Skincare Ingredients Guide: A Decoding Dictionary Of Skincare Ingredients To Help You Figure Out What Everything Means

Skincare routine face serum

When it comes to skincare, it seems like the number of serum, face cream and oil offerings (and claims!) on store shelves are ever-growing. 

It's enough to make even the most sophisticated cosmetics expert scream, "Where do I begin?"

In today's world of skincare, everyone has an opinion on what works and what doesn't, what ingredients work and which should be avoided.

At the end of the day, brands can say pretty much anything they want to about their products. It's up to us to know what ingredients work best for our individual skin types to find the most effective products and save money in the long run.

Whether you're looking for natural, vegan, cruelty-free products or the latest and greatest in scientific-sounding compounds and technologies with hyperbolic descriptions (read: "will change your life"), there's something for just about every consumer.

In this fast-changing world of vampire facials, snail mucin face masks and unicorn tears — the question is: Which ingredients are actually worth the hype?

Here I present a wide categorization of ingredients used in skincare are

Moisturising agents

Many ingredients contribute to skin moisture, but the following is generally considered to be an effective formula

Hyaluronic acid

 Don't be fooled by the name – Hyaluronic acid is not an exfoliant, but a celebrity among super-moisturizers!

Hyaluronic acid has been used in skincare products as a humectant, a substance that attracts moisture to the skin, since the 1960s.

Because one molecule of hyaluronic acid can retain 1000 times its weight in water, it has proven especially effective in topical applications.

HA is a natural substance that's a major component of skin, making up about 20 per cent of its mass.1

But as we age, our bodies produce less and less hyaluronic acid, which can cause the skin to become drier, thicker, and less supple.

So, see it in an ingredients list? That typically means a moisturising effect is on the horizon.

In addition to pure hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate is also found in moisturisers. However, unlike HA, sodium hyaluronate is a salt form. Its molecules are smaller, making it easier to absorb into the skin.


Squalane is found naturally in the skin, but its production decreases as we age. It is an exceptional hydrator that protects against moisture loss and also prevents transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

It can usually be found in an oil form, but it can also sometimes be found in a serum or face cream.

Note that it is not the same thing as squalene, although their structures are similar. Squalene is traditionally sourced from shark liver oil, but squalane is actually extracted from olive trees. 

Along with these 2 toppers, other skin-replenishing ingredients help skin resist moisture loss, revive skin’s surface and maintain an enviably smooth, plump appearance.

Ceramides, GlycerinFatty acids, Cholesterol, Glycosaminoglycans, Sodium PCA, Amino acids, Sphingolipids, Salicylic acid, Glycolic acid

However, some of these have antioxidant and exfoliating properties along with hydrating.

Acne-Fighters + Exfoliators

Exfoliation is an important step in skincare and removes the dead cells from the top layer of the skin.

It improves the skin's radiance and glow, as well as the absorption of other important skin-nourishing ingredients.

Exfoliators can be mechanical (like a scrub or brush) or chemical (acids that look like toners and dissolve the bonds between dead cells). The two main groups of acid exfoliators are alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s)and beta hydroxy acids(BHAs)


Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), are a class of exfoliants derived from natural substances generally recommended for normal skin types, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, sun damage, and fine lines.

Lactic Acid – extracted from milk, recommended for sensitive skin and rosacea

Glycolic acid- Naturally derived from sugarcane or synthetically made, it has the smallest molecular size among the acids. Thus, it can penetrate the skin well. But, it can irritate your skin at times, it's better to start with a low percentage and work your way up.2 

Mandelic acid- a derivative of almonds, is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that is recommended for those with acne-prone skin. It is less irritating than other acids, but it takes longer to work.

If your skin becomes red or stings slightly when applying an AHA product, do not be alarmed; this is normal.

It is suggested to use sunscreen as AHAs increase the skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet rays.


Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) are mainly recommended for oily, combination, or acne-prone skin because their oil-solubility means they can go deeper into the skin than water-soluble AHA products.

They also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, which can be effective in treating acne or other skin breakouts.

The most popular BHA is Salicylic acid, a desmolytic ingredient, which means it can exfoliate by dissolving the bonds that hold the dead cells to the skin’s surface.

Salicylic acid is approved by the U.S. FDA as an over-the-counter topical acne product when used in concentrations of 0.5-2%.3

A new group of hydroxy acids PHAs, According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) offer similar benefits to AHAs but are less likely to irritate the skin. This ingredient can cater to all skin types.


While there is no scientific consensus on whether cutting-edge anti-ageing products actually work, a select few ingredients have been shown to have some effects.

They can slightly slow down the process of ageing by increasing cell turnover and collagen production.


Most dermatologists agree that this one form of vitamin A has anti-ageing effects. It reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, lightens age spots, and boosts the thickness and elasticity of the skin.

Vitamin C

Ascorbic acid or vitamin c is one of the most powerful antioxidants and is known to brighten the skin, boost collagen, and aid in the fading of spots. The most common form is L-ascorbic acid. Some other forms of this ingredient can be found on an ingredients list: 3-0 Ethyl Ascorbic Acid, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Ascorbyl Tetra-Isopalmitate.

Research shows that vitamin C works well with vitamin E and ferulic acid, so if you see all three of them on a label, it’s a good start. Always do some research before shopping to find the best form for you.3

The other tried and true anti-ageing ingredients—the heavy-hitters that really get the job done are

Niacinamide, Peptides, Bakuchiol, Vitamin E. Some of the exfoliants and antioxidants also have anti-ageing effects.


Antioxidants are a class of ingredients that protect healthy cells by neutralising free radicals, which otherwise can cause premature ageing.4

Antioxidants are really effective when used together, so choose products that include several antioxidants. The best formulations for a powerful antioxidant punch are serums.

Look for the following ingredients (antioxidants) in the packaging and ingredient list of skincare products:

Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Tocopherol), Ferulic acid – best combined with Vitamin C and E, Green tea, Resveratrol, Grape Seed Extract, Coenzyme Q10, Niacinamide, Lycopene, Caffeine


The two kinds of active ingredients that help protect the skin from UV rays are

Physical (mineral) sunscreen ingredients

Titanium dioxide, Zinc oxide

Chemical sunscreen ingredients

Oxybenzone, Octinoxate (Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate), Octisalate (Ethylhexyl Salicylate), Octocrylene, Avobenzone (Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane), Mexoryl SX and X

However, these ingredients have their pros and cons depending on your type of skin and the place you live where the damage by UV radiation to your skin differs.

Choosing the Right Ingredients

The ingredients listed above are just a small sampling of the range of skincare products available.

so, it's important to be careful when selecting the products and ingredients that you use.

Each one has different uses and side effects. The first step of skincare is identifying your skin type. When you start introducing the new ingredients to your skin, be sure to do so one at a time, so you can monitor your skin’s reaction.

The type of product and strength you are using will impact your skin’s ability to withstand an ingredient's application.

For example, layering two different ingredients on your skin can possibly irritate.

With that in mind, if you want to find the right products for your skin, be sure to read labels carefully.