In the quest for clear, younger-looking skin, we often turn to products packed with super-confusing ingredients. You’ll see words on the bottles of your favorite products that sound like they came straight out of a high school chemistry book (salicylic acid?) and others that sound downright flowery (botanical extracts?), but are these words just part of a grand marketing scheme to get you to try the latest and greatest skincare products? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
The truth is that ingredients are actually super important when you’re developing a good skincare strategy, and you should know some of the key additives, so you get a routine that’s tailored to your unique skin type. But not all ingredients are necessary, and some can actually cause more harm than good. Whether it be a satisfying charcoal mask or a standard daily acne face wash, it helps to know what’s in your products, so you don’t mess up your skin. Here are the benefits of some of the most common skincare ingredients.
- Salicylic Acid — This tried, and true chemical exfoliant gently removes the top layer of skin deep within the pores, helping to treat and prevent acne. It has an anti-inflammatory effect and is great for busting blackheads. Salicylic acid is considered a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), which means it’s oil-soluble and therefore ideal for people with oily skin.
- Citric Acid and Other AHAs — As its name suggests, citric acid is derived from citrus fruits. It’s considered an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and serves as a chemical exfoliant that gently removes dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin. Other common AHAs with similar properties include lactic acid, glycolic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid.
- L-Ascorbic Acid — In skincare, L-ascorbic acid is simply a fancy word for vitamin C. This potent antioxidant is added to anti-aging products because it can help soothe skin and reduce the appearance of aging.
- Alpha-Lipoic Acid — This acid is naturally produced in the body and, like L-ascorbic acid, it serves as an antioxidant to help attack and neutralize free radicals that could be causing the skin to sag, wrinkle, or dull.
- Benzoyl Peroxide — Often paired with salicylic acid in acne treatment, benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic that clears the skin of dirt and bacteria, helping to prevent and treat breakouts.
- Hyaluronic Acid — If you’re looking for a good gel moisturizer for oily skin or hydrating face cream to seal in moisture, look for a product with hyaluronic acid (HA). This is a clear, gel-like substance that’s naturally found in the body to keep tissues hydrated. It’s used in skincare to lock in moisture.
- Glycerin — Like hyaluronic acid, glycerin is a naturally occurring compound that can help seal in moisture. One of its biggest benefits is that it keeps skin moisturized while restoring the skin’s barrier, making it a great choice for people with severely dry skin and irritation.
- Mineral Oil — Mineral oil is made from highly refined petroleum and is often found in creams and lotions designed to hydrate. And while it probably does a good job at that, it tends to clog pores, which can lead to breakouts.
- Activated Charcoal — What’s up with the hype surrounding activated charcoal face wash and face masks? People love this ingredient because it has the unique ability to absorb microscopic dirt, bacteria, and gases, helping to flush out the pores to prevent acne deeply. Note that charcoal is not the same as coal tar, which is often added to cosmetic products and is used to treat psoriasis. Still, it is considered a human carcinogen and associated with cancer. Activated charcoal, on the other hand, is considered safe with very few side effects.
- Microbeads — Microbeads are tiny plastic beads found in face washes and scrubs that serve as manual exfoliants that remove the top layer of skin to reveal healthy new layers beneath. Do your best to avoid plastic microbeads, as they are harmful to the environment and banned in the U.S. Instead, look for products with natural exfoliants, such as walnut shells or bamboo stems.
- Retinoids — Retinoids — including retinol, tretinoin, and isotretinoin — are vitamin A derivatives commonly found in anti-aging products and prescription acne medications. They are extremely effective at regenerating new cell growth and improving the health of the skin, but they come with some serious side effects. They can be very irritating, so they should only be taken in extreme cases when prescribed by a dermatologist.
- Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) — Dimethylaminoethanol. Say that 10 times fast! This confusing ingredient is found naturally in foods, especially fatty fish like salmon and anchovies. When used in skincare, it’s believed to help smooth out wrinkles and firm up sagging skin.
- Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide — These two naturally occurring minerals are found almost exclusively in sunscreen and are used to physically block damaging sun rays from penetrating the skin. Physical sunscreens may be better than chemical ones for those with sensitive skin.
- Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, and Others — In contrast to physical sunscreens, these ingredients are considered chemical sunscreens. They go by names such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate, and others. Both physical and chemical sunscreens are generally considered safe and crucial for a good skincare routine.
- Botanical Extracts — “Botanical extracts” is a catch-all phrase that refers to liquids extracted from flowers or plants. In skincare, some of the most popular botanical extracts include pineapple and papaya to break down pore-clogging oils, aloe vera and cucumber to soothe irritated skin, and calendula to protect skin from damaging free radicals.
As you can see, understanding what’s in your skincare products may take a bit of research. But once you know what’s good for your skin type, you’ll be able to build a dermatologist-approved routine that leads you to flawless skin. The most important takeaway is this: Make sure to always choose skincare products that actually list the ingredients because you never know what else might be hiding out in there!