Skincare can be fairly intuitive. Knowing which skincare products to choose based on your exact skin type generally makes sense. You have oily skin? Avoid oil-based skincare products. Your skin is on the dry side? Opt for moisturizers with deeply hydrating ingredients (like hyaluronic acid).
But what about combination skin?
How do you choose the right cleanser if your skin is oily in some areas, but dry in others? How do you treat oily acne breakouts if you have patches of dry skin at the same time?
Everyone’s skin is different. Even within the different skin types, there’s still tons of room for variation. The combination skin type is where things can be especially tricky, even though this is the most common skin type.
Treating multiple skin types at once—oily skin, dry skin, sensitive skin—requires an effective skincare routine, designed specifically for combination skin needs. Finding the perfect routine for combination skin doesn’t have to be difficult.
With the right ingredients, you can balance your combination skin for a naturally hydrated, healthy, matte complexion.
What is combinatination skin?
If your skin is somewhere in the middle, between oily and dry with a bit of sensitivity, you have combination skin.
People with combination skin may notice their skin is oily in some areas, but dry and flaky in others. This fluctuation between oily and dry can occur during different seasons, different times of the day, different times of the month—or for no apparent reason at all. That’s the unpredictable beauty of combination skin.
Combination skin often manifests in oily skin around the T-Zone (chin, nose, forehead) and dry skin around the cheeks and the sides of the face.
The cause of combination skin is typically rooted in genetics, but there are factors that can contribute to or worsen this skin type. Skincare products with harsh ingredients can amplify this oily-to-dry polarity.
Cleansing the skin too often, overusing physical exfoliants, and slathering on thick, pore-clogging moisturizer can also worsen combination skin.
How do I know if I have combination skin?
If you aren’t sure whether your skin is oily, dry, or somewhere in the middle, there are a few telling signs you can observe on your skin:
You can determine whether you have combination skin by observing your skin in its natural state. Do you notice blackheads and enlarged pores around your nose? Do you find yourself trying to hydrate your dry skin, but being wary of too much hydration, because you’re liable to end up with an oily film over your face if you overdo it? And is it incredibly easy to overdo it? If so, all signs are pointing to combination skin.
Once you’ve identified your skin type, you’re ready to start crafting the perfect skin care routine, one ingredient at a time.
Best Skincare Ingredients for Combination Skin
Chemical Exfoliators: AHAs and BHAs
Put down the physical exfoliators—the harsh, grainy scrubs—and pick up the chemical exfoliants—the transformative cleansing solutions with BHA and AHA ingredients.
AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) are a class of chemicals that have an extreme, hydrating effect on the skin. These chemicals are water-soluble, and they treat the surface of the skin by pulling in moisture and enhancing the skin’s ability to reap the benefits of moisturizing products. The most common AHAs in skincare include glycolic acid and lactic acid, and these ingredients are infamous for hydrating the skin, but also for reducing wrinkles, signs of aging, sun damage, and hyperpigmentation.
BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) are the other important class of chemicals, but these ones don’t remain on the surface of the skin. BHAs delve below the surface, within the hair follicles, to eliminate dirt and debris and unclog the pores. Skincare products with BHAs are effective for releasing the dead, trapped skin cells that cause blemishes, breakouts, blackheads, and whiteheads. The most common BHAs in skincare include salicylic acid and citric acid, and these ingredients dry out excess sebum to regulate oil production, and remove dirt and skin cell buildup to treat acne breakouts.
BHAs and AHAs are commonly used in lightweight exfoliating face washes, leave-on exfoliant solutions, and soothing face masks. These ingredients are excellent for this skin type because BHAs treat oily skin, and AHAs treat dry skin—the perfect duo for combination skin.
Hyaluronic acid is always on our skincare line-up, and for good reason. This naturally-occurring ingredient is a humectant, meaning it’s a magnet for moisture and hydration.
Because hyaluronic acid has a naturally lightweight composition, this ingredient provides the optimal amount of hydration, without leaving a film of oil or grease on the skin. This ingredient works by pulling moisture from the air or from previously-applied ingredients on the skin and locking in hydration.
Moisturizers with hyaluronic acid are ideal for combination skin because they provide deep hydration to the dry areas of the skin.
The Best Routine for Combination Skin
Step 1: Cleanser
It all begins with a cleanser. Cleansing the skin is critical for mitigating oiliness and properly hydrating the dry areas of the skin.
Combination skin is prone to acne breakouts (thanks to the excess sebum production). Cleansing the pores of acne-causing debris we’ve accumulated throughout the day, and the dead skin cells trapped in pores is the first line of defense against the oily-side of combination skin.
As for the dry-side of combination skin, a gentle, non-drying facial cream cleanser is key to purifying the skin without losing moisture or irritating the skin—because unfortunately, combination skin often means sensitive skin too. Even if sensitive skin isn’t a part of your combination skin experience, an effective, gentle cleanser will leave your skin feeling smooth, bright, and refreshed.
Combination skin should be washed in the morning and at night. Cleaning the skin and ridding it of the city dirt, debris and pollution is important for fighting off harmful free radicals and regulating sebum production for balanced skin. Cleaning the skin in the morning is important for removing the sweat, dirt, and oil you’ve accumulated during your sleep. (Your pillow might not be doing your skin any favors either.)
Step 2: Exfoliator
Once you’ve cleansed your skin and purged the surface of bacteria and leftover skin cells, a chemical exfoliating solution with BHAs or AHAs is essential for reaching the gunk buildup below the surface.
An AHA or BHA exfoliant will not only pull the dirt from within the pores and hair follicles (where the sebaceous glands are located), but it’ll also promote cellular turnover. The cellular turnover process is responsible for shedding dead skin cells (the ones that clog pores and cause acne breakouts) and generating new skin cells.
