The Skin-Care Glossary: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything You Need to Know


How to decode every single ingredient label and treatment menu.

Bookmark this page. Seriously, do it now. We know (probably better than anyone) just how vast and complex the beauty landscape can be, especially the shifting terrain of the skin realm. To better help you navigate, we’ve updated our already extensive collection of complexion-relevant terms with nearly 100 new definitions, covering everything from ingestibles to injectables, wonders both natural and lab-made, nagging skin conditions, and the popular tools pros use to improve them.

So, the next time you’re stumped by an ingredient label (What the heck is Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate and why do I want it near my face?), or perplexed by a procedure on your dermatologist’s ever-evolving treatment menu (RF? LED? IPL? PRP?), enlightenment will be but a click away.

A palm tree, native to Central and South America, known for its deep purple berries. The fruit extract is used as a potent antioxidant in skin-care products and supplements.

A colorless, strong-smelling solvent found in many nail-polish removers, it works by softening and dissolving the polymer molecules in polishes, gels, and acrylics. Because it’s drying to the nails and skin, many removers containing it are also spiked with moisturizers, like glycerin.

Having a pH (“potential hydrogen”) less than 7. The skin’s barrier, or acid mantle, is naturally slightly acidic, with a pH hovering around 4.5 to 5.5. When it drops out of range, skin becomes prone to breakouts and irritation.

Long used in emergency rooms to treat alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses, this form of carbon — found in cleansers, masks, toothpastes, health drinks — has been specially treated to increase its absorbency, allowing it to sponge up dirt and oil from pores (or toxins from the stomach when taken internally).


Present in all living organisms, this molecule plays a critical role in regulating blood flow and providing cells with usable energy. When applied topically, the ingredient can smooth and firm the skin, repair sun damage, and relax wrinkles.

Used as a thickener in makeup, skin-care products, and shampoo, this gelatinous, algae-derived sugar molecule also has mild antioxidant benefits.

Undrinkable ethyl alcohol has many uses in skin care. It delivers other ingredients into the skin and drives them deeper down. In toners and acne products, it can help dissolve oil and temporarily tighten pores. When added to certain moisturizers, like gel-based lotions, it makes them less tacky and helps them dry down faster on the face.

This soothing, water-absorbing algae extract is commonly added to thicken hair- and skin-care products and to help makeup glide on smoothly. It’s also found in the filmy coating created by some face masks and peels.

A blend of naturally sourced, sustainably produced algae extracts developed and trademarked for the Algenist line, it claims to minimize wrinkles while firming and brightening the skin.

Having a pH (“potential hydrogen”) greater than 7. Alkaline substances are also known as “basic” — the opposite of acidic. When skin is too alkaline — as a result of eating the wrong foods or using the wrong products — it gets dry, irritated, inflamed, and more prone to wrinkling.

Known for its soothing properties, this chemical moisturizes and encourages cell turnover.

With the same pH as skin, this extract is extremely soothing. It’s also an effective healing agent.

These chemicals loosen the fluid that binds surface skin cells together, allowing dead ones to be whisked away. This “glue” becomes denser as we age, slowing down the natural cell-turnover process that reveals younger skin — making AHAs a particularly useful ingredient in fine line-fighting creams and cleansers.

This fatty acid found in all cells in the body contributes to skin’s smoothness. It dissolves in both fat and water, enabling it to penetrate well into all parts of skin cells.

The building blocks of the proteins that make up collagen and elastin — substances that give the skin its structural support. Aging and a combination of external factors (including UV light and environmental toxins) reduce the level of amino acids in the body; creams containing amino acids may help restore them.

A class of flavonoids, these red, blue, and violet plant pigments are thought to protect against inflammatory diseases and free-radical damage. The most recent data suggests they may help slow skin aging by curbing UV-induced skin damage.

Any ingredient that reduces free-radical damage to the skin.

Extracted from the bearberry plant, this complexion-brightening antioxidant is known as a natural (and milder) alternative to skin-bleaching hydroquinone. Arbutin works by directly inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase enzymes central to the production of melanin.

This fast-absorbing, vitamin E-rich extract has become a darling of the beauty aisle for its ability to moisturize without clogging pores, reduce the appearance of fine lines, smooth hair, and strengthen nails.


A critical building block of skin collagen and hair keratin, synthetic versions of this wound-healing amino acid are found in fine line-fighting topicals (as well as sports drinks and oral supplements).

This peptide is marketed as “Botox in a cream” because of its apparent ability to temporarily prevent tensing of facial muscles.

A medicinal herb with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, its inherent flavonoids can help strengthen blood vessels to reduce leakage. Applied topically (as a gel or ointment) or taken orally (in low-dose homeopathic tablet form), it’s been shown to help reduce the bruising and swelling associated with certain surgeries and cosmetic injections.

