Determine skin type

How to Determine Skin Type – An Expert Dermatologist Answers

Many people are always asking questions like “what is my skin type?” or “can you help me determine skin type my skin is?”. What people are actually trying to ask is “Am I more oily prone and my combination sensitive dry mature?” they put themselves into these categories.

Let me help guide you in terms of choosing your skin care a little bit more wisely and practically. So, skin types are for the most part a general categories that are largely promoted by the cosmetic industry and marketing campaigns in an effort to package more or less many of the same products into different bottles with different colors on them, so that they can market to different demographics.

I’m not discrediting the skin types entirely okay they can be helpful some people. Indeed are in fact prone for example to being very oily okay some people in particular those with a condition called seborrhea, they have oily skin. People with rosacea have dry sensitive skin; that’s part of their disease. So it’s helpful when cosmetic companies market to those those are those demographics because they market their products that are going to be least likely to be problematic for those skin types.

I’m taking a step back as a dermatologist, and being able to determine skin type is not something that we are ever taught, as far as the oily / combination / sensitive, it’s not part of our lexicon, it’s not anything that we talk about in meetings. It’s not in any textbook or medical journal and it’s not something that we really study.

We don’t determine skin type like cosmetic brands do

Instead when we think of skin types, we actually are referring to something called the Fitzpatrick photo type which helps in determining how an individual skin is going to respond basically to light, so there are six Fitzpatrick photo types.

Type one is very very pale skin which is always going to burn when they go out into the Sun or when their skin is exposed to ultraviolet light. These individuals rarely ever heal with post inflammatory hyperpigmentation – they tend to be plagued more by redness and post inflammatory erythema.

Whereas at the other end of the spectrum, it is Patrick photo type six are people who have very dark skin and never burn when they go out in the Sun. They always tan and when their skin becomes inflamed, it heals with with post inflammatory hyperpigmentation or a dark mark.

So that’s kind of how as a dermatologist, I determine skin type and there is some ethnic variation built into that. However, it’s not necessarily one ethnicity is going to be one skin type- we don’t look at it that way. In fact, in order to determine the photo type you actually have to ask the patient a little bit about how how their skin responds to light.

For example, you ask them if you go out in the Sun with no sunscreen on on a sunny day do you; 1. always burn 2. usually burn or 3. sometimes burn, but you can tan. Those are the kind of questions that determine skin type and we ask rather than assuming somebody is a certain photo type based on their ethnicity.

It’s very helpful, because as dermatologists we use a lot of light based treatments. We use lasers not only for cosmetic reasons but for medical reasons as well, and knowing how an individual skin is going to respond to the light these light-based therapies is really really important.

UV light

So when we say skin type we are thinking about how your skin responds to ultraviolet light – we’re not thinking anything about your skin responds to makeup – it’s not something that we talk about. So when patients come to us and patients come to our office and you know we’re looking for skin cancer and they’re like what’s my skin type?

We ask about do you burn so, please when you ask us to determine skin type, please try and understand that but for the most part the skin type thing is largely promoted by the cosmetic industry.

That being said however, I’m not totally going to discredit that, because I think it can be helpful in many many ways. The cosmetic industry targets different demographics who aren’t prone to certain things like oiliness or sensitivity. By labeling their products that way, they generally can get them to consumers who need them and would benefit from them the most. They can be kind of guiding people towards products that contain ingredients that could be helpful for their skin.

Oily or dry?

For example, you know not everyone who has oily skin may necessarily understand that the ingredient salicylic acid or the ingredient lactic acid can help you lightly exfoliate the skin and just kind of help with shininess.

They may not know that about that active ingredient but seeing a product that says oh great for oily skin they you know it’s it makes it a little bit more straightforward for them. So, I’m not entirely discrediting it altogether and I think it can be someone helpful but what I would encourage you is not to pigeonhole yourself into one of these categories.

