Common skincare ingredients, explained: what you need to know before you buy

Sometimes reading an ingredient label on a skincare product can feel like studying for a chemistry test. Beauty marketers and influencers love buzzwords like retinol and hyaluronic acid, peptides, vitamins and antioxidants. They promise to do anything and everything, including preventing wrinkles, moisturizing the skin, and fighting acne.

It may seem like you need a dictionary to pronounce some of these terms and distinguish whether or not they work. While beauty can feel like the Wild West, especially thanks to social media, scientists have done the research to separate fact from fiction regarding skincare ingredients. Consider this your glossary and guide.

A brief disclaimer about skin care ingredients

As we’ll discuss, some skincare ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, are low-risk and have scientifically proven benefits. However, no single ingredient or product is a miracle worker. You can postpone aging, but not postpone it completely.

Some skin conditions, such as acne and rosacea, may require prescription care and products from a dermatologist. You should always speak to your provider before introducing a new product if you are concerned about its possible interaction with topical or oral medications you are taking.

Still, a basic understanding of popular skincare ingredients — how they work and what the research says about their purported benefits — can help you decide which products work best for you.

a man wiping his face

Glossary of skincare ingredients

These common skin care ingredients are in products everywhere. Here’s what they are and what scientists say about them

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a clear substance that contains the body produces naturally. Its primary function is to retain moisture, which can help keep skin looking firm and reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles. As we age, our body produces less hyaluronic acid, which can cause more dryness and wrinkles. Research and the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) say it can help moisturize skin, especially during the winter months when cool air and dry heat do a number on us. Hyaluronic acid enters oral, Topicaland injectable formsand research supports using either method for anti-aging benefits. It is low risk, although people with sensitive skin should test it on a small area of ​​their body for a few days.


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A commonly recommended for the treatment of acne and aging. You can usually find them over the counter. Stronger retinoids usually require a prescription. Researchers say retinol is an effective treatment for acne and aging. While effective, these products often cause increased skin sensitivity, burning, and dryness. It’s essential to moisturize and use SPF as part of any routine, especially one that contains retinol.


Like hyaluronic acid, peptides, also known as polypeptides, occur naturally in the skin. Collagen consists of three peptide chains. Using products containing peptides is believed to stimulate collagen production and reduce signs of aging. This purported benefit is especially appealing as we age and our skin stops producing as much collagen. Does it work though? It’s not clear at this point, but new research is promising. A 2021 review found that peptides in cosmeceutical products can reduce fine lines and wrinkles, but more research is needed to really verify the results.

Vitamin C

You’ve probably heard about the importance of consuming vitamin C for immune system health. However, it is also a trendy ingredient to use in skin care products. As it turns out, this ingredient may have its place in topical products like serums. A 2008 clinical study showed that a formulation of vitamins C and E stabilized by ferulic acid could provide protection against sun damage. A more recent study from 2017 showed that using a vitamin C formulation for three months could reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is another vitamin with potential skin benefits when applied topically. Scientists combined it with vitamin C and ferulic acid in the study mentioned above to protect against sun damage. However, one 2016 review said there was a lack of definitive and quality research on the use of vitamin E in dermatology. That said, it’s generally safe to try and has no contraindications.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid fall under the AHA umbrella and promise to smooth the skin and even out the complexion. They are water soluble and come from plants. Research says that AHAs in low concentrations can be beneficial for skin health. At high concentrations, they can cause irritation and a burning sensation.

Skincare brands claim that ingredients can do everything from keeping your skin soft to banishing acne and wrinkles. While there is some science to support these claims, it’s important to remember that there is no “cure” for many ailments and facts of life, including aging. To make sure an ingredient or product is right for you, especially if you have sensitive skin, do a patch test first by applying a new product to a small area of ​​skin for several days. If no irritation is present, continue use. Discontinue use if you experience irritation. A dermatologist can help you find the best products for your skin type and condition. Always consult one before adding a new product to your regimen if you are using prescription drugs or topical products. They can interact negatively with each other.

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Common skincare ingredients, explained: what you need to know before you buy

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