to skin that is mostly free from blemishes and notable skin texture. The industry is definitely moving away from this one now (seeing as there truly is no singular “normal”).
Visibly shiny with excess oils, often coupled with larger pores, blackheads and sometimes breakouts.
As the name suggests, a combination of oily and dry/normal typically with the T-zone being more oily.
Feeling tight with visible dry and flaking patches, as well as a dull appearance.
Often categorised as irritated, uncomfortable, red and generally unhappy.
However, “there’s some debate over whether ‘sensitive’ skin is even true skin type at all as normal/dry/oily/combination can all experience sensitivity,” explains Dr Sonia Khorana, a GP with special interest in dermatology.
With the majority of people still choosing skincare products solely based on how “over-moist” their skin is, is it enough? And will it give the results they’re after? In short: most likely not.
So, what else do we need to consider?
The experts agree: skin type in the first instance is helpful and certainly has a place, but in many cases, isn’t enough. “Although this can be a helpful measure for consumers, it really is a very simplistic way of looking at the skin,” explains Dr Cristina Soma, consultant dermatologist.
There are a number of other factors to include, the first being skin condition. Take me, for example, I have papulopustular rosacea, meaning I struggle with everything erythematotelangiectatic rosacea has to offer: redness, dry skin, and sensitivity. Plus, everything papulopustular rosacea has to offer: “persistent facial redness, small red bumps (papules),” according to Medical News Today, as well as blemishes, and inflammation.
If I chose skincare based on skin type and those classic rosacea blemishes alone, I’d be immediately bucketed into the oily-prone category, when I actually need the opposite of that.
Conditions like rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, acne and dermatitis must be considered or ruled out to make sure you don’t exacerbate the issue. This really is where an expert comes in to diagnose and come up with a plan.
Next up is factoring in your hormones – and often in tandem with this, your age – which has a far greater impact on our skin than we likely realise. The connections between the contraceptive pill (and other modes of hormonal contraceptives) and acne are solid; whether that’s a trigger for the acne or a therapy to minimise it.
Just like our lives, our skin isn’t stagnant, it’s ever-changing. “You should look at your skin on various days (can change day to day) and see if there are any changes with the menstrual cycle,” Dr Khorana adds.
“Those going through menopause may have had an oily skin type when they were younger, but by going through the menopause, the skin may have changed to a dry skin type, but will still have factors such as enlarged pores from their past which need to be addressed,” explains Ridah Syed, senior medical aesthetician at Skinfluencer London.
We also know that treatments like Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can have an impact on increasing moisture levels through menopause, says the National Library of Medicine.
Lifestyle is another very important thing to consider when it comes to your skin. And no, I’m not talking about claims like “drinking water will give you clearer skin” that *actually* have no solid backing, but more like sleep and stress, which can have a big impact on your skin’s appearance. “A prime example of this is smoking, which may cause skin to become dehydrated or dull even for someone who has a skin type that is called oily,” Syed says.
The final factor Dr Khorana notes is appearance. “It is also important to pay attention to the appearance of your skin because, regardless of the type of skin you have, there can be certain characteristics that could be a sign of a skin problem,” she explains.
These include things like skin colour (and any changes), scaliness, redness or rashes, moles, hirsutism (excess hair), blemishes, scarring, and infections.
Phew! That’s a lot to consider outside of the core skin type pillars.
How skin types have led to a flawed self-assessment
Considering what we’ve learned so far, it’s easy to see why these simplistic skin types have led us to a flawed self-assessment. After all, “a dermatologist will look at your skin much more holistically and understand factors such as your collagen content, your susceptibility to pigmentation, how reactive or sensitive your skin is, how prone it is to redness or pigmentation – the list goes on,” says Dr Soma.
We likely can’t do that alone, yet we’ve been led to believe it’s as simple as choosing from a list of 3-5 skin types. Subsequently, our self-assessment is flawed and our skincare fails. That’s not the fault of the product’s ingredients (or us!), but more the marketing, which is influencing our purchase decisions.
Shopping for skincare is difficult. It’s obviously overwhelming but it’s also changed a lot, especially given how much in-store VS online shopping habits have changed post-pandemic; not to mention the rise in TikTok Shop. McKinsey & Company even reports that “beauty e-commerce nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2022”, and yet many of the same skin complaints are still prevalent; perhaps even on the rise.
In order to fix this, we’ve got to shift our thinking of skin types as the be-all and end-all. Think of it like this: “The traditional skin type is mainly useful in helping you understand what sort of consistency you want your products to be,” says Dr Soma. This could be a lighter or gel-based formula if you’re oily or breakout-prone and richer and thicker if you’re dryer.
Informing the future
Look, I’m not here to demonise skin types, far from it. It’s a fantastic starting point indicating how your skin benefits from certain skincare and interacts with various makeup products, but it could be the reason you aren’t seeing the results you expect from your routine.
That’s where looking beyond the restrictive skin types comes in. “Whatever skincare you choose, you should be guided by a skincare specialist who has done a thorough consultation, assessing your skin, your lifestyle, your age, and your goals; as opposed to self-diagnosing based on your skin type,” says Syed.
Of course, though, we’re living in a cost-of-living crisis and expert help in a traditional sense might not be readily available. Not everyone has access, nor the knowledge of knowing how to look beyond skin type. That’s where teledermatology comes in. Platforms like Skin+Me and Dermatica use questionnaires to formulate bespoke products targeting specific skin concerns without consumers doing the heavy lifting.
Then you have Klira – created by consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Craythorne – which is redefining the traditional skin type with its 12 “skin sizes”, numbered 1-12 created based on things like barrier, collagen, and melanin, noting various risks for each.
The main takeaway is that skin type is a fantastic first step when it comes to shopping for skincare if you have no significant concerns or goals.
However, skin type alone “does not really help navigate the myriad of other skin concerns people experience,” Dr Soma notes. For that, you’re going to need an expert, a potential diagnosis, and a routine that factors in lifestyle, age, conditions and hormones.
As Dr Khorana puts it: “There’s no “one size fits all” approach to achieving radiant, healthy-looking skin.”
So, next time you go perusing the aisles (whether it be in-store or online), stop to consider whether bucketing yourself into one restricting category might not be doing your skin any favours.
Meet the experts
Dr Cristina Soma BA, BSc, MBChB, MS is a consultant dermatologist focusing on evidence-based beauty. Head of digital for the British Society of Medical Dermatology, Dr Soma also regularly shares her skincare tips with her thousands of followers on Instagram.
Dr Sonia Khorana is a GP with a special interest in dermatology, as well as a cosmetic doctor. She graduated from the University of Liverpool Medical School and obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in Clinical Dermatology with Distinction from Queen Mary University London.
She has published articles in peer-reviewed journals and has been featured in a number publications including Elle, Grazia, Stylist, Daily Mail and Cosmopolitan. She also works closely with a number of skincare brands including Olay and CeraVe.
Ridah Syed is a senior medical aesthetician at Skinfluencer London. Ridah’s rigorous training and mentorships with some of the world’s leading dermatologists and plastic surgeons allow her to create bespoke treatment plans that deliver visible results. A favourite amongst members of royal families, global celebrities, music icons, super models and beauty editors, Ridah is a standout amongst her peers who has been featured in publications such as Vogue and Tatler.