Ingredient awareness: The key to smarter skin care choices
Developing ingredient awareness is a critical first step to achieving healthy skin through better products. There are a lot of products out there that are just fluff; it’s inevitable in an industry that’s pretty lightly regulated and caters to a market known for making emotional purchases. But among all those wonder creams that don’t work and miracle serums with nothing in them but water, glycerin, and empty promises, you can find many well formulated and genuinely effective gems. Save yourself time and money by learning how to assess an ingredients list to determine whether a product is 100% pure snake oil filtrate or has the potential to fit into an effective skin care routine.
It all boils down to the ingredients, after all. Once you have a basic understanding of what ingredients do, which ones have been proven, and what your skin likes (and doesn’t like), you’ll be able to make much smarter purchasing decisions. You’ll accelerate your skin’s improvement and reduce the number of products you buy that don’t work out for you. This is well worth the time spent studying up on ingredients.
When it comes to Asian skin care, meanwhile, you’ll also want to bone up on some basic terms that may be unfamiliar to you. If you’re unsure of what an ampoule does or what makes it different from an essence or a toner, you’ll be lost as to how to use your products and may not get their maximum effect. Use the glossary below to find your footing in this brave new world.
Asian skin care glossary
Much like my face, this glossary of terms is a work in progress, and I welcome my readers’ help. If there are any important terms you feel I’ve omitted or any definitions you feel I’ve botched, please leave a comment below or send me an email. I read all my comments and promise I’ll consider your suggestions.
Acid mantle: The protective layer at the surface of skin. Comprised primarily of sebum, lipids, and unshed dead skin cells, the acid mantle serves as a barrier to keep moisture in the skin and to keep harmful bacteria out. A healthy acid mantle is slightly acidic in order to maintain an environment inhospitable to microbial growth. The integrity of the acid mantle is often compromised through overexfoliation and/or the use of harsh, alkaline cleansers. A weakened acid mantle can lead to dehydrated skin due to the barrier’s inability to prevent trans-epidermal water loss, an oily appearance as natural oils leak out onto the surface of skin, and an increase in acne.
Actives: Skin care ingredients that aim to effect actual physical change to skin structure or cell behavior, as opposed to producing a superficial or temporary effect. Common actives include chemical exfoliants and cell-communicating ingredients.
Adapalene: A prescription-strength retinoid commonly used to treat acne. Can be extremely irritating; is photosensitizing.
Adenosine: A cell-communicating ingredient with anti-inflammatory and possible anti-wrinkle effects.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA): Water-soluble chemical exfoliants that assist in the removal of dead skin by breaking down the bonds between the cells, accelerating skin renewal. AHAs are effective for smoothing skin, treating acne, reducing fine lines, brightening skin tone, stimulating collagen production, and fading excess pigmentation caused by acne or sun exposure. AHAs are also humectant moisturizing ingredients. Common AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. AHAs are photosensitizing.
Ampoule: A treatment product common in a Korean skin care routine. Ampoules are thick, viscous liquids made to deliver a high concentration of actives targeted at specific skin problems. Technically, ampoules are more concentrated than serums and are therefore the most intensive of the treatment steps. In practice, however, the terms “ampoule” and “serum” are often used interchangeably and the distinction is meaningless except when used within a single skin care line that utilizes both types of product.
Antioxidant: A class of skin care ingredients that prevents cell and DNA damage due to oxidative stress by free radicals. Vitamin C is a common antioxidant.
Barrier function: The ability of the skin’s acid mantle to prevent trans-epidermal water loss and microbial infections.
Beta hydroxy acid (BHA): Oil-soluble chemical exfoliants that assist in the clearing of pores by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells to allow them to be cleansed away. Widely (though incorrectly) applied to salicylic acid. Betaine salicylate is also a BHA. BHAs are anti-inflammatory and commonly used in the prevention and treatment of acne. They can be drying and irritating for sensitive or dehydrated skin.
Betaine salicylate: A less common but more gentle BHA than salicylic acid. At 4% concentration and a pH between 3 and 4, betaine salicylate is effective at loosening dead skin cells deep within pores to prevent acne and reduce the appearance of pores. Betaine salicylate is anti-inflammatory.
