- Combination skin is characterized by both oily and dry areas.
- More than one moisturizer may be required to adequately address the needs of combination skin.
- Ingredients to look for include noncomedogenic oils and natural humectants.
- Some ingredients to avoid are synthetic humectants and occlusives.
Combination skin refers to skin that’s oily in the T-zone (the forehead, nose and chin) while dry on the cheeks and jawline. It is often more oily in the summer and drier in the winter.
If you have combination skin, you likely have a wide range of skin concerns to manage and need to be strategic in your choice and use of any given product. This is especially true when choosing a face moisturizer.
Combination Skin Challenges
Combination skin’s defining feature—its contrast needs—is also its greatest challenge when choosing a moisturizer. A product that works well for dry areas may not do the same for oily areas, and vice versa.
One strategy is to select a product that is light enough for use on the entire face; however, if your skin is on the drier side, the driest areas might not be properly hydrated. If this is the case, you can opt for a combination of two moisturizers, each targeted at a specific area. “A heavier moisturizer can be applied to the periphery of your face, as this area tends to be drier,” says dermatologist Dr. Jeanine B. Downie, MD. “A lighter moisturizer can then be used in the T-zone.”
Ingredients to Look For
Several categories of ingredients work in different ways to hydrate and moisturize combination skin.
Contrary to popular belief, oils can sometimes be used on combination skin – as long as they’re noncomedogenic, meaning they don’t clog pores.
Squalane is a saturated, more stable form of squalene, a lipid (fat) produced in the body that naturally moisturizes the skin. The body greatly reduces production of this chemical after age 30, but it can be replaced through topical application of a moisturizer. Although technically an oil, it does not have an oily feel, therefore it can be appropriate for the T-zone.
Plant oils such as marula, jojoba and argan are light in texture and also suitable for combination skin.
Noncomedogenic oils have one caveat: if your combination skin is already quite oily, an oil-free moisturizer may work better for you overall.
Natural humectants are produced by the body to help the skin retain moisture. They draw water particles toward the topmost layer of skin while enhancing the skin’s own hydrating ability. They’re ideal for use on combination skin because they are lightweight and won’t clog pores.
Several humectants to consider are hyaluronic acid (HA) which helps skin retain elasticity, aloe vera and seaweed.
“I love hyaluronic acid-based moisturizers for my patients,” says Dr. Downie. “I prefer those that have a silicone base, rather than glycerin, as it provides a smoother finish that can not only soften fine lines, but act as a suitable makeup primer.”
Absorbent ingredients such as silica microbeads and cornstarch are included in some moisturizing formulas. These ingredients absorb excess oil to reduce shine without encouraging dryness.
That said, these ingredients aren’t without their detractors. “I prefer not to recommend products containing silica microbeads or cornstarch,” says Dr. Downie. “Cornstarch allergies are possible, and these products aren’t worth the risk of potentially scarring your skin from allergic contact dermatitis.
Additionally, while silica microbeads are unlikely to cause immediate signs of skin damage, this does not mean they are a safe option in the long term. “Their potential impact on our health is still not well understood,” explains Dr. Downie.
Antioxidants can keep combination skin looking healthy by protecting it from damaging free radicals. Skin-brightening vitamin C and E are some of the most common antioxidants in skin care products: vitamin C protects skin against free radical damage while vitamin E smoothes the skin.
You may also consider natural ingredients such as green tea, chamomile and pomegranate.
Ceramides are lipids produced in the body to create a protective layer across the skin. “These lipids are the foundation of the skin’s ability to protect against environmental factors and prevent moisture loss,” states Dr. Downie.
As with squalene, the body slows ceramide production with age and due to sun damage. Anti-aging moisturizers formulated with ceramides have been proven to increase skin hydration by restoring what’s been lost and by encouraging new production of these lipids.
Since ceramides occur naturally in the body, they work well for most skin types. However, as these lipids are naturally oily, they are not ideal for extremely oily skin or for those prone to acne, as they can contribute to blocked pores. “While ceramides are suitable for combination skin in most cases, higher potencies or levels of ceramides may not be appropriate for those with excessively oily areas of skin,” says Dr. Downie.
Ingredients to Avoid
Some ingredients commonly found in moisturizers for very dry or oily skin are unsuitable for combination skin.
Synthetic humectants draw moisture upward to the skin’s surface without enhancing the skin’s ability to produce moisture on its own. In the long term, they can actually dehydrate the skin as the moisture evaporates from the skin without being replenished.
Some common synthetic humectants are:
- Butylene glycol
- Sodium PCA
- Sodium lactate
- Tremella extract
To counteract the effect of synthetic humectants, beauty companies often include occlusives in their formulas. An occlusive creates an oil barrier on the skin to prevent moisture loss – the same way Vaseline is used as a lip balm. However, occlusives are generally too thick for combination skin.
Some occlusives to avoid include:
- Mineral oil
- Shea butter
Added fragrances are the ingredients most likely to irritate your skin, especially if you have sensitive skin or inflammation due to acne. Opt for a fragrance-free moisturizer to eliminate this risk.
