This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Turns out, your skin is as hard to self-diagnose as the rest of your body. “Eighty percent of people misdiagnose their own skin type,” says Leslie Baumann, M.D., founder of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami, Florida. And if you’re misdiagnosing your skin type, you’re running the risk of using the wrong products—and making your complexion worse, not better.
The good news? “Your skin talks to you,” says Christine Petti, M.D., FACS, adviser at Stemology and medical director of California’s Palos Verdes Medical Center and Spa Bella. “Observe your skin daily,” she suggests. If you’re seeing any of the following, you’re using the wrong beauty products, and a dermatologist appointment may be in order.
Sign: You’re Red in the Face
Cause: Acne Cream
Using acne cream to tackle recurring breakouts? Adult acne is normal—but, Tsippora Shainhouse M.D., FAAD explains, it’s not usually caused by the same bacteria and oil that trigger teen acne, so you need to treat it differently. “Harsh topical treatments like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can actually irritate and dry out the top layers of the skin, which will make your skin more red and sensitive and can actually aggravate your acne,” she says. A better bet? See a dermatologist to figure out the best treatment plan for your skin and acne type.
Sign: Your Skin is Dry and Peeling
Cause: Anti-Aging Products
Dry skin isn’t necessarily cause for concern, but if your complexion is rougher than usual—and not showing signs of improvement—check your products for retinoids. This anti-aging ingredient lightly exfoliates skin and encourages new collagen growth. Great for fine lines if you don’t have sensitive skin … not great if you now look like a snake shedding its skin. “If it is causing too much irritation, to the point that you are constantly peeling and your skin is red and sensitive, then this might not be the best anti-aging treatment for you,” says Dr. Shainhouse. In fact, it may be doing the opposite of anti-aging. “Chronic inflammation can actually stress the skin and accelerate skin aging,” she cautions.
Sign: You’re Breaking Out
Cause: Heavy Moisturizer
Seeing spots a few days after switching moisturizers? Your pores may be desperate for some air. “When you use moisturizers that are too heavy for your skin type (because you already make enough sebum), the buildup of lipids (fats) in the pores leads to milia and clogged pores,” says Dr. Baumann. And those clogged pores could lead to zits—especially, Dr. Baumann says, if you’re not using the correct cleanser to decrease acne-causing bacteria levels on your skin.
Sign: You’ve Lost Your Glow
Cause: Astringents and Scrubs
Sure, you could invest in more bronzer—but chances are, you just need to cool it with the harsh scrubs and astringents. Ingredients that damage the skin barrier allow water to evaporate off the skin, explains Dr. Baumann. Skin becomes dehydrated and dead skin cells build up on the skin’s surface, preventing it from reflecting light. The result? The complexion version of khaki pants.
Sign: You Have Brown Spots
It’s not leftover bronzer—it could actually be a sign that your skin is over-exfoliated, says Dr. Petti. “Over-exfoliation causes the melanin pigment in the epidermis and dermis to deposit in clusters. Be careful to balance active skincare products such as retinoids with hydration and calming skin nutrients,” she says.
Sign: Your Face Feels Like it’s On Fire
Trying an enzyme- or acid-based mask? Some mild stinging is normal for about a minute, says Dr. Shainhouse. Longer than that, and you’re likely doing more harm than good. “Wash it off!” she says. “It is likely that your skin is too sensitive for the product.”
Sign: You’ve Got an Itchy or Blotchy Rash
Cause: New Products
Don’t give too many chances—a good rule for dating, and a good rule for skincare. If you develop a rash after a couple of tries with a new product, it is most likely related to one of the preservatives, fragrances or acrylates in the new product, says Dr. Shainhouse. “Consider getting allergy patch testing at your dermatologist’s office to determine which is the offending agent, so that you know which ingredients to look out for in the future,” she advises.
Diana Vilibert is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.