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The Skin Dictionary

Have you ever seen seen a word on an ingredient list or a product's website and been like what the f*** is that? Yup, happens all the time.  Next time you feel that way, come to this page and find the word you're looking for. 



A colourless, highly flammable liquid, most recognized as a major ingredient in nail polish remover (read between the lines: don’t put it on your face). Although acetone is a compound made within the human body (a by-product of the breakdown of fat), acetone is a hazardous waste material and should NOT be used on the skin or eyes without professional direction. 

  • Best to be used: NEVER directly on skin without professional direction. Keep it for the nails. 


Acids lower the pH levels of the skin and put the skin into an acidic state (The skin’s barrier is naturally acidic and should maintain this acidity). This acidic state is great for dissolving and digesting dead skin cells (mmm.. yum). Different acids target specific skin care issues, but they all do a good job of encouraging cell turnover (the shedding of old skin cells and growing of new ones). Acids change the skin on a chemical level and thus are great for use when you want to see immediate results.

  • Acids main uses: smoothing, removing dryness (exfoliating), skin brightening

    • Best to be used: right before an event or for exfoliation at night (approx.. 3 times a week)

Aloe Vera 

Is a succulent plant species that has gel-like components that contain antioxidants, enzymes, Vitamins A and C and is very anti-inflammatory. It is used as a topical gel and has been commonly used for burns, cuts, dry skin, cold sores, eczema, inflammatory acne. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Water-soluble acids made from sugary fruits and act as skin exfoliants by loosening the bonds that hold cells together. They work on the surface of the skin to peel away dead skin cells in order for new ones to generate and take their place. 

  • Best used for: hyperpigmentation (age spots, melasma, etc.), enlarged pores, surface wrinkles, uneven skin tone, 

  • Tip: always wear sunscreen when using an AHA (exfoliation from the acid makes the skin more sensitive to the sun)

  • Found in: cleansers, toners, moisturizers, scrubs, peels, masks 

Amino Acids

You heard it in grade 9 biology, but amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins in the human body, a vital process. Although we already have them in the top layers of our skin, over time and as we age, the skin becomes more dry due to a reduction of amino acids in the skin. Adding amino acids to your skin routine promotes cellular repair, provide antioxidant protection and hydrate the skin. 

  • The amino acids to look for: arginine, lysine, histidine, glycine, leucine 

  • Found in: moisturizers or eye creams 


Molecules that fight against free radical damage to the skin. 

Ascorbic Acid (Vit C)

Ahh, one of the most talked about skin care products. Ascorbic acid (also known as vitamin C), is a strong antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals (unstable molecules that damage the skin). In simpler terms, Ascorbic acid helps the skin repair damaged skin cells. Additionally, due to this acid’s acidity, it accelerates production of collagen and elastin (hello skin plumping!). Thirdly, it helps with hyperpigmentation by preventing the formation of dark spots. 

  • Look for: Ascorbic Acid (or L-ascorbic acid) as it is the most stable and effective form of vitamin c  

  • Found in: serums ranging from 5%-20% Aascorbic acid (more effective than creams and toners)

Argan Oil 

Full of vitamin E and essential fatty acids makes argan oil extremely hydrating. The fatty acids help with skin permeability, allowing moisture and other ingredients to enter the skin. This oil is not too heavy or too light so perfect for all skin types. 

  • Tip: use a couple drops of argan oil after moisturizing the face to seal that hydration in


Benzoyl Peroxide

A treatment for acne by killing the bacteria underneath the skin. Additionally, benzoyl peroxide helps clean skin pores by reducing excess skin oil and shed dead skin cells. 

  • Works best for: inflammatory acne (red bumps that contain pus)

Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

oil-soluble acids that work deep into your pores and remove dead skin cells and excess sebum (oily substance found on body surfaces). They often reach deep into hair follicles to dry excessive oil and unclog pores. 

  • Used for: acne and sun damage + most suitable for combination or oily skin 

  • Don’t make your skin as sensitive to sun but remember sunscreen 

  • Types: salicylic acid, citric acid

  • Can be found in: cleansers, toners, moisturizers, scrubs, peels, masks


A form of vitamin B (vitamin B7) that helps metabolize fats and sugar in the body. There is limited scientific evidence to the benefits of biotin and the many oral supplements on the market, however most biotin products claim to regulate nail and hair growth. 