Also known as l-ascorbic acid, this topical form of antioxidant vitamin C brightens the skin, increases collagen production, and stems free-radical damage, making it a popular ingredient

A naturally occurring carotenoid (yellow, orange, or red pigment), originally isolated from lobsters, but also found in other crustaceans and certain fish, like salmon. Studies have shown that long-term supplementation with astaxanthin may help slow skin aging via its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Also known as colloidal oatmeal, the anti-inflammatory antioxidant is commonly used in skin care to quell dryness, itch, and irritation.

A chemical found in sunscreens, it absorbs UVA rays to reduce their penetration into the skin, but does not protect against UVB rays.

It’s a natural component of wheat, barley, rye, and the yeast normally living on human skin. Used in topical rosacea and acne treatments, synthetic versions help kill bacteria living in pores while reducing inflammation. It’s also used to lighten melasma patches and other hyperpigmented areas.

A staple in at-home waxing kits, this blue oil is derived from chamomile and revered for its soothing properties.



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A human-like epidermal growth factor (EGF) produced in bioengineered barley seeds, and used in skin-repairing products from Bioeffect and DNAEGF Renewal. The barley-made protein is a messenger molecule said to have the same amino acid sequence and 3-D structure as human EGF, so it can detect and bind to EGF receptors on human skin cells, ordering them to grow, divide, and rejuvenate.

Sometimes referred to as Montmorillonite, this absorbent clay is derived, most often, from weathered volcanic ash. Rich in antibacterial minerals, it’s commonly used in “purifying” or “detoxifying” cleansers and masks, as it pulls pollutants, sebum, and grime from pores.

An acne medicine that kills pimple-causing bacteria and exfoliates pores. It can be found in concentrations up to 10 percent in over-the-counter products.

A red-orange pigment found in certain fruits and vegetables, it’s a precursor to vitamin A (retinol); upon ingestion, the body converts beta carotene into antioxidant vitamin A, which helps maintain skin and eye health. It’s essential for normal cell growth and turnover, and may help improve the skin’s tone and texture.

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.

These chemical exfoliants can smooth fine lines, even pigmentation, and penetrate deeply into pores, dissolving sticky plugs of sebum and dead skin. One of the most common BHAs, salicylic acid, is found in many acne washes, creams, and peels.

A popular sheet-mask material, this biodegradable, bacteria-derived fiber is known for its unparalleled moisture retention and snug fit, both of which help drive active ingredients into the skin.


Products like, poly-L-lactic acid (brand name: Sculptra) and calcium hydroxylapatite (Radiesse), which volumize skin by gradually stimulating collagen production.


Small amounts of this B vitamin are found in carrots, almonds, milk, and other foods. Aside from helping the body process fats and sugars, oral biotin is important for regulating hair and nail growth. Shampoos and conditioners containing it claim the ingredient reduces hair breakage and increases elasticity.


This floral-scented chamomile extract has been used topically as a moisturizer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial for centuries.

A skin blemish that forms when the sebum (oil) draining from a pore becomes blocked by a clump of dead skin cells. Its color results from the sebum’s pigment, which darkens when exposed to air.

The trademark name for one of the forms of botulinum toxin used in injections targeting facial wrinkles. Botox paralyzes facial muscles, such as those that cause frown lines, in order to soften wrinkles.

A term for sunscreens proven to defend against both UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) radiation. Passing the FDA’s broad-spectrum test shows that a product provides UVA protection that is proportional to its UVB protection. “Scientific data demonstrated that products that are ‘Broad Spectrum SPF 15 [or higher]’ have been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when used with other sun protection measures, in addition to helping prevent sunburn,” states the FDA website.

An anti-inflammatory enzyme culled from the stem or fruit of the pineapple plant. Some aesthetic doctors recommend eating fresh pineapple or taking homeopathic bromelain supplements in the days before and after cosmetic injections to minimize bruising and swelling.

A non-invasive body shaping device that uses radiofrequency energy to heat and destroy fat cells, thereby reducing the circumference of the abdominal area, or inner and outer thighs.

A form of alcohol that draws water from the air, making it a lightweight moisturizing agent. The ingredient is commonly found in makeup removers as a solvent — as well as in makeup, where it thins formulas, helping them glide on more easily.


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Produced in the leaves and seeds of various plants, it can also be made in a lab. Commonly used in cellulite creams and eye creams, it constricts blood vessels, reducing redness and puffiness.

Used to treat itching and minor skin irritations, this pink liquid is a mixture of zinc oxide and ferric oxide.

One of over 80 compounds called cannabinoids extracted from the cannabis sativa plant. The oil is used in beauty products mainly for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and moisturizing properties. It cannot produce a high.

Also called L-carnitine, this amino acid helps convert fat into energy when naturally present in the human body. In the skin-care aisle, the ingredient is often found in cellulite and eye creams. Though there’s little clinical data supporting its long-term effectiveness, its anti-inflammatory activity can temporarily smooth puckering and puffiness.

This naturally occurring amino-acid pairing quells damaging inflammation, glycation, and free-radical activity, and levels of it in our bodies decline with age. Some research indicates that oral supplements and topical creams containing it can stave off premature wrinkling, collagen breakdown, and thinning of the skin.

A protein found in mammalian milk that may contribute to acne in certain people.