Broad spectrum: The designation used on US sunscreen product labeling to denote that the product protects against both UVA and UVB radiation.
Bubble cleanser: A cleanser that foams up on its own, either when dispensed or after being applied to the skin.
Cell-communicating ingredient: A class of actives capable of regulating and optimizing the behavior of skin cells. Common cell-communicating ingredients include retinoids, niacinamide, and peptides.
Chemical exfoliant: A class of actives that exfoliate by weakening or dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be shed at an accelerated rate. AHAs and BHAs are chemical exfoliants.
Cleansing balm: An oil-based emulsifying cleanser formulated and packaged in a semisolid form.
Collagen: A naturally occurring connective tissue that serves as the “scaffolding” of skin. Collagen is abundant in youth, resulting in a firm and smooth appearance and resilient texture, but breaks down due to age and UV damage, leading to reduced resilience, sagging skin, and wrinkles. When applied topically, collagen acts as an emollient and can help strengthen the skin barrier and improve its function, but topical collagen cannot penetrate into the deeper layers of skin, replace lost collagen, or stimulate increased collagen production. Collagen production can be stimulated through long-term use of properly formulated vitamin C, AHA, or retinoids.
Dimethicone: A commonly used silicone with emollient and occlusive properties.
Double cleansing: A two-step nighttime cleansing process that cleans skin more thoroughly than a single cleanser alone. the first step uses an oil-based emulsifying cleanser to loosen sunscreen and makeup. The second step typically uses a foaming cleanser to remove any remaining oil residue, sebum, and dirt. Double cleansing is popular in Asia and gaining traction in the West.
Emollient: A class of moisturizing ingredient. Emollients fill in the microscopic cracks and gaps between skin cells to help seal in moisture and produce a temporary smoothing and softening effect. Commonly used emollients include essential fatty acids and animal and plant oils.
Emulsion: A light and often slightly runny liquid moisturizing product.
Essence: A light-textured and usually hydrating treatment product characterized by a moderate concentration of targeted actives. Usually comes in watery or gel textures.
Exfoliation: The removal of dead skin cells in order to reveal healthier-looking living skin. Exfoliation can be either chemical or physical.
First essence: A watery essence product characterized by a high concentration of yeast ferment extracts and intended for application as the first skincare step after cleansing. Some well known first essences include Shiseido’s SK-II Facial Treatment Essence and Missha’s Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence.
Free radical: Highly reactive molecule capable of damaging cells and DNA. Can be neutralized by antioxidants.
Glycerin: A common humectant moisturizing ingredient capable of binding up to 100 times its weight in water.
Glycolic acid: An AHA and humectant moisturizing ingredient. Glycolic acid products require a pH between 3 and 4 and an AHA concentration of 5-8% to exfoliate effectively but safely. Photosensitizing.
Humectant: A class of moisturizing ingredient. Humectants attract water and bind it within the skin for a hydrating effect but do not seal moisture into skin and therefore require an additional emollient and/or occlusive moisturizing ingredient or product to prevent trans-epidermal water loss. Commonly used humectants include glycerin and hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid: A naturally occuring humectant whose production in the skin decreases with age. Hyaluronic acid is capable of holding up to 1000 times its weight in water and is available in various sizes and molecular weights. Some common hyaluronic acid variations are sodium hyaluronate and hydrolized hyaluronic acid.
Hydrogel mask: A treatment product consisting of a treatment essence thickened to a solid gel around an inner mesh or gauze mask sheet that holds the gel in the shape of a face mask. Hydrogel masks are similar to sheet masks in that they are applied to the face for a specified amount of time, but, due to their ability to adhere much more closely to the face and to deliver much more essence, are considered more effective.
Konjac sponge: A gentle, absorbent exfoliating cleansing tool made from the konnyaku plant, a tuber native to Japan.
Lactic acid: An AHA and humectant moisturizing ingredient. Lactic acid products require a pH between 3 and 4 and an AHA concentration of 5-8% to exfoliate effectively but safely. Photosensitizing.