A drug derived from the small doses of botulinum toxin known as one of the most popular cosmetic treatments for reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. A cosmetic injection of Botox blocks nerve signalling from a specific muscle, causing an inability for that muscle to contract (or move for that matter). When the muscles are paralyzed, wrinkles and lines on the surface are smoothed. 

  • Areas of Use: frown lines, crow’s feet, forehead creases, smile lines 

Broad Spectrum

A term to describe sunscreen that protects your skin against both UVA and UVB radiation. Protection against these rays has shown to reduce risk of skin cancer and as well slow down the signs of aging.

  • What to look for: a sunscreen that has passed the FDA’s broad-spectrum test 



No, I don’t mean the coffee you drank from your cup this morning, I mean the coffee found in lots of moisturizers and eye creams. Caffeine constricts blood vessels, which in turn, reduces blow flow to skin areas and decreases the appearance of puffiness (skin inflammation) and redness. 

  • Used for: anti-inflammatory purposes, reducing wrinkles, skin brightening 

  • Found in: moisturizers and eye creams (depuffing those bags!)

Cannabidiol (CBD) 

One of the major cannabinoids found in cannabis and is the non-psychoactive component of cannabis (sorry, you don’t get high when your moisturizer has CBD). CBD in skincare is quite new to the scene but has been popular due to its anti-inflammatory properties. 


The dimpled appearance on the skin, mainly concentrated behind the thighs and the butt. Around 90% of women have cellulite (due to genetics and estrogen) and its caused by fat cells pushing through fibrous tissue bands and pulling these bands down creating a dimpled appearance. 

  • What about the guys? Even men have cellulite but are less likely due to the difference in how men and women store fat in their body 


Lipids (fat molecules) that naturally occur in high concentrations in the upper layers of the skin and hold the cells in the epidermis together. Think of them as your body’s natural moisturizer and your protection from dehydration. When you have a depletion of ceramides (caused from seasonal changes, ageing, overuse of exfoliants), the skin barrier becomes compromised and results in skin dryness.

  • Fun fact: ceramides make up 50% of your skin’s composition

  • Found in: moisturizers formulated with ceramides

Citric Acid

Found naturally in citrus fruits, this acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) making it a great exfoliant for brightening the skin. It is also great antioxidant to fight against external damage to the skin. 

  • Found in: MANY products because the low pH of citric acid encourages a more stable shelf-life 


The most abundant protein in the body, important for structural support of the skin (firmness and strength). Collagen production decreases with age due to a thinning of skin layers but certain skin care ingredients and treatments can stimulate collagen production.

  • Tip: don’t apply topical collagen products as collagen’s molecular weight is too heavy to penetrate the skin. Instead look for products that stimulate production of collagen 

  • Products to look for: vitamin C, retinoids, chemical peels, laser treatments 


Double Cleanse

Cleansing your face twice often involving multiple methods. Double cleansing often includes a first step to remove makeup, dirt or SPF by using a cleansing oil, balm or micellar water. This step is followed by a deeper cleanse (often water-based) that removes impurities in the pores.  



A condition, medically referred to as atopic dermatitis, that causes red inflamed, itchy and irritated skin. It is considered a chronic condition that tends to flare up periodically. 


A key protein in connective tissue. The main function of elastin is to provide elasticity to skin structures while being able to snap back into place. 


Basically, another word for moisturizer! An emollient is a broad category for products/ingredients that soften and smooth the skin by filling out the spaces between your skin cells and thus preventing water loss.  


Ingredients that help keep ingredients, that often repel each other, together in a mixture. Emulsifiers are used in creams to mix water and oil (basic biology: two ingredients that don’t mix together). The emulsifier added to water and oil make sure that the mixture keeps water and oil together. 


Of Korean beauty origin, essences are difficult to define, but they function similarly to a serum. Water-based essences that are thin should be applied after cleansing and before moisturizing. Most essences increase hydration and prep the skin for the following skin care steps. 