A broad term referring to the way cells send information using proteins and other signaling molecules — and receive information from inside or outside the body via receptor sites located on cell membranes. Increasing numbers of skin creams contain ingredients, like retinol, carnosine, and peptides, claiming to bind to receptor sites and encourage cells to behave like younger, healthier versions of themselves.

The only FDA-cleared nonsurgical procedure clinically proven to improve the appearance of cellulite on the thighs and buttocks for at least three years. The derm-office device uses an automated needle-like blade to sever and release the individual connective bands (septa) woven throughout fat, smoothing puckered skin in a matter of days. Divots are treated one at a time, following an injection numbing lidocaine.

Affecting up to 90 percent of women (due to estrogen and genetics), cellulite occurs when fat cells swell and push through the tight, fibrous tissue bands (or septa) walling them in, creating a dimpled or lumpy appearance. Only about 10 percent of men suffer cellulite, as their septa is constructed differently, and better able to contain fat cells to prevent bulging.



Naturally occurring in sebum (skin’s oil), these fats hold together the cells of the epidermis to reinforce the skin’s protective barrier.


Fatty alcohols that stabilize creams and cleansers and create a silky feeling.


A popular ingredient in cleansers and creams for sensitive skin, this moisturizing botanical is known for calming inflammation while combating free-radical damage.

One of the three main lipids (or fat molecules) comprising the skin barrier, it helps prevent water loss to keep skin moisturized and functioning properly.

Found in many fruits, the antioxidant alpha hydroxy acid acts as a natural preservative. When used in peels, masks, and washes, it brightens and exfoliates the upper layers of the skin, encouraging new collagen formation.

This gentle fractional laser creates microscopic holes in the skin, leaving surrounding areas untouched, to spark the body’s natural healing process, thereby triggering new collagen growth and promoting cell turnover for a more even tone and texture with little to no downtime. A series of treatments (four to six) is generally needed for best results.

Levels of this antioxidant in the skin decline with age and UV exposure. CoQ10 is added to fine line-fighting products to preserve skin-cell function and improve skin texture.

A strong antioxidant, this plant extract is an expensive, patented ingredient that is not widely available (you’ll find it in Priori Skincare and RevaléSkin).

This protein makes up 80 percent of the skin, and its fibers give skin its firmness and strength. Collagen naturally breaks down over time, but certain ingredients, such as retinol and peptides (including Matrixyl), can stimulate new collagen production. The most abundant protein in the human body, it makes skin thick, strong, and smooth. Laser treatments and retinoids build it up; UV rays and free radicals tear it down.

A broad term for a pore, or hair follicle, that’s blocked by sticky dead skin cells and the sebum that can’t drain properly. When the follicle remains open, the sebum’s pigment darkens from air exposure, forming a blackhead. When P. Acnes bacteria invade the clogged pore, the resulting inflammation creates a whitehead.

Invented by Harvard dermatologists, Dieter Manstein and R. Rox Anderson, CoolSculpting is a nonsurgical fat-reduction treatment that uses extreme cold to permanently kill fat cells (i.e. the science of cryolipolysis). Crystalized fat cells are naturally metabolized and eliminated by the body over the course of several weeks.

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Found in many fine line-fighting formulas, these amino acids help to heal wounds, protect collagen from free-radical injury, soothe inflammation, and promote new collagen formation.

This severe, potentially scarring form of acne develops when a plug of dead skin cells, sebum, and P. Acnes bacteria lodges deep inside a pore, creating a tender, pus-filled bump that sometimes ruptures the pore wall, spreading to surrounding tissue.



Ideal for sensitive skin, this mild, coconut-derived surfactant is typically found in cleansers and shampoos from green beauty brands.


An over-the-counter, full-face acne treatment containing the retinoid adapalene 0.1 percent, it normalizes cell turnover to minimize pore-clogging and fights inflammation.


A natural carbohydrate, DHA is the active ingredient in most sunless tanners.


A slippery form of silicone that hydrates and protects the skin; often found in oil-free moisturizers.

Shorthand for dimethylaminoethanol, it’s produced by the human brain and found in sardines and other small fish. While the research is mixed, oral and topical forms claim to protect skin-cell membranes from free-radical damage, while firming, smoothing and brightening the complexion.

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Proven to correct the UV-induced DNA damage underlying wrinkles, brown spots, and skin cancer, these liposomally encapsulated marine extracts break the abnormal bonds forged by UV light, causing atoms in our DNA to resume their normal positions. In a study published in The Lancet in 2001, 30 subjects with a rare genetic disorder predisposing them to skin cancer applied a lotion with DNA repair enzymes daily for one year. At the trial’s end, they saw a 68 percent reduction in the development of precancerous lesions, and 30 percent fewer basal cell carcinomas.


The Korean ritual of using a cleansing oil in tandem with a water-based face wash to thoroughly dissolve and remove oil-based makeup, sunscreen, and pollutants.


Like Botox, another injectable form of botulinum toxin that combats wrinkles by paralyzing underlying muscles.



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