L-ascorbic acid (LAA): A common form of topical vitamin C. In concentrations of 10-20% and at a pH between 3 and 4, LAA lightens hyperpigmentation and brightens skin tone; long-term LAA use also stimulates increased collagen production and reduces fine lines and wrinkles. LAA is a photoprotective antioxidant that can help increase the UV protection provided by sunscreen. LAA is extremely sensitive to light and heat and will oxidize and lose its effectiveness rapidly unless stored in a dark or opaque container and kept in a cool, dark place.
Lipid: A fat-based or fat-like emollient moisturizing ingredient. Sebum is a human lipid; many skin care products use plant- and animal-derived lipids. Derived from sheep sebum, lanolin contains lipids; so does olive oil and many other botanical oils. Lipids help to reinforce the skin barrier and soften and smooth skin.
Lotion: Perhaps the most confusing of Asian skin care terms. In Japanese skin care, lotions are actually watery or viscous liquids and usually serve as hydrating toners.
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP): A stable vitamin C derivative primarily used as an antioxidant. In concentrations of 10% or higher, MAP may be effective at lightening hyperpigmentation.
Mandelic acid: The gentlest of the common AHAs and the most suitable for darker complexions; a humectant moisturizing ingredient. Mandelic acid products require a pH between 3 and 4 and an AHA concentration of 5-8% to exfoliate effectively but safely. Photosensitizing.
Mineral oil: An extremely common petroleum-derived occlusive moisturizing ingredient.
Moisture barrier: See acid mantle.
Niacinamide: A cell-communicating ingredient that has been proven to lighten excess pigmentation, improve barrier function, increase elasticity, and stimulate greater lipid production in the skin.
Occlusive: A class of moisturizing ingredient. Occlusives form a physical barrier atop the surface of the skin, preventing trans-epidermal water loss. Commonly used occlusives include petroleum-derived substances such as mineral oil and silicones such as dimethicone.
PA: The metric used on Asian sunscreen products to denote UVA protection when the products are used in the correct quantity of 2mg/square centimeter of skin. In Japan, PA values range from PA+ to PA++++, with PA+ being the lowest and PA++++ the highest. In Korea, PA ratings only range from PA+ to PA+++ for regulatory reasons, although some PA+++ sunscreens may provide UVA protection equivalent to PA++++.
Patch test: To tryout a product on a small and usually less visible area of skin in order to evaluate its ability to irritate or trigger acne.
Peptide: A class of cell-communicating ingredient. Peptides are protein fragments comprised of amino acid chains; they show potential for regulating skin function in order to address various skin issues, such as photoaging.
pH: A measure of how acidic (low pH) or alkaline (high pH) a substance is. In skin care, pH values are important in water-based cleansers, since alkaline cleansers can damage the acid mantle, and in chemical exfoliants, since they must be at a pH low enough to exfoliate but not so low as to incur the risk of chemical burns.
Photoaging: Visible skin sagging and wrinkling due to UV exposure. Photoaging can be prevented with diligent sunscreen application and somewhat repaired by the actives vitamin C, AHA, and retinoids.
Photosensitizing: Increasing skin’s susceptibility to UV damage. Actives that accelerate skin cell shedding and renewal, such as AHAs and retinoids, are particularly photosensitizing. Photosensitizing ingredients or products must be used in conjunction with rigorous sun protection, as unprotected UV exposure while in a photosensitized state can result in increased sun damage, hyperpigmentation, and photoaging.
Physical exfoliation: The manual removal of dead skin cells. Common methods of physical exfoliation include washcloths, scrubs, and manual or electric cleansing brushes.
Retinoid: A class of powerful cell-communicating ingredients that accelerate skin renewal and optimize skin behavior. Retinoids are beneficial for a variety of skin problems, including acne and photoaging. Related to vitamin A, retinoids are available in both over-the-counter and prescription-only strengths. Common OTC retinoids include retinol and retinyl palmitate. Common prescription retinoids include tretinoin and adapalene. Retinoids are photosensitizing.
Retinol: A common over-the-counter retinoid typically used in anti-aging treatments. Retinol is of moderate strength and is photosensitizing.
Retinyl palmitate: A very weak retinoid sometimes used in anti-wrinkle products. Retinyl palmitate is photosensitizing.
