The Skinny on Skin

Five definitions you need to know to really understand your skin.

What scientists have learned about our body’s largest organ – our skin – is certainly way deeper than, well it’s deep okay. And, we don’t all have the time or the inclination to learn everything in the world of dermatology. But, if you really want to have some understanding of your skin in all of its beautiful complexity, it helps to know five simple terms your aesthetician or dermatologist will use when they talk with you about skin care.

1. Complexion.

When we were growing up, the word complexion largely had to do with whether or not you suffered from acne. Who knew that there was so much more to it than that? Think of complexion as the natural shade of your skin. As far back as the 1890s scientists were trying to find ways to define skin color. But, in 1975, the Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Thomas B. Fitzpatrick devised the Fitzpatrick scale, which has since become the standard way of identifying complexion. It’d divided into six categories:

Type I: Light skin that always burns and never tans.
Type II: Fair skin that usually burns, then tans.
Type III: Medium skin that may burn, but tans well.
Type IV: Olive skin that rarely burns and tans well.
Type V: Tan brown skin that very rarely burns and tans well.
Type VI: Dark brown skin that never burns and tans very well.

While you don’t really have to know your Fitzpatrick type, it helps you to understand what your provider is referring to when they mention it. Often, your type will be used to inform what sort of laser treatment or other types of treatment you should have.

It’s also helpful to know that lighter skin types are more vulnerable to age spots and blemishes.

Interesting fact: Did you know that, in addition to sun exposure, stress, an unhealthy lifestyle, or bad skin care routines can all cause your complexion to lose its brightness and become dull.

2. Tone.

Tone refers to the evenness of your complexion. Look at your skin closely in the mirror. Do you see discolorations or different shades in different places? Healthy skin is generally even or close to being even all over your body.

Ideal tone: Ideally, we’d like to see an even tone with rich full color that is uniform, glowing, and not splotchy.

Often, unevenness in skin tone can be chalked up to sun damage or skin cells that produce different amounts of melanin, the substance that darkens our skin. Sun damage is usually the culprit when it comes to age spots and blotching, but you can also suffer from these because of poor diet, tobacco use, or exposure to environmental toxins found in heavily polluted cities or workplaces that utilize strong chemicals.

Your provider may also use the term, undertone. Undertones affect the overall hue of your skin. If you have cool undertones, you have hints of blue or pink. Usually, the veins on the insides of your wrists will have a greenish-blue hue. If your skin has cool undertones, you look best in silver jewelry and your skin tends to burn or get a rosy color from exposure to sunlight.

If you have warm undertones, your skin tends toward yellow, golden, peachiness. The veins on the insides of your wrists will look more purplish-blue and you will look better in gold jewelry.

Neutral undertones are roughly the same shade as your skin tone. If you have neutral undertones, you are neither too ruddy or too sallow, and it’s hard to define the color of the veins on the insides of your wrists as either more purple or more green. Lucky you! You look good in either silver or gold.

Ideal undertone: All skin undertones are beautiful! But, it does help to know yours when you’re picking clothing, jewelry, and especially makeup. Pro makeup tip: when color matching for makeup, select an area of your skin that doesn’t receive much sun exposure, like behind your ear.

Interesting fact: Age spots are also called sunspots, liver spots and solar lentigines. They are your body’s attempt to protect itself from sun damage.

3. Texture.

Texture is the look and feel of the surface of your skin. With the passage of time, our skin’s texture can become uneven just like its tone. Acne, scarring, and wrinkles all can affect your skin texture. Fortunately, these can all be addressed with various treatments. Other skin irregularities that can be easily addressed include: milia, cherry angiomas, and keratosis pilaris (those little red bumps often seen on the backs of people’s arms).

Ideal texture: We like to see healthy, beautiful skin with a smooth, even texture, free of bumps and blemishes.

Interesting fact: Cherry angiomas, those tiny little bright red growths that occur most often later in life, are actually benign (non-cancerous) tumors that have a little cluster of capillaries inside them. They are also known as Cambpell de Morgan spots because of the 19th-century British surgeon, Campbell Greig De Morgan, who first wrote about them in scientific papers.

4. Hydration.

Hydration is exactly what it sounds like – water content. Hydration is absolutely essential for healthy, beautiful skin. Dry skin accelerates the development of fine lines, wrinkles, deep folds, and sagging.

Ideal hydration: Properly hydrated skin is neither dry nor oily. It will appear clear, bright, plump, and smooth.

Interesting fact: When your skin is dry it attempts to compensate for the lack of water by producing more oil. So, contrary to popular belief, oily skin is often in need of more moisture, not less!

5. Firmness.

Firmness is its elasticity or resilience. Firm, plump skin bounces back when you press on it. Firmness depends on the health of tissues in the deeper layers of your skin. You may have heard of collagen and elastin. The ability of these tissues to retain water affects the firmness of your skin

Ideal firmness: We like to see thick, tough, skin that is soft to the touch. Good firm skin should quickly regain its shape after being compressed.

Interesting fact: Elastin is a protein that allows your skin to return to its shape after being compressed or stretched. It’s also a very long-lived protein with a half-life (the time it takes for it to be reduced to half of its volume) of more than 78 years!


Clearly, it takes more than a blog or two to turn you into a skin expert. But, knowing a handful of useful terms will make it far easier to have an informed conversation with your cosmetic providers and estheticians so that, together, you can craft a treatment plan that gets your skin healthy and looking beautiful and keeps it that way.


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