Glossary/ Reading ingredients lists

Feeling confused about the million terms of the beauty world? Here’s a glossary that might help you out, whether you’re trying to identify a skincare concern, or trying to understand the ingredients list on a product you’re thinking of buying.

Acid mantle: Refers to your skin’s pH and health. Healthy skin has a pH of around 4.0 – 6.0. These outermost layers of our skin/ moisture barrier form the ‘acid mantle’, which plays a crucial role in the condition of our skin.

A healthy acid mantle with a low pH is able to stop the growth of harmful bacteria, fungi, parasites and other pathogens, as well as strengthen your skin’s moisture barrier. When your acid mantle is compromised, you will be more prone to irritation, breakouts, redness, dryness and sensitivity, and it has been shown that your skin can take between 14 to 20 hours to return to normal, during which time it is very vulnerable to pathogens.

Use skincare products (especially cleansers) that have a suitable pH of 5.0 – 7.0 to be safe, and use toners to bring your skin back to a healthy pH after cleansing.

Egs of low-pH cleansers:

Acids/ chemical exfoliation: More specifically, AHAs and BHAs (definition below), are useful chemical exfoliants for your skin. Benefits of exfoliation include:

  • Instant smoothening of skin texture; flakey and dull skin becomes brightened and supple
  • Reduction in clogged pores
  • Less chance of breakouts (due to cleaner skin), thus leading to clearer skin
  • Evening out of skin tone
  • Reduction of spots, discolouration, acne scars
  • Easier and more effective absorption of the rest of your skincare products (essences, lotions, serums, ampoules, moisturisers).

Alcohol: This is a controversial one. There are different kinds of alcohol that you will see on your formula list. Generally, the non-irritating ones (known as fatty alcohols) are cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol. The ones to be wary of are drying and sensitising, and often come in the form of ethanol or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol.

AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid): Water-soluble and ‘surface acting’ acid derived from natural substances (eg. milk, grapes). AHAs are good for dry and damaged skin because they exfoliate on the surface of the skin and even add moisture to the skin. AHAs are a great mild exfoliant, and can rejuvenate dull, flakey and ageing skin. However, their effects can only be seen on the ‘surface’ of your skin, and don’t penetrate as deeply as BHAs.

Commonly found AHAs:

  • Lactic acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Citric acid
  • Mandelic acid
  • Tantaric acid
  • Malic acid

Antioxidants: A popular category of skincare that fights ageing and free radicals. Antioxidants can be found in products containing Vitamin C and E (the latter only as an active, not a preservative), green tea, coffee, berry, reservertrol, grape, niacinamide, etc.

BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid): Preferred for oily, acne-prone skin, and perfect for treating whiteheads and blackheads. BHAs penetrate deep into the skin, normalising and balancing the skin to treat acne. They have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, meaning that they are incredibly effective for acne and rosacea. However, BHAs are a bit strong for some people. Try to patch test with a BHA to see what your reaction is before trying it out on your whole face!

Commonly found BHAs:

  • Salicyclic acid
  • Benzoic acid
  • Buteric acid

Ceramide: Your skin’s outermost layer (the one people see) is made up of ceramide, fatty acids, and cholesterol that work together to keep the skin moist and supple. Ceramides make up about 40% of the lipids in the stratum corneum.

Cleansing balm: A cleansing oil in ‘balm’ form that is Step 1 in double cleansing. Banila’s Clean it Zero and Hemish’s All Clean Balm are famous egs of this.

Cleansing oil: Step 1 in double cleansing. Find out what some of my favourite cleansing oil products are here.

Collagen: A naturally-occuring connective tissue in your body that is the building block of your skin. Many products that claim to be pure collagen aim to reverse the effects of ageing and speed up the process of skin healing. Other products aim to induce the production of collagen in the body, leading to strengthen the skin barrier and improve skin functions. Products that contain Vitamin C, AHA or retinoids are believed to have long term collagen-producing effects.

