What goes on your body is just as important as what goes inside of it. But understanding the perplexing jargon and scientific-sounding cosmetic ingredients can sometimes be confusing, especially since a scary-sounding ingredient can actually be a health-boosting vitamin, mineral or compound and not a toxic chemical. You shouldn’t have to be a master chemist to sort out the harmful from the benign or what’s marketing trickery from the real deal. So, here’s an A to Z cheat sheet to all of the tricky cosmetic ingredient terms on the labels of your favorite beauty products.
Acetone: A colorless, liquid solvent used to dissolve nail polish, paint or glue. It can be very drying to nails and cuticles.
Alcohol: SD alcohol or ethyl alcohol is an undrinkable alcohol used in skincare. It helps transport other ingredients deeper into skin. It can also be used to tighten pores and dissolve oil.
Alguronic Acid: A proprietary blend of algae extracts that’s used to minimize wrinkles and firm skin.
Allantoin: Allantoin is a natural compound that can be found in animals and plants. It has the ability to regenerate skin cells and is used for its therapeutic and soothing properties to moisturize and heal skin.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): AHAs refer to a group of naturally occurring acids, like glycolic, lactic, citric or mandelic, that loosen the fluid that binds surface skin cells together, allowing dead surface cells to be easily removed. These exfoliating acids have been found to be effective at unclogging pores, removing blackheads, brightening dull skin and minimizing wrinkles.
Amino Acids: These are the building blocks of the proteins that make up collagen and elastin. Creams and lotions containing amino acids may help restore loss to skin’s structural support.
Anti-Aging: Anti-aging products or ingredients claim to combat the ravages of time with preventative or curative measures.
Antioxidants: Antioxidants are ingredients such as vitamin C and E that counteract the skin-damaging effects of oxidizing agents (aka free radicals).
Arginine: It’s a basic amino acid found in collagen and hair keratin. It’s often found in anti-aging products and supplements.
Ascorbic Acid (aka L-Ascorbic Acid): Ascorbic acid is a topical form of vitamin C. It’s used to counteract free radicals, brighten complexions and pump up collagen.
Avobenzone: A chemical compound used in sunscreens to absorb UVA rays. It does not protect skin against UVB rays, however.
Azelaic Acid: Azelaic acid, an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent, helps regulate the production of keratinocytes (skin cells) so they won’t build up and clog your pores, causing acne. It also helps fade dark spots, minimize redness and smooth out uneven complexions.
Benzoyl Peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide is an acne medication that is used to destroy pimple-causing bacteria and unclog pores.
Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA): BHAs are chemical exfoliators that penetrate deeply into skin. They’re used to minimize wrinkles, whisk away dead skin cells and unplug pores. Salicylic acid is a type of BHA.
Ceramides: Ceramides are fatty substances and the glue that holds skin cells together. They help reinforce skin’s protective barrier.
Coenzyme Q10: It is an antioxidant used in skincare products to improve skin texture and maintain cell functions.
Dimethicone: A hydrating silicone that is often employed for its slippery and protective properties.
Fragrance–Free: If a product is labeled as being fragrance-free it just means that no fragrances have been added to the product; it doesn’t mean that the product won’t have a scent (it just won’t have anything added to it to mask it).
Free Radicals: Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause cellular damage to your body.
Glycerin: Glycerin is an inexpensive humectant used to moisturize skin.
Glycolic Acid: It is an alpha hydroxy acid derived from sugarcane. It is great for exfoliation and evening out skin texture.
Humectants: They are hydrating ingredients that draw moisture from the air to your skin.
Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic acid is a viscous substance that increases skin’s moisture content, plumps it up and prevents water loss.
Hydroquinone (HQ): HQ inhibits melanin production to lighten dark spots and areas of hyperpigmentation.
Hypoallergenic: Hypoallergenic products are great for sensitive skin types. They are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction due to the small amount of irritants contained in the formula.
Idebenone: It is a synthetic antioxidant compound that is used to minimize inflammation and UV damage to skin cells that can cause wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.
Kojic Acid: Kojic acid inhibits melanin production. It is considered to be gentler to skin than hydroquinone for clearing up dark spots and evening out skin tone.
Lactic Acid: Lactic acid is a gentle exfoliator. It is an alpha hydroxy acid that is derived from fermented milk.
Lycopene: It is an antioxidant commonly found in tomatoes and watermelon, used to protect skin from sun damage.
Mandelic Acid: Mandelic acid is a gentle, oil soluble AHA that is often utilized to combat acne and hyperpigmentation problems.
MMPi.20: Inhibits the formation of enzymes that break down collagen and harm skin.
Natural: Natural is an unregulated term in the beauty industry often used for marketing purposes. Usually, it means that some natural ingredients have been used in the product’s formulation, but a product can be labeled as natural and contain up to 30 percent synthetic ingredients.
Non-Acetone: Non-acetone polish removers contain ethyl acetate or nethyl ethyl keytone. They are gentler to your nails than acetone polish removers. In general, however, they are relatively less efficient at removing polish in manner and ease.
Noncomedogenic: A skincare product containing ingredients that won’t block your pores.
Nontoxic: A product that is generally safe and not hazardous to your health.
Organic: Organic means a product or ingredient has been grown and processed in an ecologically-friendly manner with no pesticides or fertilizers, no toxic chemicals and no genetically-modified organisms. To be certified as organic by the USDA, a cosmetic or skincare product must contain a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients and be free from harmful chemicals (like silicones, phthalates, etc.) as well as non-organic and GMO additives.
Panthenol: A B vitamin that is used to strengthen hair and skin.
Parabens: Parabens are chemical preservatives used to prevent bacteria growth in cosmetics, skincare products, toothpaste and more. They can interfere with the body’s hormones and are suspected of being carcinogenic. Common parabens are butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben and alkyl hydroxy benzoate.
Peptides: Peptides are amino acid chains that form certain proteins that help repair and strengthen skin.
Phloretin: Phloretin is a chemical found in apples. It’s used to minimize sun damage.
Phthalates: They are chemical compounds used in plastics to make them flexible and in beauty products (such as perfumes, hairsprays, shampoos and deodorants) are used as lubricants. Phthalates have been found to be hormone disruptors and can affect our growth, metabolism and fertility.
Retinol: Retinol is a potent vitamin A molecule that is used in anti-aging products. Often touted as a holy grail ingredient, it minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, diminishes hyperpigmentation and boosts collagen production. It can also be irritating to sensitive skin.
Salicylic Acid: Salicylic acid is a BHA that is used as an exfoliant to unplug clogged pores and whisk away dead surface skin cells.
Sulfate-Free: Sulfates are harsh detergents comprised of mineral salts, such as sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. Beauty products that don’t contain sulfates will not lather and are generally viewed as being gentler to your hair and skin.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF): SPF is the percentage of UVB rays, not UVA rays, that a sunscreen blocks. SPF 15 guards against 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 protects against 97 percent and SPF 50 guards against 98 percent of UVB rays.
Titanium Dioxide: Titanium dioxide is a white mineral compound that is often utilized as a physical blocking component in sunscreen.
Unscented: Products marked with the unscented tag usually have a fragrance additive to mask any discernible smells.
UVA/UVB: UVA and UVB rays are different frequencies of ultraviolet rays that cause photodamage to skin. UVB are the short ultraviolet waves that cause damage to the superficial layers of your skin — mainly sunburn. UVA rays are long-wave rays that penetrate deeper into skin, breaking down collagen and elastin, causing premature aging.