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February 27, 2006

Understanding Skin Type

What is Skin Type?
Some women are quite aware of their skin type; for other women it’s a complete mystery, an elusive conundrum of changes that never settles down in one specific direction. That’s not to say understanding skin type isn’t important, because it is, but not in the way the cosmetics industry approaches it or the way we’ve been indoctrinated to think about it.

The rigid categories you find at cosmetics counters and the information about what your skin needs as analyzed by a salesperson are often wrong or at best incomplete. Skin type strongly influences our decisions about our skin-care routines.

The four most common skin types are:
Normal (no apparent signs of oily or dry areas)
Oily (shine appears on skin, no dry areas at all)
Dry (flaking can appear, no oily areas at all)
Combination (oily and dry or normal areas)

What Influences Skin Type?
Outside factors can and do influence the way your skin looks and feels. To effectively evaluate your skin and determine the correct skin-care routine, the following factors need to be considered:
Hormonal changes (pregnancy, menopause, menstrual cycle, etc.)
Health problems (rosacea, psoriasis, thyroid disorders, etc.)
Genetic predisposition of skin type (oily versus dry, prone to breakouts, or sensitive skin) Smoking
Medications you may be taking

Climate/weather (cold, warm, moist, dry)
Your skin-care routine (over-moisturizing or exfoliating, using irritating or drying products)
Sun exposure
These complex integrated circumstances all contribute to what takes place on and under your skin.

Will My Skin Type Change?
Another problem with skin typing is the assumption that your skin (and skin type) will be the same forever, or at least until you age. That, too, is rarely the case. If your skin-care routine focuses on skin type alone, it can become obsolete the moment the season changes, your work life becomes stressful, or your body experiences hormonal or weight fluctuations or other physical changes, and whatever else life may bring.

To complicate things even more, in any given period you may have many skin types! Over the years, even when using gentle, irritant-free products, I’ve experienced irritated skin patches at the same time I had oily skin, or acne flare-ups along with dry skin around my eyes. It is not unusual for women to have a little bit of each skin type simultaneously or at different times of the month or week. An overview of how your skin behaves and changes is necessary to assess what your skin needs.

Yet acquiring normal skin is like trying to scale a peak with a slippery, precarious slope. Like the rest of our bodies, skin is in a constant state of change. Even women with perfect complexions go through phases of having oily, dry, or blemish-prone skin. In reality, no one is likely to have normal skin for very long, no matter what she does. Chasing after normal skin can set you up on an endless skin-care buying spree, running around in circles trying everything and finding nothing that works for very long.

In any case, identifying skin type is highly subjective. Many women have really wonderful skin but refuse to accept it. The smallest blemish or wrinkle or the slightest amount of dry skin distresses them. Or some women see a line or two around their eyes and immediately buy the most expensive anti-wrinkle creams they can find in the hope of warding off their worst imagined nightmare. This is one of those times where being realistic is the most important part of your skin-care routine.

Identifying your skin type is made even more difficult by the omnipresent combination skin. Almost everyone at some time or another, if not all the time, has combination skin. The nose, chin, center of the forehead, and the center of the cheek all have more oil glands than other parts of the face. It is not surprising that those areas tend to be oilier and break out more frequently than other areas. Problems occur when you buy extra products for combination skin because many ingredients that are appropriate for the T-zone (the area along the center of the forehead and down the nose where most of the oil glands on the face are located) won’t help the cheek or jaw areas. You may need separate products to deal with the different skin types on your face because you should treat different skin types, even on the same face, differently.

The most frustrating aspect of skin type is the fact that it’s often used (by cosmetics salespeople and by the cosmetics industry in its ads) to instill a sense of immediate need. Once your skin is classified as a type that isn’t normal, or if it stops being normal, then panic can set in. Cosmetics salespeople aim this ploy at the 30-something crowd, with the pitch sounding something like “You better do what you can do now to make sure your skin doesn’t get worse.” I’ve listened to or been personally subjected to a salesperson’s scolding about skin-care mistakes that destroy the skin. What destroys skin is unprotected sun exposure, smoking, and using irritating skin-care products. Not using the right skin-care products (other than a good sunscreen) may cause problems, but it does not damage skin in the long run.

Determining your skin type will not lead to answers to other skin care needs that may not be apparent on the skin’s surface. For example, sun damage is not evident when you are young, but sun protection is imperative for all skin types. Oily and dry skin that are present at the same time, along with some redness, may be an early sign of rosacea, a condition that cannot be treated with cosmetics and may not be easily diagnosed. Your skin may be breaking out now, but those blemishes took a few weeks to get to the surface. Breakouts begin in the pores, and may involve sebum (oil), cellular debris (dead skin cells), dead hair shafts, and/or bacteria. What you see on the surface of the skin does not always indicate the type of skin-care products you should buy, or even that you need a skin-care product at all.

Skin Type Has Nothing to Do with Your Age
Older skin is different from younger skin; that is indisputable. Yet it is a mistake to buy skin-care products based on a nebulous age category. Treating older or younger skin with products supposedly aimed at dealing with specific age ranges does not make sense because not everyone with “older” or “younger” skin has the same needs, yet it’s a trap many women (especially older women) fall into. An older person may have acne, blackheads, eczema, rosacea, sensitive skin, or oily skin, while a younger person may have dry, freckled, or obviously sun-damaged skin. Products designed for older skin are almost always too emollient and occlusive, and those designed for younger skin are almost always too drying. The key issue with skin type needs to be the actual condition of your skin, not your age.

All women, regardless of age, need sun protection and antioxidants, and possibly treatment of skin discolorations (either potential or existing), dry or oily skin, or breakouts. Wrinkles may tend to separate younger from older skin, but the care you give the skin doesn’t necessarily differ. Not everyone in their 40s and older has the same skin care needs. In a way it’s simple: You need to pay attention to what is taking place on your skin, and that varies from person to person.

Does Skin Color or Ethnicity Affect Skin Care?
All skin is subject to a range of problems, regardless of skin color or ethnic background. Whether it is dry or oily skin, blemishes, scarring, wrinkles, skin discolorations, disorders, or sensitivity, and even risk of sun damage, all men and women share similar struggles. So, while there are some distinctions between varying ethnic groups when it comes to skin problems and skin-care options, overall these differences are minor in comparison to the number of similarities.

According to an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (February 2002, pages 41–62) “There is not a wealth of data on racial and ethnic differences in skin and hair structure, physiology, and function. What studies do exist involve small patient populations and often have methodological flaws. Consequently, few definitive conclusions can be made. The literature does support a racial differential in epidermal melanin [pigment] content and melanosome dispersion in people of color compared with fair-skinned persons…. These differences could at least in part account for the lower incidence of skin cancer in certain people of color compared with fair-skinned persons; a lower incidence and different presentation of photo aging; pigmentation disorders in people with skin of color; and a higher incidence of certain types of alopecia [loss of hair] in Africans and African Americans compared with those of other ancestry.”

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