Since I first became aware of my complexion as an adolescent, having dry, flaky skin has been a part of my identity. Like having green eyes and freckles, it was a given for me. I was never in the club of women who carried around blotting papers and commiserated about their greasy T-zones. Instead, I was over in the Sahara, constantly googling “how to fix dry skin.” Sure, I’d break out on my chin during my period, but I thought everyone did. I was certain: I’m a dry-skin type. The heavier and oilier my skincare products, the better, right?
Wrong. A few months ago, this part of my identity was promptly undone when I paid a visit to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. I happened to swing by for a facial during my worst skin day in recent memory. My time of the month had just ended, so my chin was speckled with blemishes. Plus, it was the day after a long night of “socializing” with “beverages.” Let’s just say my body was feeling less than glowing, both inside and out.
Rouleau asked me to name my main skin concern, and instantly I responded, “Dryness.” I told her about my flaky patches. I told her about my lack of shine. We proceeded with the facial (glorious extractions included) and then came the bombshell: Rouleau revealed that my skin type is not actually dry at all.
Here’s the thing: Just because I experienced flakiness on my face didn’t mean my skin was intrinsically dry. This flakiness was likely caused by a number of outside factors and worsened by partying too hard, going a little crazy with exfoliation, and traveling on a dry airplane. The very fact that I had monthly breakouts and blackheads signaled that my skin contained oil. Rouleau diagnosed my true skin type and sent me on my way with a brand-new routine. Needless to say, I was shocked. But also relieved.
If I messed up my skin type that badly, I figured I couldn’t be the only one. Keep scrolling for the truth (the real truth!) about what it means to have dry skin.
Truly dry skin does not produce any oil or sebum, says Rouleau. Since there’s no oil to enlarge the follicles or breed bacteria, dry-skin types have itty-bitty pores and never break out.
Blemish-free skin and tiny pores might not sound so bad, but the skin actually relies on oil to hold moisture, Rouleau says. Without it, your complexion can appear rough and flaky. (This is what caused my misdiagnosis.) Wrinkles can also appear more pronounced.
Dry skin also damages your moisture barrier, which isn’t so fun. That means tiny, invisible cracks can develop in the layer of skin that’s supposed to keep moisture in and irritants out. These cracks can make your skin sting and appear flaky, Rouleau says. If you don’t fix the damage, it can eventually lead to the breakdown of precious collagen and elastin—the stuff that keeps us looking young.
So if you don’t have oil in your skin (meaning you have teensy pores and nary a pimple), you likely have dry skin. On top of that, if you experience flakiness and irritation, you can feel even more confident about your diagnosis.
To make myself feel better about having so wrongly judged my complexion, I asked Rouleau to dish the most common cases she sees of misdiagnosed dry skin.
“I generally hear from people with combination skin who are prone to clogged pores and occasional breakouts that their skin is so dry,” Rouleau says. (Yep, that sounds like me.) “The truth is that all breakouts stem from oil. Oil breeds bacteria and bacteria leads to breakouts, so it’s impossible for someone to have a true dry-skin type and still get breakouts.” In other words, if you get pimples, even sporadically, that means there is oil is under there somewhere, and any surface dryness you experience isn’t coming from within.
Another misconception? Rouleau says sometimes combo skin types think their dryness is caused by not drinking enough H2O. “But drinking water does not hydrate the skin this way, even though we have heard this time and time again,” she explains.
Bottom line? If your skin is both oily and dry, some element of your skincare routine is to blame.
So what is that something? Which products are making your combination skin feel dry?
“The biggest culprit is over-exfoliation,” Rouleau says. Maybe you’re using your facial cleansing brush twice a day (that’s too much!) or overusing retinols and acid serums. You might think these habits will improve your skin’s appearance, but in reality, they’re damaging your skin’s moisture barrier, resulting in surface dryness and irritation. Other causes might include washing your face with harsh, sulfate-laden cleansers, or neglecting to moisturize right after cleansing, Rouleau says.
Here’s another mistake combination skin types make: “To remedy what they think is true dry skin, they might start using a dry-skin moisturizer to provide relief,” says Rouleau. (Again, guilty.) “But they soon find that it’s not compatible with their skin and causes clogged pores, bumps, and a possible increase of breakouts.”
If you’ve made any of the aforementioned errors, hope is not lost. Here are Rouleau’s top tips for how to fix dry skin, no matter your underlying skin type…
1. Mind Your Cleansers
Foaming and gel cleansers may put on a fancy show, but according to Rouleau, many of them are formulated with sulfates (which you’ll recognize on the ingredient list as either sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, or ammonium laureth sulfate). “This ingredient is a surfactant, a cleansing agent that cuts oil from the skin,” Rouleau says. “These ingredients are simply too harsh and will strip the water out of the skin after every washing.”
Rouleau says that choosing a cleanser is the single most important step of your skincare routine because washing with a drying cleanser zaps the skin of moisture and creates a buildup of dead skin cells. “Then you have to quickly run and put your moisturizer on to put back in what you just took out,” she says. “It makes no sense!”
2. Don’t Wait to Moisturize
After washing your face, remember to tone (with an alcohol-free formula, like this one from Clarins) and moisturize right away. “If you leave your skin bare for more than a minute, it will start to dehydrate,” Rouleau says. “Perform your skincare routine quickly, and be sure to always leave your toner damp on the skin.” This guarantees that your skin feels soft and stays protected.
3. Never Skip Night Cream
“Some people avoid using night creams to let their skin ‘breathe,’ but using moisturizer at night is very important,” Rouleau says. First of all, a night cream is a moisturizer without a sunscreen. That being said, you don’t have to use something specifically labeled “night cream”: Any moisturizer without SPF will work, as long as it suits your skin type. “At night when your skin is at rest, the skin’s permeability is at its highest, allowing the active ingredients to absorb deeply within the skin,” Rouleau says.
4. Humidifiers Are Your Friend
In the winter (or year-round, in dry climates), it’s important to add moisture into the air, which encourages moisture in your skin to stay put. Try Crane Drop Ultrasonic Cool Mist Humidifier ($50).
5. Experiment With Serums
For extra hydration, try applying a few drops of a lightweight serum under an oil-free moisturizer. Try Cover FX Custom Infusion Drops in Type F + Neroli Hydration ($48).