Beauty 101: Making Sense Of Your Skin

As we discussed yesterday, skincare lingo is incredibly confusing. But our readers are here to help.

As usual, one of the best pieces of advice is the simplest: go to a professional. BirthdayGirl says:

As someone with oily, acne-prone skin who spent years in denial about my skin predicament, my biggest piece of advice is: GO TO THE DERMATOLOGIST.

There are products out there that work and many of them are available without a prescription but the truth is that there is no one thing that works on every case of acne. Only a trained professional who is looking directly at your skin will be able to tell you what will work best for you.

KathyKathyKathy adds:

Honestly, I have a lot of trouble figuring out what kind of skin I have, especially considering it changes depending on the season. Clinique is great for this—you can go, answer some questions, and they show you which variations on their 3-step system will be best for you. Mine is typically combination skin; I have oilier skin on my forehead and note, and dryer cheeks.

But if you're going to do it on your own, it seems that the most important thing to remember when purchasing products is that they're just that, products. And there is someone out there trying very hard to sell them to you. Hence, buzzwords.

Commenter gherkinfiend makes this far more explicit:

The first thing you need to realise is that the skincare industry is simply looking for a million ways to re-package the wheel, so the skincare language will keep evolving to keep you buying new stuff, so words like revitalize, nourish etc are simply ways to make things sound more appealing rather than achievements.

I'd suggest learning some basic aromatherapy and horticultural (easily Google-able) as so much of what happens in skincare is based on essential oils and natural ingredients that have been synthesized. (Eg: salicylic acid is the active ingredient of aspirin and is a beta hydroxy acid. And it was originally derived from willow bark. It helps exfoliate the skin by increasing the speed of cell turnover and is also an anti-inflammatory. This means you will get salicylic acid in both acne products and anti-aging products under the terms BHA, salicylic acid and willow extract. Knowing the different uses and names for common ingredients will help you know whether you are using too many products with the same ingredients and spending too much money.)

Companies tend to use the Latin names for natural products, so don't forget to check those too. You'll start to know quite soon what things in products are meant to do and will get an idea that way if they are suitable for you.

Don't be swayed by matching ranges that look nice on the shelf, lovely packaging and gifts from companies. Think about what you actually want from your skin and your products and ask for that. If you are intimidated by a counter then order online.

Another possible issue is brought up by mosaiclobster:

Recently, I discovered I might have a soy allergy. I've been really bad about it lately, but when I cut out soy for a few weeks, my face started to clear up. More than any product had EVER done, prescription or over the counter.

If you're finding that no products are working for you, I recommend getting tested for food allergies. There's no proven link between acne and soy/dairy/wheat allergies/intolerance, but there are TONS of testimonials online that echo my experience.

Another possibility? Vitamin deficiency. All the topical treatments in the world can't help that.

But how can you tell what "skin type" you have? Here's a few suggestions.

Via commenter voteforme:

In a girl scout seminar I once learned that if you look better in silver/blue-tones, you're "cool." If you look better in gold/neons, you're "warm." Most people are going to be warms.

Flirtaid has another suggestion:

If you look at your wrist and see that the veins are greenish, then you are warm toned, if you see that they look blue, then you are cool toned.

actionjackie found that Asian make-up lines can be a lifesaver if you're confused about your coloring.

I struggled for years to figure out my "tone." Foundation looked orange or pink on my skin, no matter what company, no matter what shade I tried. Then I discovered Asian make-up lines (Shiseido, Shu Uemura). They have different undertones than most make-up brands which have been designed for Western-European skin tones.

Lolabelle provides a primer on oily/dry/combination skin:

To figure out your skin type, simply think about the oil production (or lack of) on your face:

Normal= average level oil production. no major skin problems.
Dry skin= little oil production. skin is tight and possibly flaky and/or itchy.
Combination= oily in some areas (usually the t-zone which is the forehead, nose, and chin) while dry or normal in others.
Oily= lots of oil production on most of the face. (if you feel like you constantly have a "shiny" face)
Sensitive= can vary by type, but skin gets irritated after using certain products or chemicals.

metaphorsbewithyou describes another helpful way to figure out your "type:"