Combination Skin Moisturizers with SPF
Excessive sun exposure can lead to a wide array of skin issues, including overly dry skin. Regardless of your skin type, daily use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 is your best defense against accumulated sun-damaged skin.
Apply a broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen after moisturizing and before applying makeup. If spending extended periods of time outdoors, sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours.
Moisturizing SPF creams can also help to protect your skin from UV damage. While not a substitute for a broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen, these moisturizers can offer another way to incorporate an added level of sun protection into your morning skin care routine.
Combination skin variations
Within the category of combination skin, there are also several subsets that require extra attention.
Extreme combination skin
Extreme combination skin is characterized by areas of excessive oiliness and dryness. If you are unsure of the root cause of your extreme combination skin, evaluate the products you use regularly to help find the cause.
“Cleansers with excessive amounts of potentially drying acids, unnecessary toners or pH-modifying serums, can have an impact on skin,” explains Dr. Downie. By eliminating these products from a routine or replacing them with a more suitable alternative, you may be able to balance your skin’s moisture.
Using two moisturizers may also help improve extreme combination skin. A richer formulation can be applied to the drier areas of your face and a light, gel-based formula to your T-zone. This same principle can be extended to other products in your skin care routine, such as face wash and toner, until your oil levels become more balanced.
Combination skin with rosacea
For those with combination skin and rosacea, as with extreme combination skin, it’s recommended to use two products on the face to address the areas with and without rosacea. This customized application may help normalize the skin barrier to reduce redness and sensitivity.
Acne-prone combination skin
If you have oily combination skin with acne, you might think you don’t need a moisturizer. However, keeping acne-prone skin hydrated is beneficial for regulating oiliness because if your skin senses it’s becoming too dry, it will overproduce oil to compensate. If you experience frequent breakouts, use a light gel moisturizer in small quantities.
Sensitive combination skin
For combination skin that is also sensitive, choose only fragrance-free moisturizers.
Often, skin sensitivity is a reaction to using too many harsh products and destroying the acid mantle, the skin’s natural barrier against its environment.
Switching to gentler, fragrance-free products can help restore your skin’s overall health and reduce sensitivity in the long term.
How to Use a Moisturizer with Combination Skin
To keep your combination skin looking hydrated and healthy, moisturize with a light SPF-containing product every morning after cleansing and toning your face. Apply the moisturizer when your skin is still damp to lock in extra hydration. “What most dermatologists recommend when applying moisturizer is to follow the five-point system,” says Dr. Downie. “From one large dollop in your hand, distribute equal amounts of moisturizer to your forehead, each cheek, chin and nose, then gently massage into skin.”
At night, cleanse and tone your face again and apply any serums before moisturizing.
You may consider using a heavier night cream, especially on the dry areas of the face. Since combination skin is often affected by the changing seasons, you may require more of this heavier night cream in the winter and less or none at all in the summer.
When selecting the best facial moisturizer for your combination skin, you might not find a single one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, mix and match lighter and heavier products, and pay attention to your skin’s seasonal needs.
Avoid synthetic humectants and occlusives in favor of natural humectants and light, noncomedogenic oils. As your skin ages, opt for formulations that replenish lost lipids such as ceramides and squalene.
Perhaps most importantly, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to help prevent skin dryness caused by UV damage. An SPF moisturizer can also be used during your morning routine to both hydrate your skin and provide an additional layer of sun protection.
With some experimenting, you should achieve a moisturizing routine that keeps your combination skin appearing hydrated, healthy and balanced.
- Pavicic, T., Gagulitz, GG., Lersch, P., Schwach-Abdellaoui, K., Malle, B., Korting, HC., Farwick, M. (2011) Efficacy of cream-based novel formulations of hyaluronic acid of different molecular weights in anti-wrinkle treatment. J Drugs Dermatol, 10(9), 990-1000. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22052267
- Del Rosso J. Q. (2013). The role of skin care as an integral component in the management of acne vulgaris: part 1: the importance of cleanser and moisturizer ingredients, design, and product selection. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 6(12), 19–27. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3997205/
- Youn, S. W., Na, J. I., Choi, S. Y., Huh, C. H., & Park, K. C. (2005). Regional and seasonal variations in facial sebum secretions: a proposal for the definition of combination skin type. Skin Research and Technology, 11(3), 189–195. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15998330
- Sethi, A., Kaur, T., Malhotra, S. K., & Gambhir, M. L. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian journal of dermatology, 61(3), 279–287. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.182427
- Pullar, J. M., Carr, A. C., & Vissers, M. (2017). The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients, 9(8), 866. doi:10.3390/nu9080866
- Ganceviciene, R., Liakou, A. I., Theodoridis, A., Makrantonaki, E., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 308–319. doi:10.4161/derm.22804
- Spada, F., Barnes, T. M., & Greive, K. A. (2018). Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 11, 491–497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697
- Draelos, Z. D. (2017). Cosmeceuticals for rosacea. Clinics in Dermatology, 35(2), 213–217. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28274362