Knowledge is power and knowing one skincare ingredient from another can make deciphering what you need a whole lot easier.
Use this A-Z dictionary as a guide to some of the most efficacious and commonplace skincare ingredients out there. Once you’re up to speed, you can figure what works best for your specific skin type and plot your routine accordingly.
Be warned, packaging and marketing can be misleading. So cut through the jargon and check the ‘inkey list,’ the ingredients list on the back of the back. The higher your desired skincare ingredient is up the list, the higher percentage of it in the product.
A – AHA
Acids are categorised into three groups: alpha-hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, and polyhydroxy acids – each with their own superpowers. AHAs mainly work by nibbling away at surface level skin cells to reveal more glowy skin hiding underneath. They can be pretty intense, so, depending on the concentration of your product, it might be wise to limit your usage to once or twice a week. Read more on Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid below, two members of the AHA collective.
A – Azelaic Acid
Azelaic Acid is an often overlooked ingredient that’s super for combatting acne breakouts. But to label strictly as an acne treatment would be a great disservice to this multitasking ingredient. Azelaic Acid also treats rosacea, lightens dark spots, and removes dead skin cells. It’s gentle to use twice a day, in combination with other acids and retinol, and is safe for those who are pregnant.
B – BHA
The next category of skincare acids to get under the skin of are BHAs (Beta-Hydroxyl Acids). While AHAs work to exfoliate the top layers of skin, BHAs penetrate deep into pores, dissolving blackheads and clearing out congestion. As with any acids, follow product use directions, but the general always start slow, using only once or twice per week and gradually increasing frequency as your skin can tolerate it.
B – Bakuchiol
Firstly, let’s get the the pronunciation out of the way: ba-koo-heel. Bakuchiol is often heralded as a gentle alternative to popular skincare ingredient Retinol, which can trigger reactions in sensitive skin. A healing stalwart in Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines, Bakuchiol is derived from the babchi plant and. More recently, research has found Bakuchiol has yielded definite improvement in skin’s wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, and firmness. So while still in its infancy research-wise, it’s looking like Bakuchiol can be effective as retinol, without the irritation.
C – Vitamin C
Along with SPF and Retinol, skincare products containing Vitamin C are some of the most efficacious you can use. It neutralises skin-damaging free radicals, prevents and fades dark spots, and boosts collagen production. Bear in mind that there are multiple versions of Vitamin C and not all varieties are created equal. Pure Vitamin C is known as L-Ascorbic Acid, so keep an eye out for this in inkey lists to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
E – Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a bona fide work horse of a skincare ingredient. It fights against free-radial damage, hydrates and strengthens the skin barrier, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and assists in cell repair – healing sun damage, scars and burns. Because Vitamin E is oil soluble (meaning it can be delivered through or as an oil), look out for it in moisturisers, or pure Vitamin E oil. It’s also often found in serums alongside it’s free-radical fighting friend Vitamin C. Take note that while Vitamin E is a commonplace in many products, it can cause irritation for some people with super sensitive skin, so perhaps do a patch test before lavishly applying it from head to toe…
F – Ferulic Acid
From Vitamin C to Vitamin E, you’ll have gotten the gist now that antioxidants are essential if its healthy, radiant skin your after – and if you’re reading this let’s assume you are. Introducing the lesser known antioxidant Ferulic Acid. The benefits of Ferulic Acid are easily understood when you look into it’s origin as a phytochemical found in plants that’s integral to the plant’s ability preserve itself. Likewise, when used in skincare, Ferulic Acid protects the skin by promoting cell regeneration and repairing pre-existing free-radical damage.
G – Glycolic Acid
If the term ‘AHA’ wasn’t familiar to you, Glycolic Acid (an AHA) might ring a bell. No chiming for you just yet? Well, you might have seen or heard people raving about those ‘acid toner’ type products, like the cult-favourite Pixi Glow Tonic. Well, these products often contain Glycolic Acid and are so popular as it’s an exfoliation superstar. Most often found in toner form it’s also commonplace in cleansers, creams, and peels, and will sort out dull, lack-lustre complexions in a jiffy.