Double cleansing: Washing your face twice each time; first with an oil-based cleanser, and then with a water-based one. Find out more about double cleansing here.

Emollient: An occlusive agent that forms a protective layer over the skin; a finishing agent in a moisturiser.

Free radicals: Highly destructive molecules linked to the damage of cells and your body’s DNA. Combat free radicals by using antioxidant products.

Gycols: Commonly seen on labels as Propylene Glycol, Butylene Glycol, and Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), gycols are used as stabilisers/ humectants to increase product absorption into your skin. There are claims out there that glycol is a skin irritant. Arguably the most ‘dangerous’ of all is propylene glycol — fun fact, pure propylene glycol is what makes up antifreeze!

Honey: Known for anti-bacterial and soothing properties, honey is a popular ingredient in anti-ageing and nourishing skincare.

Humectant: A substance that bonds with water molecules in your skin to increase your skin’s water content. Sort of the opposite of emollient. Humectants can help your skin draw moisture from humidity, and also enhance water absorption for your skin. Glycerin is one such commonly found humectant.

Hyaluronic acid (HA): Found in ingredients list as sodium hyaluronate and hydrolized hyaluronic acid, HA is a naturally-occuring humectant that helps introduce moisture back into the skin and protect your moisture barrier.

Mechanical/ physical exfoliation: Another way of exfoliating your skin (the other being chemical), where you use an ingredient that physically removes dead skin cells. Egs of this would be sugar/ apricot scrubs, electric cleaning brushes, wash cloths, sponges, etc.

Mineral oil: There’s some controversy surrounding mineral oil and whether or not its comedogenic (pore-clogging). Mineral oil is a hydrocarbon, and because of its large molecular structure, does not absorb into skin. This could lead to more sun damage and discolouration of the skin.

Moisture barrier: This refers to a layer that protects your skin, keeping moisture in. When our moisture barrier is compromised, this can lead to dryness, irritation, stinging, breakouts, redness, and acne. Common causes of moisture barrier compromise include: over-exfoliation, sun damage, and imbalance of PH (either by using products that are too alkaline or by cleansing too much).

Niacinamide, also known as Vitamin B3: Boosts skin immunity, restores your moisture barrier, reduces redness and irritation of skin, balances out oil production, protects skin from infrared light (which then activates free radicals), reduces hyperpigmentation, erases fine lines and wrinkles, and puts a glow back into dull and sallow skin.

Occlusive: Provides a layer of protection on top of the skin to protect it. An eg of of an occlusive product would be sleeping masks, which works to ‘seal in’ all your skincare products.

Parabens: A synthetic preservative commonly found in skincare to prevent bacteria growth and products last longer. There have been concerns about parabens emerging — most significantly, because of the link that parabens have to possible breast cancer. Commonly-found parabens in ingredients lists are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.

Phenoxyethanol: A popular synthetic preservative used in many skincare products for its antibacterial properties. It is generally not allowed to be present in any formula at an amount higher than 1%. This also means if you see ingredients that are so-called ‘active’ listed after Phenoxyethanol, you should just discount them, as they’re at an amount of less than 1%.

Photosensitising: Refers to your skin’s vulnerability to UV damage. Certain actives greatly increase your skin’s vulnerability to UV rays, and can cause pre-mature aging, increased sensitivity, sunspots and freckles, hyperpigmentation, and photoaging. Be aware of this especially when using AHAs and retinoids.

Propolis: Known as ‘bee glue’, propolis is made by bees to help keep their hives intact. With a ton of benefits for the skin — including anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory — it is popular in products that claim to heal, nourish, calm and repair skin.

Retinol: Commonly found in anti-ageing products, Retinol is a weaker, over-the-counter version of tretinoin (a retinoid) that helps to decrease fine lines, shrink pores, and improve skin texture. Retinol is photosensitising.

