What is a skin?
A skin is the word used to describe the way a player looks. It's created by wrapping a simple 2D image file around a 3D player structure (which is why it's called a skin). Everyone starts off in Minecraft with the same skin, but most players want to put their own unique stamp on the game by customizing it.
The default player skin is called Steve, and this is what it looks like from each side when it's been applied to the player:
The 2D image file that creates this skin actually looks like this:
Imagine cutting the image out and wrapping it around a box, and you can start to see how it all hangs together. So let's take a look at the different ways you can go about customizing your own player skin. First we'll look at the three main options for the computer edition (PC & Mac) followed by the consoles (Xbox 360 & PS3).
Most fiddly way: Use an image editor
First you need to download the image file for your existing skin. Log in to your account at minecraft.net and click on Profile. Halfway down the page there's a link called 'download the reference skin'.
Click on that link to open an image called char.png (it will be the same 2D flattened character image at the start of the article). Save that file somewhere on your computer, then open it up in an image editing program like Paint, Photoshop or GIMP. Change the colours of the various body parts to make a new character (making sure to leave transparent bits transparent), then save the file with a different name (making sure it's still a .png).
Head back to your Minecraft profile, and halfway down the page just underneath the image download link you used earlier there's a Browse button. Click on that to find the new file you just created, then click on Upload.
Log in to Minecraft and your new skin will be ready to go!
Easier way: Use a website
If that all sounds too hard, a much quicker way to edit your own skin is to use an online editor like the one at Nova Skin.
You can start with the default Steve character or choose one of the other premade skins. Change the colour of each pixel until it looks just the way you want it - it's free and really fun to play around with.
SkinCraft is another example of an online editor, and it's even easier to use because you can add clothes and body parts that have already been designed for you.
Once you're done, save your image as a .png file and upload it using your Minecraft profile page (as described above for the image editor option).
Ridiculously easy way: Download a premade skin
There are tons of skin database websites where you can download a skin that's already been made for you, like Minecraft Skins and Nova Skin - just Google 'Minecraft skins' and you'll find plenty. Skins are very small and simple .png files so the risk of downloading a virus is low, but always stick to safe practices like avoiding dodgy-looking sites and making sure that you're running good antivirus software.
Changing skins in console editions (Xbox 360 & PS3)
The range of skins is a lot more limited than in the computer edition, but also much easier to change - simply go into Help & Options and choose Change Skin. The standard game comes with just a handful of different Steve skins, but you can download additional skin packs for a few dollars (with the occasional free promotional pack).