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

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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). "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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 brands devoted to treating specific skin tones are popping up. "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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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