Skincare Ingredients Explained – What Each Can Do For Your Skin

A girl holding a small bottle of a cosmetic product

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Have you ever wondered what those extensive lists of ingredients on cosmetic labels actually mean? What certain skincare ingredients say about the product and how each of them affects your complexion?

I know that trying to decipher those barely pronounceable things can give you a headache. But, to understand which products can actually help your skin and which just look good on the shelves, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of common ingredients in skincare products.

I’ve gathered here a list of 10 often used skincare ingredients. You can probably find most of them in the products you are already using. And many are worth further exploring and trying to incorporate them into your skincare routine.

So, here’s why these popular cosmetic ingredients are so important and what each of them can do for your skin:

10 Skincare Ingredients You Need To Know About

1. AHAs

AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) can be found in a variety of skincare products, from cleansers to toners and from anti-acne to anti-aging products. Their primary purpose is to dissolve dead skin cells and exfoliate the skin.

By removing the surface dry, dull layer of skin cells, AHAs promote the skin natural renewal process. This can also help in treating acne, reducing surface wrinkles and fine lines and fading skin discolorations.

Exfoliation also increases other products’ absorption into the skin. All of this purifies and rejuvenates the skin, evens out the skin tone and brightens the complexion.

There are seven types of AHAs that are commonly used as skincare ingredients. Out of them, the most famous are glycolic, lactic and citric acid.

2. BHA

Like AHAs, BHA (beta hydroxy acid) ‘s purpose is to exfoliate the skin. However, while AHAs mostly stay on the very surface of the skin, BHA penetrates further into the skin, cleansing and unclogging the pores.

BHA is often used in products created for acne prone skin. It dissolves the dead skin cells, dirt and excess sebum and thoroughly cleanses the skin. It is also said to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it perfect for treating acne, blackheads and whiteheads.

The only BHA used in skincare products is salicylic acid. It can be produced synthetically or derived from the willow tree bark.

3. PHAs

Polyhydroxy acids (like gluconolactone and lactobionic acid) are another kind of skin exfoliating acids. They have the same effect to the skin as AHAs, except that their molecules are larger, so they can’t penetrate the skin as well as alpha hydroxy acids can.

This means that PHAs exfoliate only the uppermost layers of skin, promoting smoothness and giving you that fresh, bright look. But, they are much less likely to cause sensitivities and irritations than AHAs.

This feature doesn’t necessarily make them better or worse than AHAs. It all depends on your skin and its individual needs. If you’d like a more potent exfoliator, choose a product based on AHAs. If your skin is sensitive and prone to redness, opt for PHAs.

4. Benzoyl Peroxide

You can mostly find benzoyl peroxide in over-the-counter acne treatments. It can help clear out the skin, thoroughly purify it and soothe acne inflammations.

When applied topically, benzoyl peroxide releases oxygen into the pores. That way, it kills acne-causing bacteria, treats and prevent breakouts. Benzoyl peroxide also exfoliates the skin and encourages it to produce new, healthy skin cells.

Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are amongst the best skincare ingredients for acne prone skin. However, products that combine both might be way too drying and irritating.

You can opt for one of them (experiment to see which one your skin prefers). Or, try to mix and match them through different products. If, for example, your face wash is based on salicylic acid, choose a spot treatment that contains benzoyl peroxide.

5. Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is a humectant that has an amazing ability to hold up to 1000 times its weight in water. It attracts water molecules to the surface of your skin, hydrating it and making it plump, smooth and bright.

Hyaluronic acid is a non-irritating skincare ingredient. It is suitable for all skin types (as all skin types need hydration), but it is especially beneficial for aging or dehydrated skin. Oily skin also loves it, since it hydrates the skin without leaving a greasy residue.

Hyaluronic acid is a pretty big molecule that our skin cannot easily absorb. Even so, it is very beneficial, replenishing and reinforcing the outermost layer of the skin. However, the inner layers of the skin also need hydration.

That is why you can find many products that contain both hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate. Sodium hyaluronate is the sodium salt of hyaluronic acid. It has all the same benefits for the skin, but a much smaller molecular weight, so it easily penetrates the skin.

6. Glycerin

Glycerin is another humectant that hydrates the skin and makes it plump and supple. It also reinforces the skin’s natural protective barrier, protects the skin against the elements and promotes the wound healing process.

Glycerin can be either natural (derived from animal fats or vegetable oils) or synthetic. It has a syrupy texture, and it is clear, has no color or scent. It should never be used on its own, only diluted or as a part of skincare products.

Being a humectant, glycerin has a very similar effect on the skin as hyaluronic acid. However, glycerin has smaller molecules, so it gets better absorbed than full size HA molecules. It can, on the other side, leave a bit greasier feel on the skin.

7. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is, no doubt, one of the best skincare ingredients and you can find it in many facial and eye creams, serums and moisturizers. It is a powerful antioxidant that protects the skin against free radicals and reduces the oxidative stress.

Vitamin C is best known as an anti-aging ingredient, though it has a beneficial effect to all skin types and conditions. It can help both prevent and treat existing wrinkles, fine lines and dark spots.

Vitamin C is also a great skin brightening agent. It smoothes the skin’s surface, fades skin imperfections and fights dullness. It gives you an even, glowing complexion and youthful appearance.

8. Peptides

Peptides are strings of amino acids, which are building blocks of proteins in our skin. And some of these proteins (like collagen and elastin) are very important for a healthy, youthful complexion.

Peptides have a huge impact on the skin’s texture, suppleness and general condition. They promote the skin renewal process by signaling the skin that it needs to produce more collagen, elastin and even hyaluronic acid.

By stimulating the skin to repair and renew itself, peptides maintain the skin healthy and youthful and make it smooth, elastic and resilient. There are many different types of peptides, with different ways they benefit the skin. Copper peptides seem to be especially popular at the moment.

9. Plant Oils and Butters

Natural oils are full of healthy fats, nutrients and antioxidants. When applied topically, they strengthen the skin’s lipid barrier, help protect the skin against the environment and prevent drying out.

Depending on the ratio between some fatty acids in the oil, plant oils can be very thick and greasy or lightweight and fast absorbing. The first type would be more beneficial for dry, aging skin, while the second type is often recommended for treating oily, acne prone skin. This, though, depends a lot on the skin’s individual needs.

Some of the best plant oils to look for in a product are jojoba, sweet almond, flaxseed, coconut, rosehip seed, grapeseed, pomegranate seed, macadamia oil, as well as shea, cocoa and mango butter.

10. Aloe Vera

Aloe vera gel has versatile and powerful benefits for all skin types. It can be used pure, fresh from the plant. You can also find many cosmetic products that contain aloe vera gel, juice, extract, powder, oil…

Aloe vera gel is high in moisture. It replenishes the skin and makes it plump and bright. The gel is also rich in many other skin-friendly compounds, such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, polysaccharides, phytosterols, flavonoids, salicylic acid, etc.

Applied topically, aloe vera gel gets easily absorbed. It can help you replenish dull, dehydrated skin, rejuvenate aging skin and soothe skin inflammations and sensitivities. It also has healing, antiseptic and collagen-boosting properties – perfect for treating damaged skin, acne and sunburns.

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