The Skin-Care Index: A complete guide to decoding skincare labels

Skincare labels can be fascinating, frustrating and down-right difficult to understand. There are just so many ingredients. Some are labeled in the media as bad guys (but are they really?!?) and some are promoted as being luxe super-elixirs. It becomes really difficult to work out if ingredients are worth the hype. 

Let me break it all down for you. This guide will help you decode your skincare and understand what ingredients work and what ingredients are there as ‘fillers’ – read, not really do much at all. Bookmark this page – it is the only glossary you are ever going to need, ever!

Skincare ingredients A

AÇAI: Derived from a palm tree native to Central and South America, this plant is known for its deep purple berries. The fruit extract is used as a potent antioxidant that is in skin-care products and supplements, to improve their performance and provide anti-ageing benefits.

ACIDIC: The skin’s surface acts as a barrier and is otherwise known as the acid mantle, is naturally slightly acidic, with a pH hovering around 4.5 to 5.5. Neutral pH is 7, such as water. When our skin surface rises or falls outside of the usual acid mantle pH, the skin becomes prone to breakouts and irritation.

ACTIVATED CHARCOAL: This ingredient has been used for years in emergency rooms to treat overdoses as it soaks up negative chemicals and substances. When included in skincare, such as cleansers, masks, toothpastes, health drinks, it functions to absorb dirt and oil from pores.

ADENOSINE: In our body, Adenosine plays a central role to regulate blood flow and provide cells with energy. In Skincare, Adenosine can smooth the skin, helping to repair sun damage and reduce wrinkle formation as a result

AGAR: Typically Agar is a gel that is used as a thickener. It can be found in makeup, skin-care products, and shampoo. Derived from Algae, this sugar molar can also have some antioxidant properties.

ALCOHOL (or Ethyl alcohol): Helps to deliver other ingredients deep into the skin. In acne-based toners, alcohol helps to dissolve oil and thereby make pores appear smaller. In moisturisers and thicker lotions, alcohol improves the ‘slickness’ so that they skincare feels smoother on the skin.

ALGIN: An Algae extract, Algin is both soothing and water-absorbing. It helps to make products feel smooth. 

ALKALINE: The opposite of acidic. This is when a substance has a pH of more than 7. Soap typically has a pH of 10, making skin irritated and prone to redness as the acid mantle is disrupted. 

ALLANTOIN: An amino acid that is well documented for being soothing to the skin. It helps to improve skin turnover.

ALOE BARBADENSIS ( or Aloe for short): Well known for its soothing, healing and calming properties, particularly after sunburn or more invasive skin treatments.

ALPHA HYDROXY ACIDS (AHAs): AHAs are perfect at helping to ‘unglue’ the bonds that keep dead skin cells on the surface. This allows for a brighter complexion and helps to improve a sluggish skin cell cycle. AHAs are incorporated into cleanser, moisturisers and other skincare products as they also help to improve water retention in the skin. The most well known AHAs are Glycolic and Lactic acids.

ALPHA LIPOIC ACID: This is fatty acid which is found in all cells of the body. In skin, ALA contributes to smoothess of the skin. It dissolves in both fat and water, as it has two polar opposite ends in the molecule, making it possible for ALA to enter some skin cells.

AMINO ACIDS: Proteins with act as the building blocks of collagen and elastin. Amino acids reduce with age and environmental stress (such as sun damage, poor diet and so on). Skincare that contain amino acids may be able to assist in stabilizing collagen and elastin levels.

ANTHOCYANINS: Plant pigments that have red, blue, and violet hues. Some claim that these Anthocyanins may help to reduce free radical damage, and therefore inflammation, thereby improving skin ageing. 

ANTIOXIDANT: This ingredient helps to soak up damage-causing free-radicals.

ARBUTIN: Derived from the Bearberry plan, Arbutin is perfect at brightening the skin with it’s anti-oxidant properties. It is a natural alternative to Hydroquinone, reducing the activitiy of enzymes, Tyrosinase, that produce a tan or melanin.

ARGAN OIL: A Vitamin E extract that is both fast absorbing and moisture-retaining. It helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines by plumping the skin, whilst allowing the pores to function normally.

ARGININE: One of the components of collagen, Arginine can be applied topically to improve wound healing and also reduce fine lines.

ARGIRELINE: A peptide that is often thought of as being “anti-wrinkle in a jar” because it has some ability to reduce muscle tension, thereby reducing skin creasing.