Salicylic acid: A chemical exfoliant commonly thought of as a BHA. At 2% concentration and a pH between 3 and 4, loosens dead skin cells deep within pores to prevent acne and reduce the appearance of pores.
Sebum: A type of lipid produced naturally by the skin. Sebum is necessary to maintain skin elasticity and moisture levels and is a vital component of the acid mantle. Excess sebum production or sebum leakage due to a compromised acid mantle can result in an unpleasantly oily appearance, enlarged pores, and increased acne.
Serum: A treatment product characterized by a high concentration of actives in a thick, viscous liquid base. See also: ampoule.
Sheet mask: A hydrating treatment product delivered via an essence- or lotion-soaked cotton mask placed on the skin and left for a specified amount of time. Sheet masks encourage penetration by preventing product evaporation and thus exposing skin to the treatment essence or lotion for longer than normal application is capable of doing. May be infused with actives.
Sherbet cleanser: See cleansing balm.
Silicone: A class of moisturizing ingredients derived from silica and capable of both emollient and occlusive effects. The smooth texture they impart makes silicones common as slip agents and in makeup primers, where they work to fill in enlarged pores and textural irregularities. Most skin care ingredients ending in –cone are silicones; one of the more common is dimethicone.
Skin barrier: See acid mantle.
Sleeping mask/sleeping pack: A cream or gel moisturizing treatment product meant to be used as an occasional last step in the nighttime skin routine. May be infused with treatment actives and is usually highly occlusive.
Sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP): A stable vitamin C derivative with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-acne properties and some skin lightening potential.
SPF: A metric used worldwide to denote the UVB protection of a sunscreen product if used in the correct quantity of 2mg/square centimeter of skin.
Sulfates: Foaming agents common used in cleansers, shampoos, and toothpastes, often the culprit in stripped, dehydrated skin and a damaged moisture barrier.
Sunscreen: A liquid, lotion, cream, or solid product designed to protect skin from damage caused by UV exposure. SPF is the standardized measure of a sunscreen’s protection against UVB and is used worldwide. PA is the standardized measure of a sunscreen’s protection against UVA and is used in Asian sunscreen products. Because protection measures are standardized and sunscreen products are regulated, SPF and PA are reliable measures of the product’s UV protection when used in the correct amount, no matter what form the sunscreen product takes.
Steam cream: A thick, emollient and occlusive moisturizing product, named for the steam injected into the product during the manufacturing process.
Toner: An umbrella term for liquid skincare products applied to bare skin immediately after cleansing. In Western skin care, toners are often astringent and used to strip away surface oils and remove any remaining traces of dirt or makeup. In Asian skin care, however, toners are often hydrating and used to soothe skin and lower its pH in preparation for subsequent products. Toners are said to assist in product absorption. They may also include treatment actives.
Trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL): The natural process of water loss from the skin. Can be exacerbated by arid weather conditions or a compromised acid mantle; can be reduced or prevented through the use of occlusive moisturizing products.
Tretinoin: A prescription-strength retinoid commonly indicated to reverse visible photoaging or to treat acne. Can be extremely irritating; is photosensitizing.
UVA: Long-wave ultraviolet radiation generated by the sun. Exposure is responsible for visible skin aging in the form of wrinkles and sunspots and for the development of skin cancer. UVA intensity does not vary by time of day or by the season, and UVA rays penetrate both cloud cover and glass. PA ratings measure the protection a sunscreen product provides against UVA rays.
UVB: Medium-wavelength ultraviolet radiation generated by the sun. Exposure is responsible for skin tanning and burning and for the development of skin cancer. Intensity varies by season, time of day, and cloud cover. UVB rays do not penetrate glass. SPF measures the protection a sunscreen product provides against UVB rays.
Vitamin C: An antioxidant, cell-communicating ingredient typically used to lighten excess pigmentation and treat the visible signs of aging. L-ascorbic acid (LAA) is the most common form of vitamin C, but sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP), magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP), and ascorbyl glucoside are also used.
Yeast ferment: In food, the fermentation process breaks down ingredients into smaller and more bioavailable components. Fermentation is claimed to have the same effect on skin care products. Yeast ferment ingredients are particularly popular and are said, variously, to have antioxidant, anti-aging, oil-controlling, and skin lightening properties.