H – Hyaluronic Acid
Repeat after me (and Eva Longoria from those L’Oreal ads): high-al-lure-on-ick. Somewhat confusingly, Hyaluronic Acid is not an exfoliating ‘acid’ like AHAs/BHAs/PHAs. Rather it’s a large molecule found naturally in our bodies that holds onto moisture in between our skin cells. As an ingredient in skincare, it helps our skin to retain moisture, leaving our complexions plump and glowing. It’s not at all irritating, so you can use Hyaluronic Acid morning and evening, alongside other acids and Retinol, and when pregnant.
L – Lactic Acid
Back to those AHAs. Like Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid works to exfoliate the skin surface, but does so more gently. The acid increases skin turnover, stimulating the production of firmer, thicker skin, – reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. This makes it perfect for mature skin types but also anyone with sensitive or acne-prone skin who might find Glycolic Acid a little harsh.
M – Moringa Oil
Moringa Oil is not your average oil – it basically does it all for you, bar the the laundry. Moringa moisturisers, soothes inflammation, reduces fine lines, balances oil in the skin, combats breakout – and we’ll leave it there for the sake of brevity. You’ll find Moringa most often infused into skincare products (like serums, moisturisers or cleansers) that will leave your skin feeling nourished, not greasy, so it’s suitable for all skin types.
N – Niacinamide
Vitamin C often gets all the credit for being the holy grail brightening skincare ingredient. No shade to Vit C, as it really is glow-worthy of it’s praise, but let’s take a moment to acknowledge Vitamin B3, a.k.a Niacinamide. This is another dark horse that’s packed with brightening benefits and then some. It also hydrates, prevents signs of ageing, and reduces acne. It’s suitable for all skin types, can be used morning and night, and, unlike Vitamin C, alongside retinol,
P – PHA
We’ve covered AHA, the surface level exfoliation hero, BHA, the deep pore cleanser, and now let’s talk about the third, and lesser recognised, PHAs. These act in a similar way to AHAs, working on the epidermis to eat away at dead skin cells. However, unlike AHAs, PHAs are way less likely to irritate the skin, and in fact can work to strengthen the skin’s barrier function. Suitable for all skin types, but especially for those with oily or acne-prone skin.
R – Retinol
Retinol is derived from Vitamin A, and is much-lauded for it’s research-backed ability to stimulate the turnover of skin cells and increase collagen production. Great for anyone who wants to keep lines at bay, but thanks to its skin stimulating abilities those who are acne prone too. The percentage of Retinol varies depending on the product – start with the lowest strength available and introduce slowly on a twice weekly basis to your night time routine.
Want to really get under the skin of Retinol? We’ve a whole feature dedicated to this powerhouse skincare ingredient here; What is retinol?
S – Salicylic Acid
If you’ve acne or are prone to breakouts you’ll want to have Salicylic Acid in your skincare arsenal. Salicylic Acid is a BHA – those acids that dive deep into your pores to clear out congestion. What makes it brilliant for breakouts is that it’s also an anti-inflammatory, calming the appearance of irritated skin, and anti-bacterial, keeping those pesky breakouts at bay. You’ll find it in cleansers, moisturisers, and serums.
Z – Zinc
To finish this list out we’ll include a caveat: you don’t need every ingredient on this list, and in fact overuse of harsh products will do your skin more harm than good. Incorporating Zinc into your skincare routine can help to soothe and calm any irritations that do occur. Zinc is often found formulations alongside fellow soother Niacinamide, and is popular in spot treatments, helping to reduce redness.
Zinc Oxide is also a key ingredient in physical SPFs – where it works to deflect UVA and UVB rays. Which brings us to a nice conclusion, because *the* most important thing you can do for your skin is wear SPF – every. single. day!