Wash your face with a basic, non-medicated cleanser, such as Purpose or Aveeno. Pat it dry and wait for 15 minutes- don't apply any moisturizer or products. After 15 minutes, look closely at your face. If it feels like it has a sheen to it, like you don't require moisturizer to make it feel hydrated, you most likely have oily skin. Does your skin feel pleasantly tight, even in color/tone, but could use some moisturizer to give it overall smoothness? You have "normal" skin. If your face is dry or flaky in some spots, like your chin or cheeks, but has a sheen in others, like your T-zone, you have combination skin. If your skin feels tight and uncomfortable when you smile, feels papery to the touch, and you notice flakes or peeling, your skin is dry.
Now wash your face again (you've been touching & poking your face, and if you're going to put on makeup, it's best to apply it to a clean face). Based on what you've determined your skin type to be, apply a product designed for it. If it makes your skin happy, yay! If not, re-examine your skin. If you can't find a product that's right for you, visit a dermatologist for guidance.

Now that you've figured that out, let's delve into the advice for different "types" of skin.
Birthday Girl has some good ideas for acne-prone skin:

Familiarize yourself with the active ingredients used in "acne clearing" products.

If you're shopping in the drugstore, the one you'll see most commonly is "salicylic acid", the one you'll see second most commonly is "benzoyl peroxide". There are a few other OTC ingredients that are sometimes touted as acne-clearing agents (e.g. glycolic acid and lypohydroxy acid (LHA)) and then there are some Rx-only ingredients that are supposed to cure acne (e.g. apalene).

Famialarize yourself with the active ingredients in the cleaners, toners, spot treatments, etc that you're using so that when you discover that one does or doesn't work, you'll be able to say "okay, salicylic acid doesn't do anything for my acne but benzoyl peroxide does".

In a rather long but very informative comment, actionjackie shares her product advice, as broken down by skin type:

For acne prone skin:
Only use products that are labeled "Non-comedogenic" (comedone is the Real Science term for a zit). Cetaphil lotion and face wash are excellent.

Salicylic acid works by removing the top most layer of skin, something you may wish to avoid if your skin is already red and/or peeling.

Benzoyl peroxide is most efficient when used as a face wash, not as a topical cream/gel. Benzoyl Peroxide 10% and 5% bars are available at drug stores, grocery stores, etc. It's generic, so no brand name. Also, it works by killing the bacteria on your skin, but bacteria cannot adapt and become resistant to benzoyl peroxide.

Be careful about using face scrubs. Acne is caused by a variety of things—not simply trapped dirt and oil in pores. You may be irritating your skin and making it redder and more sensitive if you are using scrubs over a break out.

If these are not effective in controlling your acne see a Dermatologist to try topical and systemic antibiotics, or topical retinol (vitamin A). Retinol causes a greater turn over of skin cells, which in addition to preventing those cells from clogging your pores will also help fight wrinkles. OTC Retinol products do not contain a high enough concentration of Retinol to be effective. Don't waste your money on them.

For dry skin:
Aquaphor and Eucerin are fabulous products for dry skin. Make sure you pat your skin dry—completely dry—whenever you get it wet. Avoid long hot showers. Baby oil (which is just mineral oil) is fabulous to put on dry skin immediately after a shower to lock in moisture.

shepoosclouds adds:

Try everything. You really won't know until you do. And obviously, keep in mind that your skin =/= anyone else's skin, so what works for a million other people might not work for you.

Nevertheless, I'm usually pretty oily (save for dry, cold, Frozen Tundra winters that dry my cheeks out like nothing else), and this is what works for me.

1. Cetaphil. It is zee best, hands down, because it's so gentle and won't strip away all of your natural oils (which, despite all the time I spend trying to not look shiny, are actually super important.) Also, I know a lot of people say the Clinique version is fantastic, but dudes. I've tried it. It's basically more expensive Cetaphil.

2. Exfoliate, but not every day; more like once or twice a week. I use St. Ive's Apricot Scrub (and this plus Cetaphil are about the only drugstore products in my entire beauty regime, which should tell you something.) Switch it up with a mud mask sometimes.

