Why Your Skin Type Doesn't Matter, According to Dermatologists

From the day you bought your first tub of Noxzema, you've been told that your skin is oily or dry or combination or sensitive or, most curious of all, normal. "It constantly frustrates me," says Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. "People get thrown into these buckets, and it doesn't make sense." Then she adds, wryly, "It's a soapbox I'm currently on." And the message is this: We've taken for granted that these classifications define us and our epidermis, but almost nobody fits neatly into one. "People like categories, but in reality, everyone has combination skin — no one is just dry or oily, and you have wrinkles on some parts of your face and not others," says Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City.

On top of all that, the old categories don't account for all of the ways we're learning how skin works. "Our skin's biology is more nuanced than we ever thought," says Gohara. And as we understand it better, a new approach to skin care is taking shape. More brands (such as Clinique, Curology, Younique Youology, and Atolla) are creating customized formulas for your dry cheeks and brown spots — and yours alone.

And that’s just the beginning of a more personalized approach. "We're learning that everyone’s skin has a unique fingerprint — the bacteria living on your skin and even epigenetics affect how your skin looks," says Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist in New York City. And the technology for figuring out your skin's DNA is beginning to explode. It's all going to change the ways we approach skin care.

"People like categories, but in reality, everyone has combination skin."

At this year's CES tech expo, La Roche-Posay debuted a prototype of a wearable sensor that measures skin's acidity, called My SkinTrack pH. "It's a small patch that reads your skin's pH level and uses that data to make skin-care recommendations," says Sharon Profis, an executive editor at CNET. (The patch's launch date has yet to be determined.) "They're [suggesting that] alkalinity and acidity may be more important than traditional skin-care categories."

And it makes sense: The younger your skin is, the more acidic it is. "As skin matures, it becomes more basic, and that shift turns on enzymes that break down collagen," says Bowe. Your genetics and external triggers, like skin care, makeup, even sweat, all throw your skin's pH further out of whack. But if you know that your skin is becoming basic, "you can adjust your routine to normalize pH, turn off these collagen-destroying enzymes, and help prevent wrinkles and sagging," Bowe continues. That might mean giving up moisturizers with fragrance and scaling back on exfoliating to just once or twice a week.

"We should appreciate how ethnicity contributes to the uniqueness of skin's biology, and that can help us look at — and treat — skin in new ways," says Gohara. Researchers are now looking at how your skin’s characteristics are connected to the color of your skin, even your ethnic background. And brands devoted to treating specific skin tones are popping up.

"As skin matures, it becomes more basic, and that shift turns on enzymes that break down collagen."

"If your skin color is olive or deeper, you're more prone to hyperpigmentation, which is helpful to know so you can incorporate brightening and calming ingredients into your routine to address dark spots and the inflammation that causes them," says Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist in Montclair, New Jersey. Three new brands — Epara, Ni'Kita Wilson Beauty Chemist, and Specific Beauty — were formulated for melanin-rich skin and contain spot-fading ingredients, like niacinamide and licorice root. (You can also follow the rules Downie lives by for avoiding dark spots: Don’t rub your eyes, pick at pimples or scratch bug bites, and wear sunscreen daily.)

"If you know your skin tends to be thinner — which East Asian skin does — you can create a routine for preventing dryness and sensitivity," says Gohara. The problem is we don't yet know all the ins and outs of how skin tone and ethnicity shape our skin. "Brown skin especially has been neglected in research for so long, but it will be the predominant skin color in the U.S. in the next 15 or 20 years, so we need to figure this out," she adds. "We have a lot of catching up to do to become a more inclusive world."

