What Type of Data Does PCA Work Best On?


Scott Campbell

Principal Component Analysis (PCA) is a powerful technique used in various fields, such as data science, machine learning, and statistics. It is primarily used for dimensionality reduction and feature extraction.

However, not all types of data are suitable for PCA. In this article, we will explore what type of data PCA works best on.

Understanding PCA

Before diving into the specifics of the data that PCA works best on, let’s briefly understand what PCA is. PCA is a mathematical procedure that transforms a dataset into a new coordinate system.

The transformation aims to find the directions (principal components) along which the data varies the most. These principal components are orthogonal to each other and capture the maximum amount of variance in the dataset.

Ideal Data Characteristics for PCA

While PCA can be applied to various types of data, there are certain characteristics that make it more effective:

Numeric Data

PCA works best on numeric data. It relies on calculating covariance or correlation between variables, which requires numerical values.

Hence, categorical or textual data may not be suitable for direct application in PCA. However, there are techniques available to convert categorical features into numeric ones before applying PCA if necessary.

Numerical Variables with Similar Scale

The variables in the dataset should have similar scales for accurate results with PCA. When variables have different scales, those with larger scales tend to dominate the analysis as they contribute more to variance. Therefore, it’s important to normalize or standardize variables before performing PCA when dealing with disparate scales.

Linear Relationships

PCA assumes linear relationships between variables. If there are strong non-linear relationships present in the dataset, then applying PCA may not yield meaningful results. In such cases, alternative techniques like Kernel PCA can be explored.

High Dimensionality

PCA is especially beneficial when dealing with high-dimensional datasets. It helps reduce the dimensionality by transforming the data into a lower-dimensional space while retaining most of the important information. By selecting a subset of principal components, we can effectively summarize and visualize complex datasets.

Data Types that Require Caution with PCA

While PCA is versatile, there are certain data types where caution should be exercised:

Ordinal Data

PCA treats variables as continuous, and hence, ordinal data may not be appropriately handled. Ordinal variables have a specific order or ranking associated with them, which may not be preserved during PCA. In such cases, alternative techniques like Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA) can be considered.


If your dataset contains outliers, they can significantly impact the results of PCA. Outliers have a strong influence on covariance or correlation calculations and can lead to skewed principal components. Therefore, it’s essential to identify and handle outliers before applying PCA.


In conclusion, PCA is a powerful technique for dimensionality reduction and feature extraction. It works best on numeric data with similar scales and linear relationships between variables.

It is particularly useful for high-dimensional datasets where summarization and visualization are challenging tasks. However, caution should be exercised when dealing with ordinal data and outliers.

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