In Skin Type & Skincare: A Definitive Guide for Beginners and 1 Essential Nugget, we’ll discuss how to determine your skin type and set up a skincare regime. This is the first installation of a series of posts that aims to help anyone who is new to skincare get started.
Table of Contents
- #Throwback: The Inspiration
- My Skincare Journey, Laden with Misconception and Errors
- The Three Conditions that Contribute to your Skin Type
- How to Determine Your Skin Type
- Other Points to Consider when Starting a Skincare Regime
- Skincare for Beginners Basic Starter Routine
- Example Products
#Throwback: The Inspiration
I was reminded recently of what it was like to be a teenager and to start getting spots and not know what to do about them. My friend’s teenage daughter is being teased for her miniscule spots. Her mum sent me photos of what she was putting on her face, and I knew right away these were the culprit. One cleanser, branded as natural, contained sodium laureth sulfate (Lacura, Aldi brand). One cream she was using was Palmer’s Cocoa Butter moisturiser, containing, none other than cocoa butter – highly comedogenic. Another moisturiser contained liquid paraffin, another comedogenic ingredient, unless you have extremely dry eczematous skin, in which case liquid paraffin is often what is prescribed for those types of skin.
I bought this REN Starter Kit for her (unfortunately no longer available), as it contained a mini of everything she would need to get started, and because I had personally tried all the items in the kit so I knew how they reacted on my skin and thus had a reference point with which to guide her. I didn’t get a chance to write this post before I gave it to her, so I ended up making an illustration of it, which prompted a little art vlog on YouTube. It’s available here if you are interested.
Firstly, if you have severe and/or cystic acne, you may require medical input. If your acne looks like the photos below, please see your doctor or dermataologist.
Secondly, I am not a dermatologist nor an aesthetician nor a cosmetic chemist. I do work in healthcare, but it is not skin-related.
My Skincare Journey, Laden with Misconception and Errors
When the first teenage spots began appearing on my face, my dad gave me a bar of soap suited for oily acneic skin. I didn’t know my skin type back then. My dad had oily skin and I assumed my skin was like his.
How wrong I was!
It took me well into my adult life to work out that my skin is normal, sensitive and very dehydrated. In thinking I had oily-combo skin, I used cleansers and creams that were far too dehydrating for my skin type, one which was already so prone to dehydration. This then paradoxically caused my skin to create more oil, feeding the loop.
I realised I had sensitive skin when I decided to cut out synthetic fragrance from my face products, including makeup. My spots disappeared overnight. In fact, the time of life I had the worst acne of my life (aside from pregnancy), was when I was using two extremely expensive face serums, both with synthetic fragrance – the Dior Snow range (which at the time you could only obtain at a duty free shop) and La Prairie.
I am less convinced it was the La Prairie, because I know from using other Dior products that I am definitely allergic to one of the fragrances they use in their foundations. But I erroneously blamed it on plant oils and butters, thinking I had oily skin. I still have a couple cystic acne scars from this time.
The Three Conditions that Contribute to Your Skin Type
I truly detest the definitions of skin type because not all skin fits neatly into a box, and besides which, those boxes are not explained well by the beauty industry. It took me a while to figure this out, but I realised that “skin type”, as it were, describes three conditions or states that the skin is in.
And here is your essential nugget. These three conditions are not mutually exclusive, meaning they can co-exist.
- How much sebum and oil does your skin produce?
- Is your skin sensitive?
- Is your skin dehydrated?
Sebum is a substance produced by the skin which is a complex mixture of lipids (fats), like cholesterols, squalene, triglycerides, etc. . It functions to protect the skin from microbes and to help prevent water loss from the skin (i.e. transepidermal water loss, or TEWL) . The very outer surface of the top layer of skin (i.e. the stratum corneum of the epidermis) also contains lipids, which help form a barrier to TEWL .
This sebum or inherent oil level of the skin is what is being described by the categories of oily, dry, combination and normal skin. They are descriptors for what the inherent oil and sebum level is in your skin. So if your skin produces a lot of oil and sebum, you would be “oily”, and if your skin doesn’t produce much oil and sebum, it would be “dry”. “Normal” skin describes skin in which the oil and sebum production is well-balanced. “Combination” skin describes skin which has more than one type of inherent oil and sebum production (typically dry on the cheeks and oily on the T-zone (forehead, nose, chin)).
Your essential nugget is here again. Sensitive skin and dehydrated skin do not describe the sebum/oil levels in the skin! Therefore any of normal/dry/combo/oily skin can also be sensitive and/or dehydrated.
Sebum levels are affected by many factors, including your age, hormone levels, whether you’re using or taking isotretinonin (or retinol) . So this can change over time, meaning your sebum skin type (i.e. oily, combination, normal, dry) can change over time too.