Cellular turnover, or skin cell regeneration, is vital for tight, youthful, supple, clean skin. No matter your skin type, you’re probably in pursuit of firm, ageless skin, but people with combination skin should be especially grateful for this biological process. The shedding and regeneration of skin cells leave us with purified, detoxified, minimally-oily skin.
Exfoliate with a lightweight, BHA or AHA exfoliating solution every night or every other night, depending on your skin sensitivity. If you’re just starting out with a chemical exfoliant, use it two to three nights a week to see how your skin reacts. If you don’t notice any adverse reactions or irritations, you can increase your application to every other night, then try increasing to every night. (Alternate between a BHA and AHA cleanser to experience the benefits of both chemical classes.)
Always listen to your skin, and don’t push it to its limits. Respect your skin by allowing it to adjust to new skincare products without overwhelming it. BHAs (like salicylic acid) and AHAs (like glycolic acid) are potent ingredients and should be used only as much as your skin allows.
Step 3: Toner
Toning your skin will solidify your preceding cleansing and exfoliating efforts. The purpose of a toner is to cleanse the impurities, dirt, debris, and dead skin cells from your skin, and balance your skin’s pH level.
When choosing the right toner for you, steer clear of ones with alcohol. Alcohol is sure to exacerbate any skin condition. This highly-irritating ingredient dries out the skin, induces fine lines and wrinkles, and strips the skin of its natural oils.
The perfect toner can do wonders for combination skin. Look for toners that include an ideal mix of restoring, hydrating ingredients (like ceramides and lactic acid) and cleansing, purifying ingredients (like witch hazel and salicylic acid).
Toners can remove excess oil, help to regulate oil production, reduce redness and irritation, and rid the skin of bacteria and city pollutants—which is essential for happy combination skin.
Gentle toners can be used morning and night after you cleanse and exfoliate. If your skin reacts to your toner with irritation or redness, replace it with a natural toner (like rose water toner or basil water toner), or reduce your toner use to once daily.
Step 4: SPF 30 (or Higher) Sunscreen
Sunscreen should never be overlooked, regardless of your specific skin care goals. It’s no secret that the sun’s UV rays are much tougher than your skin. Your face is especially prone to sun damage because the skin on your face is thin and delicate.
Sun damage significantly increases a person’s chances of developing skin cancer. It also causes photoaging that manifests as undesirable fine lines, wrinkles, and unhealthy, sagging skin.
Choose an effective anti-aging sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to protect your skin from sun damage and from various environmental pollutants.
Always apply sunscreen before stepping outside. If you choose a chemical sunscreen, apply this after your toner (in the morning) to ensure its effectiveness. Chemical sunscreen needs time to permeate through the skin, so wait about 15 minutes before applying your next skincare product or before stepping outside.
Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, should be applied last in your skincare routine. These sunscreens work by forming a barrier over the skin to reflect harmful UV rays and prevent them from penetrating through to the skin.
Many people with combination or oily skin use mineral sunscreens because these sunscreens create more of a matte finish than chemical sunscreens. (Some chemical sunscreens can be fairly oily.)
Step 5: Serum
Serums give your skin the nutrients it needs. They’re added to a skincare routine to nourish the skin with fundamental vitamins that enable the skin to repair itself, protect itself from UV rays and free radicals, and minimize the signs of aging.
Two of the most therapeutic serums for combination skin are vitamin C serums and hyaluronic acid serums.
Dermatologists often recommend vitamin C booster serums to improve the skin complexion, because vitamin C is a natural brightening agent. This ingredient is also an antioxidant, meaning it neutralizes the free radicals (unstable molecules) that cause illness and rapid aging. Vitamin C serum also hydrates the skin and stimulates the body to renew skin cells.
Apply vitamin C serum to your face once to twice daily to experience its benefits. It’s a good idea to apply vitamin C in the morning to allow it to protect the skin from free radicals throughout the day.
Hyaluronic acid serums are also essential for balancing combination skin. Hyaluronic acid provides the necessary moisture that many people with combination skin are lacking. This ingredient attracts water and retains moisture to infuse and replenish the skin.
A hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid should be applied once daily, in the morning or night, to heal dehydrated skin, fill fine lines and wrinkles, and renew combination skin.
Step 6: Moisturizer
A hydrating, strengthening moisturizer can be exceptionally healing for combination skin. Moisturizer serves to form a barrier on top of the skin, locking in the moisture and nutrients below.
Finishing off your skincare routine with the right moisturizer allows the underlying skincare ingredients to penetrate deep into the skin, without escaping or evaporating from the surface of the skin.
Depending on how oily or dry your combination skin is, you might want to opt for a lightweight, gel-cream to prevent clogged pores without reducing the effectiveness of a final moisturizing step in your skincare routine.
A creamy, anti-aging face moisturizer is also excellent for combination skin that requires a little extra protection from damage. Soothing moisturizing creams that include ceramides, peptides, hyaluronic acid, amino acids, and are non-comedogenic, paraben-free and fragrance-free are important for healing the skin on a cellular level without irritating sensitive skin, clogging pores or increasing oiliness and greasiness.
Always moisturize your skin at the end of your daily and nightly routine to maximize the effects of your products and replenish moisture lost throughout the day.
With combination skin, the goal is to keep the skin optimally hydrated, without contributing to its oily tendencies. Skincare is only effective if you know your skin type, and your skin will tell you everything you need to know if you listen to it.
Observe how your skin reacts each time you integrate a new skincare product into your routine. Using the right products for your skin type is key to establishing a healthy routine that regulates oil production, invigorates dry skin, and transforms your complexion.