Our skin is very dynamic and it changes it changes with environment, it changes with hormonal influences, and it changes based on medications that you might be taking. In fact, it changes all of the time so, to call yourself one of these skin types; oily / combination / dry / sensitive / what have you , you can really get locked in and and go down a rabbit hole.

Questions to ask yourself

There are some questions that I can give you, to ask yourself, that hopefully will be helpful in helping to better understand how your skin responds to things and kind of how to best understand what’s going on. Not determine skin type, per se.

First of all, ask yourself this. How does my skin generally respond to skin care products? Does it respond with stinging? Does it respond with burning or redness? That’s a telltale sign of sensitivity and or rosacea.

When selecting products marketed towards sensitive skin, it is prudent in that situation but do you know that different things going on in your life that may make you more sensitive to stinging and irritation so, kind of always be having this ongoing dialogue and when that’s going on, you know. let’s take a step back and choose fewer products. Products that are marketed for sensitive skin, or free of fragrance, you can ask yourself does my skin tend to be on the dry side?

People who tend to be on the dry side the most part, it’s a very simple remedy in that you know you’re not moisturizing properly or your bathing too frequently. Every time you rinse the skin and it comes in contact with water, as that water evaporates it’s gonna dry out the skin further.

So cutting down the frequency and really being cognisant of how often you’re getting your face wet and actually washing it whether it be with a gentle soap or a non soap, just merely the act of putting water on your face can lend itself to dryness.

Different environments

People who may find their skin is dry, ask yourself what environment do I live in? You know really really dry climates particularly in the wintertime particularly when the ambient humidity is quite low, it’s inevitable you’re going to experience some dryness.

Whereas somewhere like Texas where I live, it’s incredibly humid and people complain that they have oily skin all the time. You know part of that is simply the environment. I’ve lived both now here in Houston as well as in Colorado which is incredibly dry.

My skincare routine was slightly different in Colorado than it is here – I needed a lot more moisturizers and creams than I need now that I’m in a humid climate

Also ask yourself is does my skin tend to heal with a dark mark okay or post inflammatory hyperpigmentation. I think that’s really important to understand about yourself so, that you take a proactive approach and avoid things that are going to be excessively irritating to your skin.

When our skin heals with post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, we’ll have this idea that if we scrub or we peel or we keep washing and cleansing, that somehow it’s going to go away and in fact that actually makes the post inflammatory hyperpigmentation persist longer.

If you’re somebody who has acne, for example, and when it feels you’ve got a dark a dark spot there know that about yourself be really vigilant about sun protection and back off on some of the aggressive products marketed towards exfoliating and peeling the skin and in scrubs and harsh things like that.

Lifestyle factors

Your skin is an organ, and all of your organ systems are affected by stress and your skin is the one that that you will see with your eyes – the rest of them you won’t okay so, pay attention you know when when you’re not when you’re sleeping poorly, when you’re not getting adequate nourishment and adequate nutrition, relying on you know a lot of fast food and that kind of thing not sleeping properly I’m just very very exhausted all the time.

Rather than worry to determine skin type, you should really pay attention to your lifestyle factors. I already mentioned asking yourself about your climate you know dry climate or humid climate – if you live somewhere with hard water, you know hard water can actually make acne worse.

I don’t have any great tips for dealing with hard water other than decrease the amount of bathing that you’re doing. It certainly can impact acne there are some studies suggesting that perhaps hard water can influence some of the composition of the lipids in our oil glands.

Wear sunscreen always

Regardless of the UV index, you do need to wear sunscreen year-round, all day every day – I get many questions on this. Yes, everyone needs to do wearing sunscreen and reapplying it throughout the day because it is a behavior.

On cloudy days, you’re still getting at least 80% of UV exposure you know clouds do not protect us, glass in windows does not protect us from UV.


In general, the above points are the basic tenets of skin care and the fewer things that you put on your face the better off it is. Don’t spend time or worry about how to determine skin type – it really doesn’t matter.