So, you wanna build a skin-care routine? Well, that probably seemed like a great idea about 800 Google searches ago—and then you realized that learning about skincare is a little more like learning a whole new language (or going back to Bio 101) and a little less chill pampering than you’d hoped.
That’s what we’re here for. In addition to our comprehensive skin-care guide, we built this cheat sheet of skin-care terms that will help you parse everything from your favorite blogger’s haul posts to the back of your sunscreen bottle. We’ve sorted the terms in alphabetical order. If there’s anything you think we’ve left out, reach out to us at [email protected] to let us know, and we’ll do our best to update this post as it makes sense.
Acne: The root of all acne is a pore clogged with dirt, dead skin cells, and sebum. Beyond that, there are many ways acne may manifest, such as whiteheads (also called closed comedones), blackheads (also called open comedones), and cystic acne (occurring more buried in the skin). If the acne is inflamed—red, painful, swollen—that’s a sign that bacteria are also involved.
Active ingredient: In general, an active ingredient is an ingredient in a skin-care product that’s doing the thing you want the product to do. In an acne cleanser, the active ingredient may be something like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. But, depending on the way the claims are worded on the packaging, the holds may or may not be called out in a drug facts box, and the product may or may not be considered a drug rather than a cosmetic.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): A type of chemical exfoliant (see below), AHAs loosen the bonds that hold skin cells together, which allows them to be easily swept away, revealing new skin cells underneath. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two popular types of AHAs.
Antioxidant: Ingredients that can help neutralize free radicals (highly reactive molecules in the environment). When the balance of free radicals and antioxidants in the skin is out of whack, free radicals can cause damage, possibly resulting in premature aging of the skin.
Ascorbic acid: See “Vitamin C.”
Azelaic acid: A type of acid synthesized by yeast, barley, and wheat that’s believed to have a gentle exfoliating effect. Research has shown that it’s effective at managing both acne and acne-like bumps that are a common symptom of rosacea. Azelaic acid comes in prescription and over-the-counter forms.
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): A type of chemical exfoliant (see below), BHAs loosen the bind that hold skin cells together, allowing them to be easily swept away, revealing new skin cells underneath. Salicylic acid is a well-known type of BHA.
Benzoyl peroxide: An active ingredient against acne, benzoyl peroxide can kill the type of bacteria that’s often responsible for inflamed acne. Benzoyl peroxide can also irritate or dry out skin, so it’s essential also to use a moisturizer when you’re using it.
Broad-spectrum: A label applied to sunscreens that offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays, both of which contribute to your risk for skin cancer.
Chemical exfoliant: Chemical exfoliants are the gentler cousins of physical exfoliants. Where physical exfoliants manually scrub or brush off dead skin cells, chemical exfoliants (ingredients like lactic acid, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid) break the bonds between those dead skin cells so that they are easily washed away.
Disease In skin, it’s crucial for keeping the face looking firm and plump. But collagen production in our bodies slows down as we age, and exposure to UV radiation degrades collagen as well. That’s why collagen—and products that claim to boost the production of collagen—have become such popular skin-care ingredients in recent years. However, collagen is too big of a molecule to make it through to the deeper layers of the skin when applied topically. And eating or drinking collagen supplements hasn’t been proven to help much. The most helpful thing you can do for your collagen is to wear sunscreen to prevent the loss of what you already have.
Comedones: Clogged pores. They may be open (blackheads) or closed (whiteheads). For more, see “Acne.”
Contact dermatitis: A condition that causes stinging, redness, burning, flaking, or scaling after coming into contact with something, often a makeup or skin-care product. The reaction can be related to either an irritant or an allergy.
Detox: The concept of removing toxins from your body. Some skin-care products claim they can “detox” you, but that’s not really how it works. In reality, detox products generally just remove dead skin cells and excess oil.
Double cleansing: A technique that involves using two cleansers—an oil-based cleanser first followed by a typical foaming or water-based cleanser—to more effectively remove heavy makeup, sunscreen, or oil.
Eczema: A skin condition that causes itchy, bumpy rashes in infants and children. In adults, the disease can also lead to patches of thickened and dehydrated skin. The term atopic dermatitis is often used interchangeably with inflammation, but atopic dermatitis is just one form of eczema.
Emollient: Moisturizing ingredients that can penetrate the spaces between skin cells, which leaves the skin feeling softer and smoother. Face oils—such as squalene oil, argan oil, and jojoba oil—generally act as emollients and occlusives.