Innovative, effective skincare ingredients crop up regularly, but there are a handful of mainstays that are mentioned over and over again in formulations. Like food recipes, skin care products are made with different ingredients. Each serves a specific purpose – hyaluronic acid replenishes, glycerin moisturizers, salicylic acid fights acne and vitamin C brightens – and plays a vital role in the overall formulation of the product. More than any other beauty category, skin care is very technical, which is great for results, but sometimes difficult to understand if you are not well versed in all the ingredients and their respective benefits. That’s why we’ve created a glossary that every skincare enthusiast should know.
If you’ve ever heard yourself mumble, what the hell is niacinamide? or if you are questioning the difference between AHAs and BHAs, you will find the information before you helpful. Consider it your dictionary for all things skincare ingredients. The world of skincare is a complex world, but with this terminology in your vocabulary, it becomes a lot easier.
Read on for a full glossary that will help you remember what common ingredients like salicylic acid, retinol, and vitamin C do for the skin.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
Alpha hydroxy acids, abbreviated as AHAs, are a category of exfoliating acids that are water-soluble and come from animal or plant products (such as sugar, milk, and fruit). Examples of AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid and mandelic acid. They increase cell turnover and boost collagen production, giving you brighter, smoother skin.
Amino acids are organic compounds, which are a crucial part of the body’s natural functions. Amino acids hydrate, reduce inflammation, promote collagen growth, repair damaged skin cells, minimize signs of aging and more. Peptides are an example of amino acids.
Antioxidants are molecules that help neutralize cell-damaging free radicals in your body (known as unstable molecules). Examples of antioxidants are vitamins A, C and E, ferulic acid and niacinamide. They help fight free radicals both internally and externally from environmental factors such as smoke and pollution.
Azelaic acid, which comes from grains and wheat, is a naturally occurring ingredient in the family of dicarboxylic acids. Its benefits include anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, making it great for acne and rosacea. It does not exfoliate the skin like most skin care acids, but it does help treat skin discoloration.
Bakuchiol – or phyto-retinol, as it is sometimes called – is a botanical extract with similar benefits to retinol. The main difference between the two ingredients is that bakuchiol is softer and therefore often preferred by people with sensitive skin. The plant-based alternative also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Benzoyl peroxide is a popular acne-fighting ingredient that attacks bacteria deep in your pores that cause acne. While it also gives your skin some exfoliation, it is mostly touted for its ability to treat and prevent acne.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
Beta hydroxy acids, also known as BHAs, are oil-soluble exfoliating acids that break down dirt, bacteria, and oil deep within the pores, making them great for treating acne. In addition to the most popular example, salicylic acid, beta-hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid, and trethocanoic acid are also BHAs.
Ceramides are lipids, which are molecules that make up the function of living cells. They are key to healthy, hydrated skin as ceramides help heal and protect your skin barrier. When the skin barrier is damaged, you may experience redness, irritation, dryness and discomfort. In addition, ceramides help your skin look younger and feel smoother and softer.
Citric acid is derived from citrus fruits, such as lemons and limes. It is a member of the AHA group and is great for unclogging pores, fading hyperpigmentation and moisturizing the skin.
Ectoin is most commonly used as an emollient in skin care formulations and has moisturizing properties. It can be synthetically or naturally derived.
Exosomes are derived from human stem cells and can be used in two different ways: in skin care products or injected directly into the skin. They are still in the early stages of research, but are great for hair loss and anti-aging.
Ferulic acid, which comes from oats, apples, brown rice and oranges, is an antioxidant. As a result, it helps protect the skin against pollution and UV damage. It is also good for increasing skin firmness and elasticity, reducing inflammation and brightening dark spots.
Glycerin is a great ingredient for moisturizing your complexion because it is a humectant (meaning it attracts water from the air) that locks in moisture in the skin. It’s a natural compound derived from vegetable oil and animal fats, and it’s great for nourishing your skin barrier.
Glycolic acid is an example of an alpha hydroxy acid. Due to its small molecular size, it can penetrate deeper into the skin than other AHAs, making it effective at repairing skin, treating acne scars and discoloration, and reducing signs of aging.
Hyaluronic acid is a molecule that holds 1000 times its weight in water. It is a naturally occurring substance in our bodies – particularly our joints and skin – that acts as a vehicle for hydration and is great for wound healing and plumping up the skin.
As the name suggests, lactic acid is derived from milk and is a member of the family of alpha hydroxy acids. It is gentler than glycolic acid due to its larger molecular size, but it offers similar benefits such as resurfacing the top layer of the skin, unclogging pores and sealing in moisture.
Malic acid from the AHA family is an exfoliating ingredient that promotes cell turnover, brightening the skin and treating acne. It does not penetrate the skin as deeply as other AHAs, making it more easily tolerated by those with sensitive skin types.
Like malic acid, mandelic acid is another AHA that exfoliates the skin’s surface – except this acid comes from almonds. It brightens uneven skin tone and smoothes rough texture by shedding dead skin cells.
Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B-3 – an essential nutrient for your body. It occurs naturally in animal products or plant products, such as seeds and leafy vegetables, as nicotinic acid. The skin care benefits of niacinamide include fighting inflammation, reducing redness, retaining moisture in the skin, increasing natural lipids on the skin, reducing the appearance of pores, reducing excessive oil production, combating from blemishes, smoothing uneven texture and brightening the complexion.
Oxybenzone is an active ingredient commonly found in chemical sunscreens that is absorbed by the skin to filter out UV rays. Despite being approved by the FDA, the chemical is controversial due to research indicating it can disrupt hormone levels in animals and damage coral reefs.
Peptides, also called polypeptides, are short chains of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins such as collagen, elastin and keratin in the skin. In skincare, peptides are a superhero ingredient with a long list of benefits, including anti-aging, wound healing and anti-inflammatory properties.
Polyglutamic acid is classified as a peptide. It is a natural, biodegradable polymer produced by fermentation. It consists of a chain of a certain type of amino acid called glutamic acid and is good for retaining moisture in the skin.
Retinol, also known as vitamin A, is a beloved skincare ingredient that does it all: lighten dark spots and hyperpigmentation, treat acne, smooth fine lines, improve skin elasticity, exfoliate, and prevent early signs of aging. You can get retinol over the counter or by prescription in higher concentrations. Because it’s so powerful, it can cause some irritation when you first use it.
Salicylic acid, a BHA, is a gentle exfoliating ingredient derived from willow bark, often used to fight acne. It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and is great for resurfacing, leaving skin looking smooth, bright, clear and more even.
Squalane is an oil that is clear, odorless and non-comedogenic. It comes from wheat germ, palm treats and olives. It’s great for treating dry patches and eczema, and it has the ability to soothe, hydrate and provide antioxidants to the skin.
Succinic acid is a skin care acid in its own category outside of the two main groups of acids, alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. Derived from amber and sugar cane, it has antimicrobial properties, as well as antioxidant properties, and can reduce oil production, treat acne and minimize fine lines.
Tartaric acid is from the alpha hydroxy acid family – it is derived from fruits such as grapes, bananas and citrus fruits. In addition to exfoliating the skin, benefits include moisturizing, promoting healing and minimizing signs of aging.
The use of tranexamic acid began as a prescription drug that mimicked the body’s natural amino acid lysine. Now it is used as a treatment for pigment spots and brightening skin.
Vitamin C is a favorite in the skincare world thanks to its ability to brighten hyperpigmentation, boost collagen and provide the skin with antioxidants. The vitamin, which can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, protects against harmful environmental influences such as UV rays and pollution.