The average woman applies a dozen products, containing a total of 168 different ingredients, every day. It’s also a reality that the personal-care industry including cosmetics remains largely unregulated; and that’s why it’s important to know exactly what you are applying, and what it does for you. Experts also say that only a fraction of what is applied topically is actually absorbed. Then there are some ingredients that tend to spark more skin sensitivity in some people such as parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and formaldehyde. It is best to understand what’s in the product you are using to enable to make better choices and avoid products that can potentially harm your skin.
Know your skin and recognise if something isn’t working for you. That knowledge starts with what exactly is in your skin-care products. Here’s a glossary of popular words and ingredients:
Allantoin This plant compound is known as a skin soother because of its healing properties; you’ll often find it added to products in order to calm the complexion and lessen irritation.
Alpha-tocopherol It simply means vitamin E. The nourishing vitamin is an antioxidant that neutralizes damaging free radicals.
Alpha hydroxy acid AHAs are found in fruits, milk, and sugarcane. Specifically, these are glycolic, lactic, and citric acid. AHAs work by breaking apart the glue that holds dead skin cells together to speed exfoliation.
Alpha lipoic acid An antioxidant that protects against free radical damage that ages skin, it repairs damage to smooth lines and improve tone. It has been dubbed “the miracle in a jar.” It has an antioxidant capacity 40,000 percent stronger than vitamins E and C combined.
Amino acid The building blocks of proteins like collagen, some of which help prevent lines and wrinkles from forming, and bolster skin elasticity.
Arbutin From the bearberry plant, the hydroquinone derivative is used as a skin brightener.
Ascorbic acid Commonly known as vitamin C. It appears in many anti-aging formulations as a skin protective and repairing antioxidant; it’s also used as a preservative to protect certain cosmetic products from degrading.
Avobenzone Flip over the bottle of sunscreen and you might find this chemical ingredient. It protects by absorbing UVA rays which contributes to both skin aging and skin cancer.
Avocado oil One of the buzziest ingredients of the moment, avocado’s fatty acids are packed with skin-nourishing vitamins like A, D, and E.
Azelaic acid Kills acne-causing bacteria when added to pimple creams; reduces redness and soothes skin when found in gels and foams that treat rosacea.
Benzophenone Another common chemical UVA-absorbing sunscreen agent. This group includes dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, and sulisobenzone. Some people may find that chemical-based sunscreens are irritating to sensitive complexions, particularly those with benzophenones.
Benzoyl peroxide Used in topical acne washes and creams, BP kills the bacteria that lead to breakouts and reduces inflammation. Warning: It’ll bleach your clothes and towels.
Beta hydroxy acid BHAs exfoliate dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Unlike alpha hydroxy acids, BHAs are oil-soluble and can penetrate deeper inside the pores and exfoliate all the dead skin built up inside. An example is salicylic acid.
Caffeine It is a plant compound that nourishes skin and is a common ingredient in under-eye creams and gels because of its anti-inflammatory effects; it decreases puffiness and constricts blood vessels to reduce dark circles.
Camellia sinensis leaf extract Simply put, this is green tea leaf extract. Added as an antioxidant, hydrator, and fragrance.
Colloidal oatmeal Made from oats that have been ground into powder and used in sensitive skin products, these soothe by building skin’s barrier to keep out irritants, and they have anti-inflammatory properties.
Diethanolamine DEA for short, it acts as an emulsifier, foaming agent, or pH controller. It has been said that DEA and related ingredients are a high concern for toxicity, although it is also said that DEA does not appear to pose a risk to people when they’re used in cosmetics.
Dimethicone Derived from silicon (a naturally occurring element), dimethicone is a moisturizing ingredient that locks water into skin. It’s found in creams, lotions, and soaps.
Ethyl alcohol Also known as alcohol, it’s found in a range of skin-care products as an astringent or is used to improve the quality of the finished solution, for example its texture or thickness.
Fatty acids These are listed under several names in the ingredients list: glycerides, sterols, phospholipids, omega 3, and omega 6. They prevent water loss from skin, so they’re added to moisturizers. They also thicken product formulations as well.
Ferulic acid This is an antioxidant derived from rice bran; you’ll find this added to anti-aging serums, moisturizers, and youth-boosting treatments.
Formaldehyde Listed as imidazolidinyl urea or DMDM hydantoin, these ingredients are preservatives. They release formaldehyde over time to prevent mold and bacteria from growing in and spoiling your products. When used within advised limits, these ingredients are safe, however they are also flagged as a potential cancer risk by experts.
Fragrance A variety of chemicals give products their scent. In some people, they may cause irritation. Those with sensitive skin or conditions like rosacea are advised to choose fragrance-free products.
Glycerin As a sugar alcohol, glycerin draws moisture from the surrounding environment and pulls it into skin. Because of its role as a top-notch hydrator, it is the second most used ingredient used in personal care products.