ARNICA (ARNICA MONTANA): A wonderful medicinal herb with both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It acts to strengthen blood vessels, reducing bruising and redness, particularly post-facial procedures.

ASCORBIC ACID: Also known as l-ascorbic acid or Vitamin C, which is a building block of collagen. When applied topically, Ascorbic acid brightens the skin, reduce sun damage and helps to improve collagen formation.

AVOBENZONE: Used in chemical-based sunscreens, Avobenzene absorbs UVA sun rays that cause ageing in the skin. It does not protect against UVB rays.

AZELAIC ACID: Found in wheat, barley, rye, and the yeast that resides on human skin. In skincare, Azelaic acid helps to reduce redness in rosacea and acne treatments, by reducing the harmful bacteria that can sometimes reside on the skin. It can also be used in the treatment of Melasma, reducing hyperpigmentation.

AZULENE: Derived from chamomile, this oil has soothing benefits for the skin.

BENZOYL PEROXIDE: Found in many acne-based skincare formulations, Benzoyl peroxide helps reduce acne-forming bacteria as well as reduce oil in the pores.

BETA CAROTENE: A precursor to Vitamin A – AKA Retinol, this is a red-orange pigment found in carrots and other vegetables. Betacarotene is essential for cell function and helps to improve skin tone and texture.

BETA GLUCANS: Long-chain sugar molecules found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens, and grains, such as oats and barley. Powerful humectants and soothers, they can strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier and stave off bad germs.

BETA HYDROXY ACID (BHA): This ingredient is most well known for it’s ability to dissolve oil deep in the pores. It is found in many acne-related skincare products. The most well know BHA is Salicylic acid

BIOCELLULOSE: Many sheet-masks are made of this luscious gel, which is biodegradable and able to hold water like no other material. Biocellulose is able to push many active ingredients into the skin.

BUTYLENE GLYCOL: This molecule is a type of alcohol that has the ability to pull water from the air. When included in moisturisers, the product becomes very lightweight in texture. Butylene Glycol is also commonly found in makeup removers, making the formula easy to glide over the skin.

CAFFEINE: Just like the effects it gives our body when in coffee or tea, caffeine in skincare constricts blood vessels, helping to reduce redness and swelling. Caffeine is derived from the leave and seeds from tea leaves and coffee beans, caffeine can also be used in cellulite and eye creams.

CALAMINE: Usually pink in colour because it is made up of zinc oxide and ferric oxide, this molecule is useful in products that are designed to reduce itching and skin irritations.

CANNABIDIOL (CBD): Extracted from the cannabis plant as an the oil, this compound is used in skin products for its analgesic, moisturizing and anti-inflammatory effects. Applied topically, it does not have any hallucinogenic effects (phew!)

CARNITINE (or L-carnitine): A naturally forming amino acid in the human body that assists in the conversion of fat into usable energy. The most common use of Carnitine in skincare is in cellulite and eye creams as it is thought to provide anti-inflammatory benefits. At this time, there is not enough scientific backed reviews of Carnitine to show that this hypothesis holds true.

CARNOSINE: Another naturally occurring amino acid in the human body, that helps to reduce and stabilize inflammation and free radical damage. As we get older, the amount of carnosine we hold in our body reduces over time so it is often included in skincare to try and boost the levels in skin to reduce fine lines, collagen disintegration and skin elasticity loss.

CERAMIDES: These are naturally occurring oils found in the skin, that help to moisten and lubricate the skin. Found particularly in eye creams, they help to improve skin lubrication.

CETYL (or STEARYL) ALCOHOL: Found in creams and cleansers, it is a fatty alcohol that helps to improve the texture of the skincare product, making it feel super smooth.

CHAMOMILE-FLOWER: Perfect for sensitive skin, Chamomile is a botanical that has both moisturizing and anti-inflammatory benefits.

CITRIC ACID: Extracted from fruit, Citric acid is an AHA that acts as a preservative, and also helps to exfoliate the top layers of the skin, thereby improving collagen production.

COENZYME Q10 (or UBIQUINONE): An antioxidant found in the skin. As we get older, Coenzyme Q10 levels decrease, so it is often included in skincare that assists in combatting lines and poor texture.

COPPER PEPTIDES: Amino acids that assist in wound healing, collagen preservation and also new collagen production. Copper Peptides also reduce inflammation from free radicals. 