Gohara imagines a future where beauty counters will offer color wheels organized by both skin tone and ethnicity: "I could see that my children's North African and Southeast Asian roots converge on this point on the wheel, learn where their skin is biologically, and take that into account," she says. "Brands offer foundations for more skin tones now, and I want to see that approach expand to skin care. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

Instead of classifying skin as a mix of oily and dry, it would be more accurate (though harder to spell) to describe skin by noting the presence of bacteria like propionibacterium and staphylococcus. "There’s a whole ecosystem of bacteria and enzymes on your skin, and we can measure them more easily than we could just a few years ago," says Bowe, who studies the skin’s microbial ecosystem and wrote a book on it, Dirty Looks: The Secret to Beautiful Skin (Little, Brown Spark).

"Making simple changes to your skin-care habits and managing your stress could change your skin's genetic destiny."

"It's possible to manipulate your skin's ecosystem to turn certain genes on or off, which can block the release of enzymes that break down collagen to prevent wrinkles and sagging." If that's not fascinating enough, consider that identical twins with different skin-care routines and lifestyles end up aging at totally different paces. "Making simple changes to your skin-care habits and managing your stress could change your skin's genetic destiny," Bowe says.

There are already ways to promote healthy bacteria counts and enzyme levels on your skin. For starters, sleep more. Swap harsh scrubs for gentle chemical exfoliators. Use creamy cleansers with moisturizing ingredients, like hyaluronic acid or glycerin. Eat more Greek yogurt and kefir, and pile your plate with dark, leafy greens (the bacteria in your gut influence the ones on your skin). And chill out or meditate for 10 minutes daily.

"There's science out of Harvard that suggests focusing on deep breathing and mindfulness every day can stop stress from translating into physical inflammation," Bowe says. "Even if that just means taking a break from multitasking." Soon enough, labs might be mixing next-generation probiotic and prebiotic skin care to foster healthy bacteria growth for your skin's unique ecosystem. And pharmaceutical companies could feasibly develop medical-grade skin-care ingredients to regulate gene expression. (In this case, that would be the frequency with which your genes turn collagen-depleting enzymes on or off.)

"I imagine a future where you'd spit into a tube, swab your skin, and send that off to a lab for an analysis of your skin's bacteria counts and gene expressions. The results would be combined with lifestyle factors and fed into an algorithm that would make skin-care recommendations for you," says Bowe. "You could take control of your skin's future."

"One reason the old skin-care categories don't cut it is that people misdiagnose themselves all the time."

Until you can 23andMe your skin-care routine, you can sleuth it out: "One reason the old skin-care categories don't cut it is that people misdiagnose themselves all the time," says Downie. One of the most common mistakes is thinking you're oily when you're actually dry with breakouts. (If you wash your face at 8 a.m. and it's not shiny by 3 p.m., it's a good indication you're not oily.) "Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide will dry you out, so you can't use a lot of over-the-counter options for breakouts."

Your dermatologist can prescribe a benzoyl peroxide with a hydrating base to dab on pimples, or prescription Aczone along with retinol and hyaluronic acid to use overnight once a week to balance skin out. "Some patients think they’re sensitive because they're red and dry, but really they're vaping, or smoking cigarettes or weed — so their skin isn't as resilient as it used to be — or they're not wearing sunscreen so the redness is actually photodamage," Downie says.

These patients may fall into the bucket of "sensitive skin," but using products marketed for sensitivity won’t do anything to bring down redness. "The usual skin-calming ingredients won't work," says Downie. "Sunscreen and professional lasers are the only ways to really counteract photodamage if that's the cause. And come on, stop vaping."

Pay attention to how your skin changes throughout the month. "If it gets oily when you're stressed or during your period, use a salicylic or glycolic acid cleanser — and why not exercise more?" says Downie, explaining that that evens out stress levels. "And get more sleep."

Of course, it's a lot easier to figure out why your skin is acting the way it is with the help of a dermatologist. "Your skin may react differently than my skin, which is where customizable formulas can help," says Gohara. "But everything you're experiencing is just one part of your skin's bigger picture. What's really going on is much more complex than checking an oily- or dry-skin box."

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Originally Appeared on Allure