Determining your skin type can help you decide which products to use, but it’s a moving target. Skin type can change seasonally or with age. It can even change from week to week.
Don’t worry; although your skin type may change, that doesn't mean your skincare routine needs to be more complicated. Here we'll lay out the different skin types and what skincare products generally work best for each. We’ll also share methods to determine your skin type and answer some frequently asked questions.
Skin type is not a formal diagnosis, but it’s used by dermatology providers to categorize skincare and make product recommendations. The American Academy of Dermatology identifies five skin types: normal, sensitive, dry, oily, and combination.¹ In other words, although you may experience predominantly oily skin, you may still experience combination skin. And on top of all that, as you age, your skin type may change.
Here are typical characteristics of the five skin types:
Normal skin is balanced, healthy skin—not too oily or too dry. It’s usually clear and not prone to breakouts, sensitivities, or blemishes. Normal skin has a soft and supple texture. Curology’s board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Julie Akiko Gladsjo, says, “Normal skin is often described as having no signs of dry flakes or shiny oil. Skin tends to feel smooth and is not overly reactive.”
Sensitive skin is easily irritated by environmental conditions, such as the weather, and skin conditions, such as rosacea and eczema. It’s prone to inflammation, redness, itching, burning, stinging, and pain. Allergic or contact dermatitis can be more common in this skin type.
Dry skin produces less sebum (natural oil) than other skin types. Dry skin is often confused with dehydrated skin, but they differ. Dehydrated skin is a condition triggered by weather, diet, and lifestyle choices. Dry skin is a skin type that feels tight and appears dull and scaly. It may itch, sting, or burn. Often fine lines and wrinkles are evident.
Oily skin is a result of excess oil (sebum). The skin appears shiny and may feel greasy. Oily skin tends to be prone to acne, enlarged pores, and frequent whiteheads and blackheads. Over-the-counter products might not be strong enough to knock back pimples in this skin type.
Most people have combination skin with oily areas (often the T-zone: forehead, nose, and chin) and dry areas (the cheeks). Combination skin is affected by seasonal fluctuations; it can be very dry in the winter and oily during the summer months. It can also change due to hormonal fluctuations and stress.
When it comes to determining whether you have normal, dry, oily, or combination skin, it’s important to know any of these skin types can also be sensitive or acne-prone. That said, oily skin is much more likely to be acne-prone, and dry skin is more often sensitive.
Understanding your skin type can help determine which products are best for you. Use the descriptions above as you work through one or both of these methods to ascertain your skin type. Keep in mind skin type can change seasonally and as you age.
Wash your face gently with lukewarm water, wait an hour, and then check out your skin in the mirror.
Normal: Smooth, no signs of dry patches or shiny oil
Oily: Slick and shiny, larger pores
Dry: Dry patches, tight feeling
Combination: Oily T-zone (forehead and nose), with normal-to-dry skin everywhere else
Wash your face, pat dry, and wait 30–60 minutes. Gently press blotting paper against each area of your face: the T-zone, forehead, chin, and cheeks. It can be hard to tell whether you’re seeing oil, shine, or glow, so check the sheet each time you blot to see which part of your face (if any) is oily. Oily skin will show up on the blotting paper, but a little oil likely indicates a normal skin type.
Caring for your skin is much simpler when you know which products to use. That’s one reason skin type is so important—it’s your personal guide to beauty products. Here are skincare recommendations based on skin type:
Normal skin isn’t a free pass. It’s easier to maintain, but it still requires routine skincare and protection. A consistent skincare routine to maintain normal skin should include cleansing and moisturizing daily, but there are many products to choose from.
Pro tip: Keep it simple! Daily sunscreen is the most essential aspect of a skincare routine for normal skin. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, even if it’s overcast or rainy. Sunscreen is your best protection against signs of aging and dry or damaged skin.
Ingredients are the most important for sensitive skin. People with sensitive skin are prone to irritation, so avoid added fragrances, dyes, or other potential irritants. When in doubt, perform a patch test before starting a new product. Use gentle cleansers, rich moisturizers, and plenty of sunscreen. It may also help to avoid hot showers, bar soap, harsh astringents, and exfoliants.
Skincare for this type should focus on bringing moisture to the skin’s surface and keeping it there with humectants and emollients—even if it's acne-prone skin. Occlusives, such as petrolatum, may be necessary for extremely dry skin.²
Key ingredients include hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe, shea butter, squalene, and allantoin. Hyaluronic acid attracts water to the skin’s surface to keep it plump and hydrated. Allantoin will seal in moisture and protect skin barrier function. Squalane is a natural antioxidant and boosts the effectiveness of other ingredients. Glycerin, aloe, and shea butter all hydrate, heal, and moisturize. You can try our Cream Moisturizer (aka the rich moisturizer) that contains all of these ingredients!
Oily skin type needs nourishment and hydration from water-based products when possible.³ This skin type may also benefit from benzoyl peroxide, an antibacterial that targets acne-causing bacteria, and salicylic acid, which unclogs pores. Oily, acne-prone skin may need prescription acne treatment with topical retinoids, such as tretinoin.
Avoid pore-clogging (comedogenic) ingredients by checking product labels and cross-referencing ingredients against our cheat sheet. Use oil-free products and micellar water for cleansing. Even with oily skin, moisturizer is typically needed, and sunscreen is a must!
Proper cleansing and hydration are important to keep oil in check without overdrying. Gentle, non-drying facial cleansers for all skin types are great for combination skin. Use gel moisturizers to reduce oiliness while hydrating the skin. And don’t forget the sunscreen! If you’re struggling with a super oily T-zone, try a product with 2% niacinamide. It can lower oil production in as little as 2–4 weeks.⁴
Misleading product labels make it tricky to tailor your routine to your skin type. Since everyone’s skin is unique, a product’s effects are never totally predictable. Finding the products and routines that work best for you takes some trial and error.
That’s where Curology comes in. We’re here to take the guesswork out of skincare. Our licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skin concerns, and prescribe a personalized formula. We’re here for the long haul to tweak your prescription formula as your skin changes.
Skin type can change for many reasons, including environmental factors, age, and hormones. Life events such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause can also affect the skin. So can medications. In most cases, your skin type doesn’t change on its own—there’s an underlying cause.
You sure can! Tretinoin is the gold standard for the topical treatment of acne and anti-aging concerns. Although it can take some getting used to, it’s generally safe for most skin types (although some people with sensitive skin may not adjust). If you take a break from this ingredient, you’ll need to reintroduce it slowly while your skin acclimates.
This is a great question and one we’re frequently asked—especially from patients with combination skin. You can, but it’s not necessary. It’s generally more effective to stick to a regular skincare routine without overcomplicating the process. You’ll be fine if you use products recommended by your dermatology provider for combination skin.
American Academy of Dermatology. Skin care tips dermatologists use. (n.d.)
Harwood, A, et al. Moisturizers. StatPearls. (2022 August 21).
Goodman, G. Cleansing and moisturizing in acne patients. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. (2009).
Endly, D.C. and Miller, R.A. Oily skin: A review of treatment options. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (August 2017).
Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.
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This article was originally published on March 20, 2018, and updated on March 27, 2023.
Meredith Hartle, DO