DIMETHICONE: This silicone helps to improve water levels in skin, as well as protect the skin. Dimethicone is often found in oil-free moisturisers for its slickness, hydration properties and emollient qualities.

DMAE (or di-methyl-amino-ethanol): Derived from oily fish, when applied topically, it helps to provide a barrier to the skin from free radicals, whilst also assisting in skin brightening and firmness.

EMOLLIENT: Can be any ingredient that improves the water-holding ability of the skin surface. Sometimes used interchangeably with the name “moisturizer”.

EMULSIFIER: Any ingredient that pulls and holds skincare ingredients together.

FERULIC ACID: Extracted from plants, this antioxidant is excellent at reducing sun damage and also assisting other ingredients such as Vitamin C and E to remain stable in skincare.

FLAVONOIDS: Found in dark fruits and vegetable plants, these active antioxidants are classified as Phytochemicals.

GENISTEIN: Extracted from soybeans, this plant-derived hormone simulates estrogen. In skincare this assists with improving collagen production, particularly in post-menopausal women, and also skin brightening.

GLABRIDIN (or LICORICE ROOT EXTRACT): Well known for its ability to reduce melanin or pigment production. It is used in many serums that support the reduction in Melasma and hyperpigmentation.

GLUCOSAMINE: An antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps to reduce pigmentation, whilst boosting natural hyaluronic acid. This in turn reduces fine lines and wrinkles by boosting hydration levels.

GLYCERIN: Able to pull moisture from the air, this humectant hydrates skin. It is used in moisturizers and hydrating cleansers commonly.

GLYCOLIC ACID: Extracted from sugar cane, this alpha hydroxy acid helps to loosen dead skin cells by melting the bonds that hold the dead cells together. Glycolic acid is a common ingredient found in cleansers, creams and peels and other skincare.

GOJI EXTRACT: Found in a fruit native to Asia, this extract is packed with zinc and antioxidants. When applied topically, Goji extract helps to reduce environmental damage.

GRAPE-SEED EXTRACT: Packed with anti-oxidants, this potent ingredient in skincare reduces damage caused by UV and other traumatic insults.

GRAPE-SEED OIL: Acting as both an antioxidant and fatty acid, this ingredient can be found in many moisturizers and anti-ageing formulations. 

GREEN TEA: An anti-oxidant that reduces inflammation through its potent anti-free radical action.

GROWTH FACTORS: In our body, growth factors are large proteins that are made by stem cells to initiate cellular activity. This can include cell growth or cell division, which improve collagen and elastin production.

HYALURONIC ACID: A naturally-occurring sugar molecule in skin that provides structure and water retention properties. Included in skin care, Hyaluronic acid helps the upper layers of skin become plump and super hydrated.

HUMECTANTS: Any ingredient that pulls water from the air into the skin.

JOJOBA OIL: Functioning similar to sebum (or oil) found in the skin, Jojoba oil hydrates the skin without blocking the pores in the skin.

KAOLIN: Working like clay, Kaolin soaks up oil and reduces skin shine.

LACTIC ACID: Found in milk, this AHA is a slightly larger molecule that Glycolic acid, and therefore gentler as it does not penetrate skin as deeply. It acts to dissolve the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells together, allowing for a gentle natural exfoliation on the skin surface.

LYCOPENE: An antioxidant that is found in tomatoes and other red-fruits and vegetables. Like most antioxidants it reduces free radical damage when applied to the skin.

MANDELIC ACID: Extracted from almonds, Mandelic acid is an oil-soluble AHA that reduces sebum build up deep in the skin. It is found in products that are suitable for acneic skin.

MENTHOL: Like the name suggests, Menthol is extracted from the mint plant. It is found in many lip products, toners and other skincare that is aimed at soothing stings, itchiness and other irritations.

MICELLAR WATER: This magical cleanser is a mixture of sanitized water, surfactants and hydrators – for example glycerin. All three combine to remove makeup, oil and other contaminants from the skin. 

NIACINAMIDE: Otherwise known as Vitamin B3, Niacinamide assists in strengthening the outer layers of the skin, increasing skin elasticity but reducing redness.

OCTOCRYLENE: Found in sunscreen, this is an active, yet colourless chemical that provides some protection against UVA and UVB. It is particularly useful at improving the sun-protection factors of other ingredients too.