Sensitive skin traditionally was defined as skin that became red, itchy, or developed a rash in response to many ingredients. This describes type 1 hypersensitivity, or your “true” allergic reaction, as how medics would define an allergy . I believe sensitive skin is broader than this definition. If skin is reactive to many ingredients, I would consider it to be sensitive. This reaction may not be an allergy per se, but be in the form of breakouts, flaky skin, or skin that doesn’t appear healthy.
The reason why I believe sensitive skin should encompass these other manifestations, is because they indicate that the skin is irritated and vulnerable, and that the skin barrier somehow is not intact. Thus, if skin has a reaction to an ingredient that increases its vulnerability, then it is sensitive to that ingredient. If your skin tends to have these reactions to a wide variety of ingredients, then your skin is likely to be sensitive.
Common triggers for sensitive skin include the following: synthetic fragrance (often labelled “fragrance” or “parfum”), essential oils, chemical sunscreens, alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), denatured alcohol.
My understanding of dehydrated skin is skin that is unable to hold on to its moisture, i.e. it suffers from trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). TEWL is a fancy way of saying that water is being lost from the epidermis, which is the top layer of the skin. (The epidermis itself is divided into layers, but that is minutiae). The ability of the skin to retain water is related to the presence of something referred to as “natural moisturising factors” and the lipids within that stratum corneum. Natural moisturising factors refer collectively to the molecules within the skin that have the ability to hold onto water, such as glycerol and hyaluronan . This is not the same as dry skin, which refers to a paucity of oil or sebum production. But dry skin can also be dehydrated, just like oily skin can be dehydrated.
How to Determine your Skin Type
In all honesty, no single quiz is going to determine your skin type definitively. But, a quiz can help steer you in the right general direction. Then when you start using products, pay attention to what’s in them and/or what skin type they are formulated for. Then pay attention to how your skin reacts to it. When you do this, you can really start to refine your understanding of your skin.
Screening questions to ask yourself:
- After washing your face with a non-stripping cleanser (see Example Products section), does your face feel oily, comfortable or tight/uncomfortable?
If it feels oily, likely you have an oily skin type
If it feels comfortable, you could be normal, combination or oily
If it feels tight/uncomfortable, you could have a dry skin type. But you could also be dehydrated (and therefore any of dry, normal, combination or oily skin types). It might also be an allergic reaction particularly if you develop redness, itchiness or a rash.
- Does your skin have a tendency to develop any of the following with various products and ingredients: redness, itching, rash, flaking, breakouts?
If so, it might be sensitive.
If you want to do a skin type quiz, I found these ones useful:
Other Points to Consider when Starting a Skincare Regime
- Test one product at a time, otherwise if you have a reaction, you won’t know what caused it.
- To test for reactivity to a product, you need to give it around a week.
To test for efficacy of a product (particularly if you’re looking at a change in wrinkles or pigmentation), you need to give it at least 3 months
- The exception to #2 is if your skin feels tight and uncomfortable after using. This might be an allergic reaction, particularly if you also develop redness, itchiness and/or a rash.
- The exception to #3 is if it’s a moisturiser, and you don’t develop redness/itch/rash. Then it might simply be that the moisturiser isn’t enough for your skin type and you need a richer one, or you need to add a face oil on top to lock the moisture in.
- Oilier skin types will be better suited with water-based gel formulas, whereas dry skin types should look for plant oils and butters and ceramides. That is not to say that oily skin can’t use ceramides or plant oils. But the richer and heavier oils may cause congestion, which may result in breakouts. The only way to know is to try and see. Comedogenicity ratings are controversial, but they are a starting point (see section on Face Oils).
- Shea butter is generally tolerated by dry skin types, but normal to oily skin types may or may not develop congestion with regular use of it, despite its comedogenic rating being a 2. So trial and error is required. My normal dehydrated skin can’t handle shea butter every day.
- Dehydrated but not dry skin will likely require something like squalane oil to seal in the moisture and prevent TEWL. But they may not be able to handle as rich of formulae as dry skin types can.
- Don’t feel disheartened. This does involve trial and error! But slowly you then refine what your skin needs.
- Your skin type can change over time. But the more you get to know your skin, the more you will understand what your skin needs at that particular moment.
Skincare for Beginners Basic Starter Routine
- Double Cleanse
Double Cleansing is a fancy way of saying you will cleanse your skin twice. The first time to remove makeup and sunscreen. The second time to cleanse the skin and prepare it for the skincare to follow. The first cleanse involves either a balm or oil cleanser, or a micellar water. You can use the same balm/oil cleanser for the second cleanse, or another cleanser entirely.
