Skin Care Ingredient Glossary

liquid beakersChoosing skincare products can be a big pain in the butt, but it doesn’t have to be. If you know which ingredients address the issues of interest, then it’s as simple as looking at the ingredients label. 

With this Skin Care Ingredients Glossary you will be able to navigate your way through the skin care products you are already using, see where you are lacking, and fill in those gaps without having to do all the research (because mama already did!).

By learning how to read the labels, you’ll also be able to save some dough by finding comparable products to those highfalutin brands that cost you that trip to Costa Rica.

I am including bedrock ingredients that you have to know and will be adding ancillary more as I find compelling. I will also recommend products in some categories. Enjoy!

Activated Charcoal

Function: Detoxifier

Used For: Clear out pores and prevent breakouts

Activated Charcoal isn’t the same as the charcoal in your bbq.  It’s a negatively charged carbon that’s treated with oxygen to form a natural magnet that attracts the positively charged toxins in your skin.

Since it’s not absorbed by the body it can’t clog your pores and works as a great vehicle for removing impurities when used in face masks and cleansing products. Most of my face masks are chock full of activated charcoal.

I like the Origin Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask as part of my charcoal regimen as well as all of the Boscia products like the Boscia Luminizing Black Mask and the Boscia Detoxifying Black Cleanser .

You can read more about activated charcoal in Charcoal – The Great Detoxifier.

Alguronic Acid (Algae)

Function: Increase cell regeneration and the synthesis of elastin

Used For: Plumping up your skin

Alguronic acid is a polysaccharide extracted from algae. It increases cell regeneration and the synthesis of elastin helping to keep your skin tight and supple.

Alguronic acid is a must have in my skin care routine and I use Algenist Firming & Lifting Cream, 2oz  in my rotation for the past year or so. It’s super creamy but doesn’t make me break out.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (AHAs)

Function: Exfoliates (removes damaged, dead skin )

Used For: Age Spots (Hyperpigmentation), Sun Damage, Fine Lines, Clogged Pores, Acne, Stretch Marks and little bumps and promotes a general smoothing of skin

There are several types of AHAs: Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Malic Acid and Tartaric Acid.

AHAs are great for exfoliation, dissolving the outer dead skin cells as opposed to scrubbing them off with abrasives. Our skin is already in the shedding business and actually sheds a whole body worth of skin about once a month – AHA’s promote this process and add a little oomph.

Glycolic Acids are the strongest of the bunch of  AHAs so, if you have sensitive skin but still want the quickest results, then start gradually. Maybe using it every other day until your skin gets acclimated.

A product I like is the NeoStrata Foaming Glycolic Wash  which combines an 18% glycolic acid with a lactobionic acid, but somehow doesn’t dry out your skin.

longer heartA good way to see if you’re overdue for en exfoliation is the Scotch tape test.  Place a piece of Scotch tape on your forehead and rub it on for a second. When you take if off do you see spots of skin on it? If so then,  girlfriend, it’s time to get you some AHA’s!

Arginine (Amino Acids)

Function: Antioxidant, wound healing

Used For: Enables sensitive skin to tolerate stronger products

Arginine is a wound-healing amino acid that helps with product penetration into the skin. By helping ingredients like retinoids or glycolic acids release more gradually, sensitive skin is less likely to suffer from side affects like peeling and itchiness.

A perfect example would the Philosophy Hope in a Jar Night  which has arginine to help the delivery of glycolic acids without all the irritation.

The scent of this particular product is different from anything I’ve smelled, but it makes me feel like it’s working without all of that flowery frou frou going on – there’s a time and place for frou frou, just not in my hard core night cream!

Beta-Hydroxy Acid (Salicylic Acid)

Function: Exfoliate & Anti-inflammatory

Used For: Breakouts and clogged pores

Salicylic acid (Beta-Hydroxy Acid) is a lipid-soluble acid that cleans out nasty, oily pores, to head off breakouts before they begin.  Also, being an anti-inflammatory, it can also help shrink breakouts after they appear. It’s like a two for one deal!

If I see a breakout coming on, usually smack dab on my forehead, I whip out my Peter Thomas Roth Beta Hydroxy Acid 2% Acne Wash ($20ish).

On days that I wake up with a new spot and want to zap it right away, I use the Mario Badescu Drying Lotion ($17ish), which is a mix of salicylic acid, calamine lotion and a bunch of other good stuff.

long heartIMPORTANT: If you’re allergic to aspirin STAY AWAY FROM SALICYLIC ACIDS. They it contains salycylates found in aspirin and can penetrate into your skin.