OCCLUSIVES: Any thick ingredient that provides a moisturizer function, thereby reducing water loss.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS: Found in fish – wild salmon, mackerel, and also in nuts and oil oil, these essential fatty acids are required for cellular function, nutrient uptake, waste disposal and water retention.

OXYBENZONE (or Benzophenone): A chemical sunscreen that absorbs UVB. It is usually combined with UVA filters like Avobenzone to create broad spectrum protection.

PANTHENOL: Vitamin B that moisturizes the skin

PAPAIN: Extracted from the Papaya plant, this is an enzyme that is used in exfoliants, cleansers, scrubs and peels because of its gentle skin-dissolving qualities.

PARABENS: A preservative that is highly criticized because this group of compounds can act similar to estrogen. In skincare, the concentrations are very low, and are cleared by the TGA based on the low percentages which are classed as safe.

PETROLATUM: Derived from refined and purified petroleum, this thick compound coats the skin, providing protection against water loss. As such, it is used in moisturisers for dry skin only as it can be clogging for oily skin. 

PEPTIDES: Fragmented proteins, Peptides promote collagen formation and skin repair.

PHYTONUTRIENTS (or PHYTOCHEMICALS):  Found in fruits and vegetables, Phytonutrients reduce inflammation and free radical activity.

POMEGRANATE: This fruit extract improves skin moisture and also provides anti-oxidant protection, thereby reducing UV damage.

PROBIOTICS: Live bacteria that is included in skincare to improve the naturally occurring skin microbiome, thereby improving skin function, and reducing breakouts and irritation.

RESVERATROL: Extracted from grapes, this potent antioxidant works to reduce cellular damage.

RETINOIDS: a name given to all derivatives of Vitamin A

RETINOL: A derivative of Vitamin A that is well-researched with scientific backed studies to improve cellular turnover, increase collagen production and reduce pigmentation.

RETINYL PALMITATE: A weak derivative of Vitamin A

RETINALDEHYDE: Amongst the family of retinols, this is the weakest derivative of Vitamin A. Therefore it is less irritating than the much more potent forms.

SALICYCLIC ACID: A BHA that is excellent at reducing sebum and dead skin cells. It is usually found in Acne-based formulations due to its ability to reduce pore clogging and breakouts.

SERUM: Any skincare formulation that has high quality and potent ingredients that are used for the skin.

SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE (SLES): Often confused with SLS, this is a safe foaming agent found in body washes and shampoos.

SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE (SLS): A foaming detergent that is used to reduce oil and sebum levels in cleansers and shampoos. Often thought to be linked with disease, however no link has ever been found.

SOY: From the soybean plant, Soy is rich in proteins and vitamins and is a non-irritating skin brightener. 

STEARYL ALCOHOL: An ingredient that binds creams and other skincare together through its fat compound.

SQUALENE: Rich in fatty acids and antioxidants, this natural moisturiser is made by the skin, but diminishes with age. For skin-care purposes, it can also be derived from olives, rice bran, wheat germ, sugarcane, or palm trees.

SULFATES: A group of cleansing agents that create lather. They can be manufactured synthetically or extracted from coconut. Included in cleansers, body washes, and other bodycare formulations, sulfates can be drying to the skin. At present, sulfates are thought to be an environmental concern.

TITANIUM DIOXIDE: A mineral sunscreen that provides physical protection from both UVA and UVB rays

TRANEXAMIC ACID: derived from Lysine (an amino acid), Transexamic acid disrupts the pigmentation process, so it is often used in formulations made for melasma and hyperpigmentation.

VITAMIN C (ASCORBIC ACID, ASCORBYL PALMITATE, TETRAHEXYLDECYL ASCROBATE): A potent antioxidant that is essential for collagen production and pigment inhibition. The molecule can be unstable as it quickly wants to bind with free radicals, so it is often included with stabilizers

VITAMIN E (TOCOPHEROL): Included to rescue skin from dehydration

WATER: an ingredient that helps deliver other ingredients into the skin

ZINC OXIDE: A mineral sunscreen that provides physical protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Often used on its own or with Titanium dioxide.

Thanks for reading!

Written by Giulia D’Anna

BDSc (Melb), MRACDS, Graduate Diploma Dermal Therapies (AACDS), Cert. Practice Man (UNE) + | + 3 Belmore Road, Balwyn North, Victoria, Australia 3104 + | + Founder of iDental and Dermal Distinction

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