3. Moisturize. Even if you feel like your face is an oil slick. And don't cheap out. Philosophy's Hope in a Jar really does live up to the hype.

luweeze also has some good natural skincare recommendations for oily skin:

1. Oil-cleansing method- there are a couple of ways you can do this, but I use half jojoba oil and half castor oil. the castor oil is essential, the jojoba can be replaced with extra virgin olive oil or any other non-comedogenic one. You mix the oil together, put it on your face, rub it in for like 10 minutes, and then take a hot towel and wipe it off. It sounds weird, but it actually works! I have hundreds of blackheads, and they reduce every single time I use this. The oil will NOT clog your pores, as weird as that may seem, and it reduces the amount of oil your skin produces naturally.

2. Milk of magnesia- Whenever I tell anyone about this they give me a weird look. Yes, I rub a laxative on my face (or rather, another laxative, as castor oil is also one), but I have good reason to! Milk of magnesia is the only thing I've ever used that's actually able to control how oily my face gets. I've used EVERY powder out there, and this works a million times better. Every morning I pour some onto a puff, and spread it lightly over my face. I wait for it to dry, wipe off any white residue (there's sometimes a little spot on my nose or something, but that's it) and either leave it or apply makeup (more often the former, since just that little layer evens my skintone out enough for it to be decent). The only other thing that has ever stopped oily skin for me is blotting paper, but I have to use that like every hour- this is a one-time thing!

Morquito has some good ideas for dry skin:

I wash my face every night with Burt's Bees Orange essence wash. I like it because it is super gentle and moisturizing— my face never feels tight afterwards. Then, Royal Jelly Eye Cream (BB) and a moisturizer (either BB or some REALLY cheap vit. E cream). I have tried toners, but they don't seem especially beneficial for me. Once a week or so (or when my face feels like it needs extra attention) I exfoliate using a gentle product — often just sugar or sea salt mixed with olive oil and or fresh lemon juice.

I have been using Johnson's Baby products for body care recently. I like that they don't leave my skin feeling tight like other washes/beauty bars.

And finally, lodown has some very good general skincare advice:

Another thing to keep in mind is that your skin type can change. Hormones, aging, medication, changing seasons, even moving to a different climate or a city can affect how your skin behaves. If you have problematic skin (particularly acne), then I also recommend keeping a skin care diary. To start, keep track of what products you use every day, but you can also record things like diet, exercise, sleep, medication, etc. It sounds silly but it can really help you figure out how to deal with your skin. You can identify problematic ingredients or routines right away. This is how I figured out that glycerin wreaks havoc on my skin and that hyaluronic acid exacerbates my dermatitis over time. There are also specific product recommendations tailored for each of Baumann's 16 skin types.

Finally, you need to read ingredients labels. First so you can avoid ingredients that don't work for you. And second, so you can be a smarter shopper. Don't just take the manufacturer's word for it. Sometimes a much touted special ingredient will be present in miniscule quantities. Quick rule of thumb: in the U.S., the higher up on the label an ingredient is listed, the more there is of it. So if a serum lists glycerin as the first ingredient, then you know that the serum is composed mostly of glycerin. If Vitamin C is listed toward the end of the list, then you know there's not much in there.

Reading labels also can help you comparison shop. This sounds obvious, but I think most people still don't do this. It can save you a lot of money if you can determine that a $50 moisturizer contains essentially the same ingredients as a $10 moisturizer.

Didn't get the answers you were looking for? Be sure to read through the hundreds of tips posted by our commenters in yesterday's thread. Disagree with something you see here? Feel free to set the record straight in the comments. And of course, suggestions for future Beauty 101s are always welcome.

Looking for advice on another beauty topic? Check out the other Beauty 101 Q & A sessions:
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Beauty 101: Your Styling Tool Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Fall Beauty Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Office Beauty Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Beauty Disaster Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Special Occasion Makeup Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Drugstore And Department Store Recommendations
Beauty 101: Your Makeup Removal Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Recipes From Readers
Beauty 101: Your Scent-Related Problems, Solved
Beauty 101: Your Summer Beauty Dilemmas, Solved
Beauty 101: Your Blush And Bronzer Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Skincare Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Eye Queries, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Nail Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Lipstick Questions, Answered
Beauty 101:Your Hair Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Waxing/Shaving Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Foundation And Concealer Concerns, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Eyeliner Woes, Solved

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