Glycyrrhiza glabra This is the proper name for licorice. Licorice root extract may be used in products that target pigment problems. It’s also used as a skin-soothing ingredient.
Hyaluronic acid A sugar molecule that exists naturally in your body. The anti-aging moisturizer and skin plumper absorbs up to 1,000 times its weight in water. It also may be listed as sodium hyaluronate or postassium hyaluronate.
Hydroquinone A skin-lightening ingredient that inhibits tyrosine, an enzyme involved in melanin production is used to fade conditions like melasma, as well as bleach hyperpigmentation.
Kojic acid An alternative to hydroquinone, the fungus-based brightener targets discolorations by inhibiting pigment production.
Lactic acid It is listed in the category of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), and it may also appear as “lactate” (as in calcium lactate or sodium lactate). It’s often found in anti-aging products because it exfoliates to boost brightness and even out tone, and draws water into skin to hydrate.
Lanolin A waxy substance secreted by sheep, this fatty ingredient is highly moisturizing.
Lycopene A skin protecting and repairing antioxidant that is most famously found in tomatoes.
Manuka honey A buzzworthy ingredient, this honey native to Australia and New Zealand seals moisture into skin. It’s also known as an antibacterial and antifungal agent.
Methylpropanediol A long name for a basic function; this is included in skin-care products as a solvent.
Mineral water All water contains minerals, which vary depending on the source of the water, but the mineral makeup matters. Mineral water found in facial mist contains selenium, which can provide anti-inflammatory benefits that help calm, soothe, and hydrate angry skin. Mineral water may be especially useful if you have skin sensitivity or facial conditions like rosacea.
Pantothenic acid Vitamin B5 strengthens skin’s barrier to stop water loss, and is commonly found in lotions, creams, and serums.
Paraben A family of chemicals that are used as preservatives. Multiple types are typically formulated into the product; methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben. Parabens can be irritating to some complexions. The larger concern is that parabens are dangerous and may be endocrine disruptors. But there is no information showing that parabens in skin-care and cosmetics are hazardous to health.
Peptides These are chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Your skin is made up of proteins, like collagen, and peptides stimulate this collagen production. Peptides are prominent in anti-aging products.
Petrolatum This is your standard petroleum jelly. The thick, sticky substance forms a barrier on skin that locks in moisture. Use it to promote healing and treat chapped lips and flaky eyelids.
Phthalates These chemicals — particularly diethyl phthalate (DEP) — are another controversial ingredient. In cosmetics, DEP is used as a solvent in fragrance, and it has been flagged as endocrine disruptors and linked to cancer, but there is no established health risk from exposure to phthalates.
Retinoids These are a derivative of vitamin A and are used in anti-aging and anti-acne skin products. These, like tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene, help enhance collagen production and are available by prescription or in over-the-counter preparations. When it comes to acne, retinoids keep pores clear and reduce inflammation.
Retinol An over-the-counter vitamin A derivative, retinol is a weaker form of retinoid. You might see this listed on the package as retinyl palmitate or retinaldehyde.
Rhamnose This plant-derived, specialized sugar molecule acts as a messenger to help stimulate cellular activity in the skin. The result is revved-up collagen and elastin production, which in turn thickens the skin’s foundation and combats crepiness, wrinkles, and fine lines. Vichy’s LiftActiv is an example of one skin-care line tapping into the potential superpowers of this ingredient.
Rosmarinus officinalis An extract from rosemary, the botanical offers antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Salicylic acid SA, derived from willow bark, helps slough off dead skin cells that may clog pores, which is why it’s often found in anti-acne products., SA can be found in stronger versions that “soften and loosen” dry, built-up skin that contributes to calluses and corns on feet.
Silica A mineral that’s a component of sand, silica is added to make mixtures thick and to make them absorbent.
Sodium benzoate Used as a preservative and in fragrance formulations. Also known as benzoic acid.
Sodium lauryl sulfate A foaming and emulsifying ingredient commonly found in soaps and cleansers. Aside from a risk of irritation, sulfates rank low on the hazard scale.
Squalene It is found in the oils naturally present in your skin; it’s added to products (this time, derived from plants) to fortify the skin’s barrier, which keeps moisture in and locks potential irritants out.
Sulfur A chemical element, sulfur addresses acne (from red, angry zits to black and whiteheads) by targeting pimple-producing bacteria, exfoliating skin cells that plug pores, and controlling oil.
Titanium dioxide Commonly found in Commonly found in mineral sunscreens, titanium dioxide works to reflect, scatter, and absorb UVA and UVB rays.
Water You will find water as a main ingredient in most skin-care products. It’s a solvent for active ingredients and, when mixed with oil, provides the silky texture of skin creams.
Zinc oxide Like titanium dioxide, this is another sunscreen ingredient that physically blocks UV light. Mineral sunscreen ingredients are usually gentler on skin, so they’re well suited for sensitive complexions and are often found in sunscreens formulated for babies.