Ferulic Acid

A plant-derived antioxidant that neutralizes free radical damage to the skin. Improves signs of ageing and dark spots. Ferulic acid works well in combination with vitamins C and E as it asks as a stabilizing agent (aka. Boosts their effects)

  • Found in: mostly serums and creams 

  • Tip: ferulic acid should be bought and stored in a dark coloured bottle to protect it from damage from the light


A group of plant pigments that have strong antioxidant properties. When applied topically, they can protect the skin against harmful UV radiation.  

Free Radicals

Simply put, they are unstable molecules due to a missing electron in their outer shell. This causes them to be reactive causing damage and deterioration to the cells (premature aging!). 

  • Causes of free radicals: UV radiation, air pollution, smoking, alcohol

  • How to protect against free radicals: use antioxidants in skincare as they bind to free radicals and reduce or delay the damage to the skin

Fruit Enzymes

Found in (mostly) tropical fruit such as mango, pineapple and papaya, these enzymes are all about exfoliation. They gently breakdown keratin proteins and remove dead-skin cells on the skin’s surface.  



A liquid coming from plant sources that acts as a humectant (attracts water to itself). So basically, it attracts water from the atmosphere and from deep levels of your skin to add moisture and hydrate the skin. 

  • Found in: moisturizers and cleansers

Glycolic Acid

Another type of alpha-hydroxy acid derived from sugarcane (the most studied AHA). It is a small molecule so can penetrate the skin very well. It loosens the “gel” that holds dead skin cells together and prevents clogged pores (important for reducing acne and improving skin radiance). 

  • Found in: cleansers, moisturizers, peels 

Goji Extract

Coming from the goji berry (used in ancient Chinese medicine), goji extract is a strong antioxidant. Full of phytonutrients (plant nutrients), vitamin A (promotes cell turnover), vitamin B (helps retain moisture), vitamin C (promotes collagen production), and zinc (regulates skin’s oil production)

Grape-seed Oil

Oil extracted from the seeds of grapes (just as the name suggests) that contains polyphenol compounds, superior antioxidants. Grape-seed oil also contains large amounts of fatty acids and vitamin E.

  • Fun fact: the antioxidant properties of grape-seed oil are 50X greater than those of vitamin C 

  • Great for: preventing sun damage, lightening skin complexion/redness, and fighting acne 

Growth Factors

Proteins travelling between cells that communicate messages about survival (repairing) and growth (regrowth). As you age, the body produces less growth factors and thus less cellular repair. Growth factors in skin care are either bioengineered in a laboratory or coming from stem cells and have been used in cosmetic serums. 

  • FYI: these are NOT growth hormones 



A type of moisturizing ingredient that draws moisture to the top layer of the skin. 

  • Found in: hydrating serums and moisturizers 

Hyaluronic Acid

A water holding sugar molecule that is able to hold 1000x its weight in water. It is a powerful humectant (attracts water to the surface of the skin and keeps it) so is great for hydrating and keeping moisture in the skin. 

  • Tip: think H for hydration! 

  • Found in: serums, moisturizers, masks, injectables 


A chemical that interacts with melanin cells in the skin to reduce pigment production and has been used to lighten hyperpigmentation and age spots. 

  • How to use: best used in certain areas of concern (dark spots) after cleansing 

  • Hydroquinone concentrations higher than 2% need a prescription 


A condition causing darkening of the skin. The darkening can occur in small patches or all over the face. It is caused by an increase in melanin production often stimulated by sunlight and acne.  Hyperpigmentation can be treated with numerous skin brightening ingredients such as vitamin c and niacinamide. 




Jojoba Oil

(ho-ho-ba) Is not in fact an oil but a wax ester (wax ester = main component of the oil the skin produces). This means that jojoba oil structure is extremely similar to your skin’s natural oil, which allows it to hydrate the skin without clogging pores. 

  • A greater starter oil for those that want to begin their journey into oils!    



The short form for Korean Beauty characterized by multi-step skin care routines and a focus on getting layers of hydration. Common skin terms coming from K-Beauty are double cleanse and essence! 


Lactic Acid

A alpha-hydroxy acid on the gentler side that stimulates the exfoliation of the skin and promotes cellular renewal (firming and smoothing the skin). Due to its larger molecular size, lactic acid is great for surface treatment rather than deep skin penetration. 

