Get Skincare Smart: A Glossary of Common Beauty Terms

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Read time: 4 minutes

For those of you who wish skin care was as simple as lather rinse repeat, we get your confusion. These days, with all the chemical terms and ingredient names involved, learning about skin care is akin to being back in your high school biology class. We created this cheat sheet of skin-care terms that will help you parse everything from the back of your moisturizer bottle to the latest dirty dozen endocrine disruptors.

Torso View of Woman in Gray Sweater Holding Various Bottles to Represent Concept of Skincare Ingredients |

Behold, here’s a targeted glimpse of the brave new world of nourishing, safe skin care.

Understanding Skincare Ingredients 

Active ingredient: Basically, an active is the ingredient in a product that specifically targets a skin concern. The active ingredient tends to be backed up by science or at least research. It’s been proven to change the skin in some way; think of it as an ingredient that has data behind it.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs):  Alpha hydroxy acids, a group of plant and animal-derived acids, are a type of exfoliant that breakdown dead skin cell accumulation. AHAs help sweep away this buildup, revealing new skin cells underneath. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two of the most common types of AHAs.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): A type of chemical exfoliant, BHAs usually comes in the form of salicylic acid. BHA’s tend to go deeper into the pores than AHAs and are often featured in acne-based exfoliating products.

Chemical exfoliant: A titch gentler than physical exfoliants (ground up grains or nuts, salt or sugar), chemical exfoliants include both AHAs and BHAs and can be easily wiped off. Whereas physical exfoliants are scrubs, chemical exfoliants such as lactic acid, glycolic acid and salicylic acid use acid to break the bonds between dead skin cells.

Collagen: Collagen is the main structural protein in many parts of the body, including your bones, muscles, and ligaments. It’s also indispensable for human connective tissues, particularly skin, to keep it firm and plump. But as we age, our collagen production slows down. That’s why skincare products and supplements targeted for aging skin often feature collagen.

Double cleansing: A method for face washing that involves using an oil-based cleanser followed by a typical foaming or water-based cleanser. The oil-based cleanser is more adept at breaking down makeup and sunscreen, while the second cleanser can address truly cleaning the skin.

Emollient: Emollient means softener. It refers to moisturizing ingredients that can penetrate the top layer of skin, filling in the cracks and dry areas, thus making skin feel smoother. Face oils such as squalene, argan and jojoba function as an emollient.

Fragrance-free: Conventional fragrances are often packed with phthalates, an endocrine disruptor, which can be harmful to the reproductive system. Fragrances can also irritate sensitive skin, so look for products that say fragrance-free on the label.  Proceed with caution when products are labelled “unscented—this often indicates a product may have odor neutralizing fragrance chemicals to cover up the natural scent of the product.

Humectant: Known for their ability to retain moisture, humectants hydrate by drawing water into the skin. A common moisturizer ingredient, glycerin and hyaluronic acid are humectants, allowing moisture to bind to the skin without feeling greasy.

Micellar water: A gentle makeup-removing cleanser, micellar water is made up of micelles (spherical clusters of surfactants) and water. As a product, it looks and feels like regular water but can remove makeup, cleanse and tone just by being wiped on with a cotton ball.

Non-comedogenic: A skin-care product that’s formulated to not clog pores, especially important for acne-prone skin.  

Occlusive: A type of moisturizer that forms a physical barrier on the outer layer of the skin, preventing trans-epidermal water loss and keeping moisture locked in. Occlusives such as petrolatum and silicones are frequently prescribed for eczema, but there are many more natural alternatives on the market, including coconut oil and shea butter.

Parabens: Synthetic chemicals used as preservatives, parabens are considered controversial in skincare and food. A growing body of research has found that parabens disrupt hormone function by mimicking oestrogen. Considered toxic by many experts, they have been linked to reproductive issues as well as several forms of cancer.

Peptides: Peptides are smaller versions of proteins thought to better penetrate the skin than large, full proteins such as collagen. In skin care, peptides act as signals that tell the body to produce more collagen.

Phthalates: Best known as plasticizers to keep plastic from becoming brittle and breaking, phthalates are also frequently used as fragrance stabilizers (fixing the fragrance to last longer) in lotions, shampoos and body washes. Although types of phthalates are numerous, they are considered carcinogenic and associated with birth defects and reproductive issues.

Squalane: Squalane is an oil that mimics sebum, the oily substance produced by our skin. Considered a highly effective emollient, squalene hydrates the spaces between skin cells. It’s rapid absorption and silky feel make it a prized skincare ingredient.

Sulfates: Getting yourself worked into a lather, in skincare scenarios, typically involves sulfates. They are found in cleansers and shampoos that foam up to create a deep clean. But they can also be a harsh irritant for some people. They often strip the skin and hair of too many of their natural oils, resulting in dryness. Sulfate-free products tend to be a better choice—all that lather is often overkill—especially if you have sensitive skin.