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The Dermatology Dictionary: An A-Z Guide of Go-To Skincare Terms

In the comprehensive and complex world of health and beauty, it’s often hard to know where to source go-to skincare information and advice from. Should you shun showbiz for science, or has a real-world customer acquired more knowledge than an expert? You’ve been told to read the label, but do you actually know what any of the words mean?

From AHA to BHA, to Kaolin and Melanin and everything in-between, the ability to identify and understand various ingredients and what they do is crucial to being able to establish a skincare routine that is right for you. Be it natural or scientifically enhanced, for dry skin, oily skin, young or mature, anything you buy from hydrating cleansers to blemish fighting exfoliators has a purpose and an intended result.

So, see below our very own self-compiled glossary of go-to skincare terms, conditions, ingredients and beauty products - and for easy reading, it’s in alphabetical order! It will always be added to and updated, so, bookmark this page for future reference now and you’ll never have to endlessly scroll through Google again… 


Acetone: A colourless, strong-smelling liquid most commonly used in nail polish removers

Acne: A skin condition that occurs when an over active sebaceous gland from within a hair follicle becomes clogged with oil , debris and dead skin cells, causing inflammation, swelling and redness. Sometimes more severe acne can become infected, causing puss

Active Ingredient: The chemical or molecule in a product that is doing what the product says it’s supposed to do (aka the core ingredient responsible for affecting the skin in the way it’s intended to, to achieve a change in skin condition/health)

Agar: An algae-derived gel substance (with mild antioxidant benefits) that is most commonly used as a thickener in makeup, skincare products, shampoo and food

Alcohol: Undrinkable ethyl alcohol in skincare can tighten pores, make creams feel lighter and help other ingredients penetrate the skin or it’s preservative powers. It is most commonly used in acne treatments and toners

Alkaline: Substances known as "basic" (they have a pH value greater than 7) and the opposite of acidic. When skin is too alkaline it gets dry and is prone to fine lines and wrinkles as well as redness and other textural changes. Long term this is prematurely ageing

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): A type of chemical exfoliant that loosens the bonds that hold skin cells together, which allows them to be easily swept away and detach from skin surface, revealing new skin cells underneath. Glycolic acid and Lactic acid are the two most popular types of AHAs common in anti-ageing creams and cleansers

Aloe vera: A green gel substance obtained from the succulent plant species, and most commonly used in cosmetics to soften or soothe the skin after inflammation, trauma or sunburn

Amino acids: Molecules that combine to form proteins. The human body uses amino acids to help break down food. In skincare, they can be used to protect, heal, soothe, hydrate and strengthen the skin’s surface. Acting to accelerate skin cell turn over they work on brightening as well as assisting with superficial textural issues

Antioxidants: Substances that can prevent or slow damage to skin function and skin cells caused by free radicals and environmental aggressors like UV and pollution

Arbutin: Extracted from the bearberry plant, it’s a natural, complexion-brightening alternative to skin-bleaching. Arbutin is safe as it does not change the skin’s colour, it just lightens areas darkened by sun damage or hyperpigmentation

Argan oil: Taken from the kernels of an argan tree, it’s a fast-absorbing, vitamin E-rich extract that moisturises without clogging pores, reduces the appearance of wrinkles, smooths hair and strengthen nails

Azelaic acid: A natural component of wheat, barley, rye, and the yeast normally living on human skin, it’s a go-to skincare ingredient used in topical rosacea and acne treatments to kill off bacteria 


Balm: A combination of butters, oils and waxes used in skincare as the base to which essential oils or other active ingredients are added. Unlike creams, face balms do not contain water, but similarly they provide a protective layer to seal in your products for optimal results

Beta-glucans: Sugar molecules found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae and grains, such as oats and barley. Powerful soothing agents, they can strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier, fight germs, minimise redness and other signs of skin sensitivity

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): Chemical exfoliants that smooth fine lines, unclog pores, regulate sebum flow and dissolves dry and dead skin cells. One of the most common BHAs is salicylic acid, which is found in many acne washes/cleansers, creams and peels