Chirally Correct Technology

Function: Ultimate Absorption

Used For: Helping skincare products penetrate and work more meaningfully

Ok so, many molecules connect to a mirror image of itself. One side can latch with the molecule intended but the other can’t making it unusable and even damaging to other cells.

I like to think of it as gloves. Imagine you only have a right hand (shark ate the left, be creative) and you need a glove to protect your hand from you prize-winning roses thorns. Out of the pair of gloves, the right can be used to protect your hand but the left one won’t fit.

This leaves the left glove hanging out, getting moldy and doing nothing good. It would totally be better to have two right gloves than one useless one. Well, if a product is chirally adjusted it can turn a left glove into a right glove and have a happy life alongside his buddy protecting your hand.

Chirally correct products, both in pharmaceuticals as well as skincare products, are turning those left gloves into right gloves making the ingredients penetrate better and be more effective.

Arcona products are chirally correct making them penetrate better and getting more for your money.

Glyceryl Stearate

Function: Lubricant

Used For: Smoothing and protecting the skin from free radicals

Glyceryl Stearate acts as a lubricant on top of the skin, slowing down the loss of water from the dermis.It is made from palm, soy or vegetable oil but is also is naturally found in our body. It’s cool because it actually lessens that nasty greasiness you find in some products.

If you choose a product with glyceryl stearate in it, chances are it’s not oily.


Function: Bleaching

Used For: Hyperpigmentation and dark spots caused by sun damage

Hydroquinone works by prohibiting the production of the enzyme responsible for producing melanin in the skin. Melanin is the root of all coloration in the skin, including melasma, age spots, and any other dark spots on the skin.

Over the counter versions contain 2% to 4% but you can always have your doctor call in an 8% version to your local compounding pharmacy. I don’t have a product to recommend as I go in with the big guns and splurge on the 8%, or just go and get an IPL Fotofacial treatment.

Hyaluronic Acid

Function: Hydration, elasticity, and reverses free radical damage

Used For: Hydrating, plumping and protecting your skin

Hyaluronic acid is a natural lubricant found in our joints. You’ve probably heard of Juvederm, Restylane and other dermal fillers that can be injected in our face to add projection. Well that is also a synthetic version of hyaluronic acid, but today we’re talking about the kind you apply on top of your skin and not underneath.

When applied topically in serum form, hyaluronic acid penetrates the outer dead skin layer, going directly into the healthy skin, pumping it up and keeping it hydrated. It sucks right in and can be used on all types of skin.

I like the Cosmedica Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($15ish) as an over the counter version, but my doctor makes a solution of hyaluronic acid and Vitamin C that I keep it in my fridge at all times! I love to use these serums with my dermaroller for even deeper penetration.

Hyaluronic acid is a great way to introduce other, stronger products into your skin without drying your skin out. I can’t live without it.


Function: Topical antioxidant

Used For: Corrects current skin damage and prevents the onset of future damage

There is a theory that aging begins in our mitochondria, the energy production components in our cells. Ibedenone is a synthetic molecule that, when applied to your skin, penetrates the mitochondrial membrane to make up for that loss of energy, slowing down the aging process.

A product worth mentioning is the Allergan Prevage MD Anti-Aging Skin Treatment  because it has 1% idebenone, which is the highest strength available on the market.

Niacin & Niacinimide


Function: Anti-inflammatory, cell stimulation, bleaching

Use For: Hydration, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, breakouts, rosacea, excessive dryness and clogged pores

Niacinimide, also known as B3, is a pretty well rounded ingredient for your skin care regimen. When applied topically, it is said to treat acne, clear pores, remove dead skin cells, treat rosacea, and hydrate and aid in the production of ceramides which are lacking in excessively dry skin.

My favorite niacin product is the NIA24 Gentle Cleansing Cream, 5oz ($33ish) because it’s a multi-tasker, removing my makeup and giving me the niacin my skin needs, without drying out my skin.



Function: Signals the production of collagen 

Used For: Plumping and adding elasticity to the skin

Peptides are little fragments of amino acids used to stimulate the fibroblast to synthesise collagen. Basically they are considered to be little messengers to signal collagen to wake up and get it’s act together.