  • Fun Fact: lactic acid is an exfoliating acid found in sour milk 

  • Great for sensitive skin (gentler than glycolic or salicylic acid) 

  • Found in: serums and toners 


Standing for light-emitting diode, LED is a light source, used in skin treatment, that gives off varying wavelengths of light. Certain wavelengths of light target specific skin issues and can be used at-home and during cosmetic treatments. 

  • Red light is primarily used for anti-aging 

  • Blue light kills bacteria and is primarily used for acne  


Marula Oil

A super lightweight oil that absorbs quickly into the skin. It is rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids that make it great for anti-aging and hydration.  


The natural skin pigment that gives skin, hair and eyes their colour. Melanin is produced by melanocytes (cells in the skill). Generally, the more melanin produced, the darker the skin tone and vice versa. 


 The natural skin pigment that gives skin, hair and eyes their colour. Melanin is produced by melanocytes (cells in the skill). Generally, the more melanin produced, the darker the skin tone and vice versa.  


 The most serious type of skin cancer that develops from melanocytes. The primary cause of melanoma is UV light (from the sun or other sources). Early signs of melanoma include, changes in pre-existing moles or new lumps anywhere on the body.    

Micellar Water

A cleansing water made up of micelles (small cleansing oil molecules) dispersed in purified water. Micelles are attracted to dirt and oil so when contacting the skin, they draw out impurities. It has been used as a makeup remover or in conjunction with a cleanser. 

  • How to use: dispense micellar water on a cotton pad and gently swipe across skin to remove makeup or dirt 


A cosmetic procedure (most commonly performed by a skin professional) that removes the top layer of dry and dead skin cells by using fine crystal dust blasted on the skin. The effects of microdermabrasion procedures include; smoother skin, faded pigmentation, and reduced facial congestion. 


A cosmetic procedure that inserts very small needles (0.5mm to 2.5mm) into the skin. The procedure works by encouraging the skin’s natural healing process and boosting collagen production.  



A form of vitamin B3 that has many functions. It boosts hydration, protects the skin against environmental damage, and reduces skin discolouration. It increases skin resilience and texture. 



Ingredients that act as a protective seal to prevent water loss from the skin’s surface. They are one of the main ingredients found in thick moisturizers.  

  • Examples: waxes, petrolatum, and silicone 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The type of fat you want! These fatty acids are found in most fish, walnuts, and certain plant oils, and are an important component of maintaining cell membrane functioning throughout the body. Focusing on the skin, omega-3 fatty acids increase skin hydration, and protect the skin from sun damage. 


A popular ingredient in chemical over-the-counter sunscreens that blocks UV-radiation (slows the skin’s absorption of UVA and UVB rays). There has been some criticism regarding oxybenzone’s harm to the environment (specifically coral reefs) and to human health. 



A category of chemicals that are typically used as preservatives in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food. They are added to products to increase their shelf-life and prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. These chemicals are quite controversial due to scientific evidence that found parabens disrupt hormones in the body, and harm fertility and reproductive organs. 

  • Tip: if they are in your products, they should be used in very low levels (0.01%-0.3%)


Strings of amino acids that are linked together by peptide bonds. When peptides form together, they create proteins (the building blocks of the skin). Peptides are great for stimulating the production of collagen (collagen is made up of multiple peptides). 


A scientific scale used to measure the acidity or alkalinity (basicity) of a solution. Healthy skin has a pH ranging 4.5-5.5, making it naturally more acidic. Skincare products should maintain this pH range.  


Compounds derived from plant foods (you must eat those fruits, veggies and nuts!) that enhance antioxidant defence in the skin. They prevent free-radical damage to the skin. 


Live bacteria and yeasts that provide benefits to the body by keeping the “good” bacteria in a proper balance within the body. Probiotics can be ingested or applied on the skin to improve both skin and gut healthy. 





The antioxidant found in grape skin (drinking wine sounds a whole lot healthier!) that works on a cellular level to slow aging by protecting against UV radiation. 

  • Found in: serums and moisturizers


A prescription-only form of Vitamin A, also known as tretinoin.  Retin-A became popular 20 years ago as an acne treatment, but now has many other uses such as anti-aging effects. Retin-A can improve skin texture as it improves the speed of cell turnover.  


The umbrella term for any form of vitamin A in skincare. 