I used the word “treat” as a blanket term for anything that provides treatment to the skin. This could be a serum, toner, mask, spot treatment, or even a treatment with using a device. Of course you can do the treat step in the am, but when you are starting out, you may wish to keep it simple.
- The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser
This is a balm-type cleanser in its action, as it removes makeup and sunscreen, but it’s not a balm in texture. The texture is more like a gel cream. It actually goes through 3 phases as it becomes kind of like an oil when you massage it onto your face, and then when you add water it becomes like a milk rinsing away. It emulsifies wonderfully, is non-irritating (no fragrance or essential oils), is non pore-clogging, and is inexpensive. When the big tube is in stock, always stock up as this cleanser literally flies off the shelf. This is suitable for all skin types.
- Selfless by Hyram Centella and Green Tea Cleanser*
Yes I was sent this, but I fell hard. Despite being a gel cleanser, this is truly non-stripping. It is also so soothing on the skin. My impression is that the Selfless by Hyram range was formulated for oily/combo and acneic skin types. But this cleanser works for my dehydrated skin too. I have written more about this here.
- REN Perfect Canvas Jelly Oil Cleanser*
A balm cleanser that is suitable for facial massage also. It doesn’t emulsify quite as well as The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser, but if you have dry skin, you will like the hydration this one adds. All skin types can use this, but oilier types will probably prefer to follow this with a gel or foam cleanser such as the Selfless by Hyram one.
- REN Evercalm Gentle Cleansing Milk*
This I unexpectedly fell in love with. It came at a time when I really needed it, when my skin was extremely dehydrated. It doesn’t feel too “milky” or “filmy” after you wash it off, and it seems to give my skin a big hug and kick-start the hydrating process. This definitely is one for dehydrated or dry skin types. It is also very suitable (as is the entire Evercalm range) for sensitive skin. I have written more about this here.
- Cosmedix Purity Cleanser
This doubles as an acid mask also. This is excellent for acne, as it contains lactic acid to help keep pores clear and neem and tea tree oils for their antimicrobial effects. Oily and combination skin types probably will like this the best. I did enjoy using this and repurchased it, but it isn’t a hydrating cleanser.
- The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser*
Great for oily or acne-prone skin types, as the salicylic acid clears the pores. It also doubles as a mask. It is a cheaper alternative to the Cosmedix Purity Cleanser. Non-stripping, but like the Cosmedix Purity Cleanser, it isn’t a hydrating one. I have written more about this here.
This is a difficult section for me to write because for a long time, I couldn’t use a lot of moisturisers due to how sensitive my skin was and I lacked an understanding of my skin’s needs. Moisturisers tend to contain many ingredients, and they often contain fragrance. (Things are better these days!) What I did was layer a lot of hydrating serums then lock it all in with squalane oil, which worked wonderfully.
When I started receiving PR-Product from my Instagram page, I then started to have to test moisturisers. Therefore as a result, these suggestions are items I have been sent, but I have tested them all on my skin and have an understanding of how they work. I would find it hard to recommend something that I hadn’t personally tried and tested, as I would only be going by what the brand says about the product.
- The Inkey List Omega Water Cream*
If you have an oily, combination or normal skin type, I would start here. This is a gel cream, but it has a lipid and ceramide complex, so it is hydrating but without being pore clogging or leaving an oily feeling on the skin. For my normal but very dehydrated skin, it wasn’t quite enough alone, though it did a decent job of hydrating. I did find myself reaching for a face oil to put on top to help lock in the moisture. I have written more about this here.
- REN Glow Daily Vitamin C Gel Cream*
This actually packs a hydrating punch despite being a gel cream. It’s more hydrating than The Inkey List Omega Water cream, but less than the next ones I will mention. If you have dehydrated (but not dry) skin, I would consider this one. I have written more about this here.
- REN Overnight Dark Sleeping Spot Cream*
Good for normal to dry skin types, and excellent for dehydrated skin. It has fewer plant oils and butters than the Evercalm Global Protection Day Cream, but they are equally hydrating. As my skin is normal and not dry, I do feel this one is less “pore clogging” than the Evercalm Day Cream on my skin. My skin does tend toward congestion with shea butter, which is contained in the Evercalm Global Protection Day Cream.
- REN Evercalm Global Protection Day Cream*
Very good for dry skin, and also suitable for sensitive skin despite the inclusion of essential oils. My mother-in-law uses this and has sensitive skin. I convinced my husband to start using this, and it completely cured his flaky areas, which were due to dry skin. I have written more about this here.