There are many different forms of peptides such as copper peptides, hepapeptide-11, acetyl tetrapeptide-9, caprooyl tetrapeptide-3, and argireline (acetyle hexapeptide 3). There is a copper peptide formula that I love.

The Copper Peptide Face Serum Collagen With Anti Aging Skin Solutions is a copper peptide and worth every penny that I spent on it. I started using peptides in my early 30’s and fell in love. As a matter of fact, copper peptide was the first skin care ingredient that I can say I actually noticed to make a visible change in my skin.

The packaging has never been that sophisticated, but don’t let that fool you! This stuff is as sophisticated as anything else on the market.



Function: Skin Protection, antioxidant


Used For: Protects against sun damage & increases collagen growth

Resveratrol is a form of polyphenol found in grapes, nuts and various berries that helps our skin cells repair and prevent the damage caused by free radicals.

As with most antioxidants, resveratrol works only as well as it’s delivery system, so it’s important to use reputable brands such as the SkinCeuticals Resveratrol B E ($100ish).


Function: Cell Turnover

Treats: Hyperpigmentation (dark spots), wrinkles and lack of elasticity caused by aging

A derivative of vitamin a, retinol changes to retinoic acid once it is applied to the skin. Retinoic acid works by promoting cell turnover in your skin, slowing down the breakdown of collagen and elastin, keeping the skin firm and wrinkle free. It also tends to cause peeling which helps to remove hyperpigmentation located on the top layers of skin.

You can find retinol in many over the counter products, but for faster results (100 x faster!) consider having a dermatologist prescribe tretinoin & retinoic acid like Retin-A or Renova.

My skin is sensitive so I just dab a bit of the Roc Retinol Correxion Eye Cream  on the outside corner of my eyes and eyelids at night. It doesn’t dry my skin out or make my lids crepey and since I’ve been using it I don’t look a day over 50. (Kidding. I am 50!)

The only other retinol product I can use that won’t dry out my skin is the Lumixyl Trifecting Night Cream 0.2 ($85ish) which isn’t a cream at all, more like a serum. It combines peptides and encapsulated retinol so you get all the benefits without the annoying side effects.


long heartTIP: Start retinoic acids slowly, otherwise it will irritate your skin and you will stop using it (spoken from experience).

Snail Mucin

Function: Antioxidant, collagen production and moisturizer

Used For: General antiaging of the skin

Snail Mucin is a natural resource for antioxidants, copper peptides, collagen, elastin, protein and glycolic acid. Relatively new to the market, it is considered the new miracle worker for your skin. My all time favorite snail product is the Biopelle Tensage Intensive Serum 40 Ampoules ($135ish), which is a serum.

If your all set on serums and are in need of a creamy moisturizer, then try the Elicina Crema de Caracol Snail Cream ($25ish) which I substituted in place of my expensive stuff just to test out and it really makes my skin glow so it’s permanently in my rotation now.


Function: Prevents and repairs skin damage caused by sugar

Used For: Aging skin

Supplamine is a recently discovered cool ass ingredient that’s sole purpose to prevent and repair aging that is caused by sugar. Supplamine is composed of Meglumine® which lowers the metabolic production of toxic sugar and Arginine which neutralizes toxic sugar.

The only product line that uses this proprietary ingredient is MEG21. I use the MEG 21 Smooth Radiance Advanced Formula on my neck every night.

Vitamin C


Function: Antioxidant, skin brightener, anti-inflammatory

Used For: Boosts collagen, reduces brown spots, shrinks breakouts

Vitamin C is a superstar in your skincare arsenal so don’t skip it. It helps with the growth of collagen, reduces brown spots, shrinks breakouts. A lot of products use this as a piggy back for an extra punch. I like the Murad Environmental Shield Essential-C Cleanser ($35ish) that combines vitamins A, C and E to fight off those nasty free radicals.

For those of you with a short attention span (like myself) just remember these 5 rules:

  • For breakouts you should look for AHAs, BHAs and Activated Charcoal.
  • For hyperpigmentation look for AHAs, Niacin, Retinoids and Hydroquinone.
  • For protection from free radicals look for Vitamin C, Resveratrol, Ibedenone and Snail Mucin.
  • For rejuvenating and plumping, choose a Peptide, Hyaluronic Acid, or  Alguronic Acid.
  • For sensitive skin that reacts to everything, always consider Arginine as an ingredient in your skincare.

You can use skincare products in layers and I talk more about that in Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Care Regimen: A Basic Guide.


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