A type of over-the counter retinoid (vitamin A derivative) thought of the gold-standard of anti-aging skincare. Retinols increase the cell turnover on the outer skin layers and simultaneously exfoliate older skin cells to unclog pores. Retinol increases the production of both collagen and elastin. Retinol percentages begin at 0.05% (a good place to start) and increase in strength. 

  • Tip: those with sensitive and easily irritated skin should be careful when using retinol (pay attention to the percentage of retinol)

  • If you are using a retinol, avoid strong exfoliators or skin-drying products 


A skin condition, often running in families, that causes long-term redness on the cheeks, nose, chin and forehead. In some cases, broken capillaries may be visible through the skin. Doctors are unsure of the causes of rosacea, however it can be controlled with proper treatment. 


Salicylic Acid

A type of beta-hydroxy acid that is oil-soluble and can penetrate into the skin’s pores at a deep level. Because of this, salicylic acid is great for treating acne as it can dissolve skin dirt and reduce the inflammation that the dirt causes. 

  • Found in: cleansers, moisturizers and acne treatments 


A genre of skincare products that are packed with ingredients to be applied after cleansing and before moisturizing. Most serums are water based (this is changing as more oils are being introduced) and are made up of small molecules so that the ingredients go directly into the skin.


The oily substance produced by the body’s sebaceous glands attached to hair follicles on the surface of the skin.  


The product of a hydrogenation of squalene which creates a more stable molecular structure for use in cosmetic products (i.e. a longer shelf-life). 


A type of lipid (fat) produced by the sebaceous glands found naturally in our bodies that provides hydration and a protective barrier to the skin layers. As we age (starting in your 20s), the production of squalene declines, so finding it in moisturizers and serums is common for hydration purposes. Squalene’s molecular structure is highly unstable and has a short shelf-life in most cosmetic products. It is often converted to squalene through a hydrogenation process to increase its stability in products. 


A natural element known for its horrible smell (left over hard-boiled eggs) but has been used to treat mild to moderate acne due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Sulfur dries out blemishes as it reduces the amount of sebum on the skin, and fights bacteria.  


A short form for “surface-active agent,” surfactants are chemically designed to reduce the surface tension between oil and water (remember: oil and water don’t like each other). In other words, they work in products to draw oil and water together. Chemical surfactants are responsible for the foaming you see in many cleansing products (cleansers and shampoos) and can have negative effects to the skin and hair as they strip the skin’s natural lipid barrier.

  • Tip: avoid sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES) in all cosmetic products 


The broad term for a type of surfactant made from the reaction between sulfuric acid and another chemical. Sulfates produced from petroleum and plant sources, like SLS and SLES, should be avoided in all skincare products. 


Titanium Dioxide

A naturally occurring mineral in the earth’s crust that filters UV radiation. It is often used in sunscreens for protection against UVA and UVB radiation. 

Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA)

A major ingredient in chemical peels (called TCA peels) due to its ability to reach and clean deep into the skin. TCA, when applied to the skin, burns and slowly removes the outer dead layers of the skin and allows for growth of new skin cells. TCA peels are recommended treatments for those with sun damage, acne and aging skin.  


UVA Rays

A type of ultra-violet (UV) radiation characterized by a longer wavelength (low energy) and associated with significant skin aging. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin layers and cause immediate effects to the skin, such as sun burns. These rays can penetrate through windows and clouds and are not absorbed by the ozone, which means sunscreen should be worn on a daily basis throughout the whole year!

  • Fact: 95% of the sun’s UV rays are classified as UVA rays.

UVA Rays

The other type of UV radiation characterized by a shorter wavelength that directly damage the outer layers of the skin and cause most skin cancers. These rays are the strongest in the summer months.

  • Fact: 5% of the sun’s UV rays are classified as UVB rays


Vitamin A

See retinol above.

Vitamin E

The name given to a group of antioxidants that are oil soluble. The only form of vitamin E that meets the National Institutes of Health requirements is tocopherol, and therefore is the only type of vitamin E found serums and moisturizers. Tocopherol fights against free radicals while moisturizing and strengthening the skin barrier.








Zinc Oxide 

An important sunscreen ingredient in mineral-based sunscreen that reflects UVA and UVB rays off the skin’s surface and back into the atmosphere.

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