A note on Face Oils
Strictly speaking, face oils are not moisturiser equivalents. Moisturisers often contain humectants (which draw water in), as well as emollients (which moisturise). Oils can have emollient properties, but not all oils do. Oils also have occlusive properties (which prevent water loss), depending on the nature of the oil. Yes it is confusing, and I plan to go into more detail about this in another post sometime. Suffice to say for now, it is useful to have a balance of humectants, emollients and occlusives that suits your skin.
For example, if your skin is normal and dehydrated (like mine is), it is useful to have ingredients which are emollient but not too emollient (or else breakouts will happen), and to be somewhat occlusive to help with the TEWL. Squalane oil is a very good product for normal or oily/combo dehydrated skin types because it isn’t pore-clogging or too emollient. Shea butter (whilst not an oil) is more suitable for dry skin as it can cause some acne in those who are not as dry. This is when comedogenic ratings are somewhat useful as a starting guide, but not the Bible. Comedogenic ratings are controversial, and I went into some detail about this here.
My recommendations for Face Oils are as follows:
- Squalane oil
This is a good one to start with if you’re not sure how your face reacts to oils, as it’s non-comedogenic. All skin types can use this. I have bought many bottles of the one from The Ordinary, which uses plant-derived squalane, important as squalane can also be manufactured from sharks which are endangered. In my opinion, I don’t see any need to spend much more for squalane oil.
- Rosehip oil
Another good one that most skin types can tolerate. It additionally has antioxidants and vitamins, which help with fine lines and pigmentation. Look for cold-pressed rosehip oil. Also be aware that rosehip oil (as with many plant oils) is sensitive to oxidisation, so store it in a cool dark place and use it when you purchase (i.e. don’t stock-pile). I have written a little more about rosehip oil here.
- Sea Buckthorn oil
Another good one with antioxidants and vitamins, to help with fine lines and pigmentation. I have written a little more about sea buckthorn oil here.
- REN Evercalm Overnight Balm*
Strictly speaking not an “oil”, but it is a mixture of different oils in balm form. This I did receive as PR-product, but it is another product I just fell in love with. If you don’t like the “oily” feeling, you may like this, as it goes on like a balm and sinks in pretty quick (at least it does on my normal dehydrated skin), leaving a velvety and soft finish. I have written more about this here.
Serums, Masks, Devices, Sunscreen
I am going to cover these in other installations of this series.
Because I do feel sunscreen is an essential even for a beginner, I am recommending here my two favourite sunscreens as a starting point. I have only been using non-nano mineral sunscreens in recent years, so those are my recommendations. But for chemical sunscreen, I will write the two lines I have heard are good. Chemical sunscreens you need to ensure that the filters the brand has chosen cover an adequate range of UVA and UVB wavelengths, as no one single chemical sunscreen filter will cover the full range we need covered for sun protection.
- Dr Dennis Gross All Physical Lightweight Wrinkle Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF30
- REN Clean Screen Mineral Sunscreen SPF30
- Heliocare line
- La Roche Posay Anthelios line
I have written more about the Dr Dennis Gross and the REN ones here.
I only have one to recommend. The Inkey List Succinic Acid Acne treatment*. This was also something I received as PR-product, but wow, I wish this had existed when I was a teenager. It is gentle but effective.
Spot treatments as a rule do not agree with my sensitive skin. They often dry out and irritate the skin around it or on the spot, and then that makes the spot even worse. Salicylic acid is one I know my skin doesn’t tolerate well, and most spot treatments contain this ingredient. But whatever they have done to it in The Inkey List one is magical. I have written more about this here.
Other ingredients you can look for in spot treatments are: benzoyl peroxide (not suitable if you have sensitive skin), sulphur, colloidal silver, tea tree (or melaluca) oil, and neem oil.
Building a skincare regime does ultimately require an understanding of your skin’s needs and how it behaves with ingredients. Trial and error is inevitable. The three conditions of your skin that make up your skin type are: its inherent sebum and oil production, sensitivity, and dehydration. Your skin type can and will change over time. I hope you found this useful!
Products denoted with an asterix* indicate that I have received them as PR-product. Typology and The Inkey List have sent me PR-Product, so in the interest of full disclosure, I have included the skin type quizzes here. I genuinely do believe their quizzes (particularly the Typology quiz) are useful. I have used REN products on and off for over 10 years, long before I ever started receiving PR-product from them. Some of the items they sent me are items I had previously purchased myself.
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. Should you choose to purchase items via my links, I will receive a small commission, at no cost to yourself.
- Verdier-Sévrain S, Bonté F. Skin hydration: a review on its molecular mechanisms. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2007 Jun;6(2):75-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2165.2007.00300.x. PMID: 17524122.
- Abbas M, Moussa M, Akel H. Type 1 Hypersensitivity Reaction. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560561/. Accessed 12 Mar 2022.