Your Definitive Guide to Vitamins, Acids and Extracts.
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I love embarking on a skincare ingredient deep dive, getting to the core of what an ingredient is, where it comes from and, most importantly, what visible results it can deliver for our skin.
That said, it’s been brought to my attention that perhaps a glossary of sorts would be of benefit to skincare newcomers and aficionados alike- an index to be scanned and referenced when needed, a place in which to dip the toes ahead of the deep dive.
Let this glossary be your skincare ingredient index. Below, you’ll find an edit of the skincare industry’s most used (and your most commonly queried) ingredients. Consider this your top level look at the beauty industry buzzwords that have joined our lexicon of late, helping you decode in simple terms which ingredients are right for your skin- and the changes you wish to see in it!
Consider Vitamin A a bit of a skincare ingredient umbrella. Why? Because Vitamin A is a whole group of organic compounds including retinol, retinoids, retinal and retinoic acid. Each of these vitamin A derivatives has similar benefits for the skin, however they work in slightly different ways and in different efficacies/at different strengths. For example, retinols are actually a subtype of retinoids.
Generally speaking, Vitamin A works to accelerate the skin’s natural rate of cell division and turnover which, in turn, means it can help to lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, even out pigmentation, balance acne prone skin and refine the appearance of pores.
Vitamin B3’s technical name is “niacin.” Sound familiar? Niacinamide, a common skincare ingredient, is a form of Vitamin B3.
Niacinamide works to build proteins in the skin, help your skin retain moisture, rebuild healthy skin cells following skin damage, minimise the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation, and treat acne. It’s a bit of a skincare all rounder.
Vitamin B5, technically named pantothenic acid, is most commonly found in skincare in the form of panthenol- a vitamin B5 derivative.
Panthenol is known as a moisturising ingredient, and is used in skincare to soothe rashes, reduce redness and inflammation and aid with skin healing.
You’ll find a number of different forms and derivatives of Vitamin C in skincare, most commonly L-Ascorbic or ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl phosphate and ascorbyl palmitate.
Vitamin E is an oil-soluble antioxidant and a natural anti-inflammatory, and there are actually eight different forms of it. When applied topically, Vitamin E works as a humectant (meaning it helps the skin absorb water) and as an emollient (meaning it helps the skin retain moisture), making it incredibly hydrating and soothing- ideal for skin that is irritated or damaged.
AHAs, or Alpha Hydroxy Acids, are water soluble acids that work to dissolve the protein bonds that bind skin cells together. This allows them to exfoliate the skin’s surface, gently sloughing away dead and dry skin cells and leaving smooth, bright cells in their wake.
The AHAs most commonly found in skincare are glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids, all of which are known as “chemical exfoliants.”
Azelaic acid is relied on for a number of different skin benefits, however it is most often lauded for its ability to calm redness and soothe irritated skin. This ingredient is also known to unclog pores, fade pigmentation left behind by acne and decrease the skin’s overall sensitivity.
BHAs, or Beta Hydroxy Acids, differ from AHAs in that they are oil soluble rather than water soluble. This means they can get a little deeper into the pores, making them great for drying out excess oils and unclogging the pores.
The BHA most commonly found in skincare is salicylic acid.
You’ll often see bakuchiol touted as “nature’s alternative to retinol,” and that’s because their benefits for the skin are so similar. While retinol is considered stronger and more effective than bakuchiol (and it has roughly 70 additional years of research behind it), where the two differ is that bakuchiol is safe for use during pregnancy.
This one will sound familiar to anyone who has sought a pharmacy treatment for acne! Benzoyl Peroxide is an antibacterial ingredient that works to topically kill acne causing bacteria, balance the skin’s production of oil, and reduce the skin’s buildup of dead skin cells.
A beauty buzzword we’ve well and truly done a deep dive on, ceramides are widely considered to be the building blocks of healthy skin. Ceramides are found within the outermost layer of the epidermis and are a chain of lipid molecules that comprise around 50% of the skin barrier. When applied topically, ceramides in skincare work to strengthen the skin’s barrier function, helping the skin to protect itself against environmental damage and better retain moisture.
Dimethicone is the second most common moisturising ingredient found in moisturisers (behind petrolatum) due to its ability to soften and smooth the skin. It’s a silicone-based ingredient that gives skincare formulas a silky feeling as well as preventing moisture loss (as it creates something of a “film” over the skin), which is why you’ll also find it in most makeup primers.
Ferulic acid is an antioxidant booster, praised for its ability to “boost” the efficacy of other antioxidant ingredients like vitamins A, C and E. Ferulic acid is a plant based ingredient which, aside from its boosting properties, can help the skin to fight off free radical damage. You’ll often find it included in vitamin C-rich products, as it can help to keep the ingredient shelf stable.
Glycerin is a humectant, which means it helps to draw moisture into the outermost layer of the skin from both the external environment and from within the much deeper layers of the skin. You’ll often find glycerin in hydrating skincare products due to its ability to hydrate the stratum corneum, strengthen the skin barrier and protect the skin from irritation.
Another ingredient to look at as more of an umbrella than a singular ingredient, hyaluronic acid comes in three different forms- sodium hyaluronate, sodium acetylated hyaluronate, and hydrolysed hyaluronic acid. What they have in common is their ability to hydrate the skin, as hyaluronic acid has the ability to hold up to 1000 times its own weight in moisture. Where they differ is in their molecular weights, each working on slightly different depths of the skin.
Hydroquinone is a prescription strength skincare ingredient that works to lighten the skin. You’ll find it in products formulated specifically to even out pigmentation, fade dark spots and reduce the appearance of scarring.
Kojic acid is also an ingredient known for its skin lightening properties, however you’ll find it in over-the-counter skincare products. It’s made from several different types of fungi and is also the byproduct of some fermentation processes, and in skincare it’s used to reduce the appearance of sun damage, fade pigmentation and brighten any scars or dark spots.
Peptides are amino acids, however they too are more of an “umbrella” than a singular ingredient. There are hundreds of different peptides, each of which are made up of different chains or formations of amino acids. These different peptides can do different things for the skin, as peptides are “cellular messengers” that can communicate a message to your skin cells. Typically, peptides are great for boosting the skin’s natural production of collagen, delivering a plump and firmed effect to the skin.
Zinc oxide is usually found in “physical” sunscreen products as, when formulated correctly, it’s known as a blocker against UV rays. You’ll find zinc in non-sunscreen products too, as it’s known to aid with wound healing and irritation thanks to its antibacterial properties, as well as helping to soothe and moisturise the skin.