Retinoids: This Vitamin A derivative can unclog pores, boost collagen production and speed cell turnover (to decrease wrinkles), and speed cell turnover to improve skin texture and tone. Retinoids are photosensitising.

Rice water: Contains vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and is a great anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredient in skincare. Made famous by SKII products and COSRX rice overnight spa mask.

Sulphates: Sulphates are aggressive detergents made of sulphur-containing mineral salts. Most commonly used are most aggressive sulphates are Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES). Sulphates are an easy, cheap, and effective way to add a ‘foaming’ function to any beauty product.

However, sulphates, while powerful, are incredibly alkaline. It can wreck damage on your acid mantle (see above) and can work to strip your skin and hair of all nutrition. They can lead to itchy scalp/ skin, hair loss, acne and allergic reactions, and general dulling of the hair and skin.

Watch out for sulphates, which appear in ingredients lists as:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
  • Sodium Lauroyl Isoethionate
  • Sodium Lauroyl Taurate
  • Sodium Cocoyl Isoethionate
  • Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isoethionate
  • Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate
  • Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate

Silicones: Much like sulphates, silicones (also known as siloxane) is mud with ingredients lists these days. A synthetic and commonly found ingredient, silicones are responsible for that smooth texture your makeup primer gives, that silky shiny feeling you get after you condition your hair, and for waterproofing your sunscreen.

Some people believe that silicones trap dirt, oil, bacteria and pollutants in your skin and pores, leading to an increased risk of acne, breakouts, irritated and dry skin, and general sensitivity. Have you ever tried to remove your makeup, only to have it sliding around your face instead? Probably an effect of silicones.

When used in hair products, silicones form a waterproof coat over your hair strands — while this makes your hair feel soft and look shiny, some believe this is actually covering up damage instead. Your hair remains damaged underneath, and what’s worse, silicones might end up coating your scalp, leading to dandruff, dryness, and general irritation.

Do note that there are two camps on silicones — while some people believe it is pore-clogging and/ or a skin irritant, there is evidence that commercially used silicones in skincare are water-soluble, evaporate quickly, and thus might not have any acne-causing effect at all.

If you’re not sure what to think, just focus on what your skin reacts to. If you find yourself sensitive to silicone-based products, then do steer clear! If not, there’s no harm continuing to use them.

Silicones appear on ingredients lists as anything ending with -cone, such as:

  • Methicone
  • Phenyl trimethicone
  • Dimethicone
  • Cyclomethicone
  • Dimethiconol
  • Dimethicone copolyol

UVA: These rays penetrate deep into the skin, and prolonged exposure to UVA sun rays can cause premature ageing and damage your skin’s immune system.

When choosing sunscreen, look out for “PA” protection, which denotes the amount of protection you will get from UVA damage. PA can range from PA+ to PA++++.

UVB: UVB rays cause damage to the surface of your skin, and play a significant role in the development of skin cancer.

When choosing sunscreen, bear in mind that SPF refers to the amount of protection you get from UVB rays. Stating any SPF above 50 is now no longer allowed, so sunscreen with an SPF of more than 50 is denoted by “50+”. Pls note that your SPF is only valid if you use the same amount that they test with — which is 2mg per sqm of skin (roughly 1 tablespoonful for your entire face).

Vitamin C: A popular active, Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant used to lighten pigmentation and scars, and reduce visible signs of ageing. Commonly seen in ingredients lists as L-ascorbic acid (LAA). You might see Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP) on an ingredients list too — this is a Vitamin C derivative used as an antioxidant and lightening active (best at levels of above 10% for the latter).

Vitamin E: As an active, Vitamin E is known for its antioxidant properties. However, when it’s way way way at the bottom of your ingredient list (usually stated as Tocopheryol), it’s present only as a preservative and not an active.

Yeast/ fermented yeast: Said to have anti-oxidant, moisturising, skin lightening, and brightening properties. Especially popular in Asian beauty products, and made famous by the Missha Time Revolution First Treatment essence.