Benzoyl peroxide: An active ingredient that kills bacteria often responsible for acne. It can, however, irritate or dry out skin with prolonged use, so always use it in conjunction with a good moisturiser and consult a dermal therapist

Biotin: A B Vitamin found in carrots, almonds, milk, and other foods. Aside from helping the body process fats and sugars, biotin can also regulate hair and nail growth, and is used in shampoos and conditioners to reduces hair breakage and increase elasticity

Blackheads: Oxidised oil and debris built up in pores or hair follicles. This debris can be dead skin cells, make up, pollution, oil and bacteria. Its dark colour is a result of the sebum's pigment being exposed to air – ‘oxidization’

Broad spectrum: A label applied to sunscreens that offers protection against the two types of ultraviolet sun rays, UVA and UVB 


Calamine: A pink powder consisting of zinc carbonate and ferric oxide, used to make a soothing lotion to treat itchiness from sunburn, insect bites, allergic reactions and other mild skin conditions

Cellulite: A tethered dermal fibre and fat deposit beneath the skin that appears on the surface as lumpy and dimpled, typically on the thighs, hips, buttocks and stomach. A healthy diet, swimming and weight bearing exercise is effective in treatment. Some other treatments such as laser and cavitation therapy can work successfully as well

Ceramides: Naturally occurring in the skin's oil, they are fats that hold together the cells of the epidermis to reinforce the skin's protective barrier

Collagen: A protein responsible for healthy joints and skin elasticity and thickness, keeping your face in particular looking firm, plump and youthful. It's in your bones, muscles and blood, and is widely used in purified form for cosmetic surgery. Its structure is a coil / helix, similar to a spring

Comedones: Closed, clogged pores or hair follicles. They may be open (see blackheads) or closed (see whiteheads). Sometimes packaging will list non-comedogenic as a formulation descriptor. Meaning topical skincare could be the cause however a lack of exfoliation can also result in congestion, exfoliate at a minimum once a week to avoid cellular debris build up 

Copper peptides: Increase collagen, glycosaminoglycan and adhesive protein production and create a firmer skin structure. Also known for its anti-inflammatory support and regulating the skin's immune response when exposed to external aggressors

Cruelty free: A product developed without any testing on animals. Not to be confused with the term 'vegan' (see below)


Dehydrated skinA condition where the skin lacks water. It can be caused by weather & seasonal changes, an unhealthy diet, contact with heavily chlorinated / chemically-treated water or potent household products

Dermatitis: A common skin irritation (that can have many causes and forms) and usually involves itchy, dry skin or a rash. If severe, it can also cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake. Scarring can occur

Dermatologically tested: A product that has been tested on human skin. The formula has been found to be mostly safe and was well tolerated by test subjects (i.e in most cases it didn’t cause a reaction)

Detox: Removing toxins from your body. In skincare, there’s really no such thing as a detox, but you can use products that focus on removing dead skin cells and excess oil or you can just abstain from some products all together to give your skin a break

Dry skin: A term used to describe skin that is lacking or has insufficient amounts of oils like ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. This can cause an overproduction of sebum, your skin’s naturally produced oil. This can create oily, congested and thickened concerns 


Eczema: Aka Atopic dermatitis, is an itchy inflammation of the skin. It can be managed with antihistamines or creams, and it’s advisable to minimise your use of fragrances, foods, soaps or other potential irritants to avoid flare ups

Elastin: Stretchy structural proteins that allow skin to snap back into place. Together with collagen, it makes up the skin’s main proteins and is particularly vulnerable to sun damage

Elixir: A combination, concoction or “potion” even, of various oils. They usually contain herbal infusions, botanical extracts or butters. In addition to hydrating, they help heal and nourish the skin to promote a brighter, clearer and more moisturised complexion

Emollient: Moisturising ingredients that can penetrate into the spaces between skin cells, which leaves the skin feeling softer and smoother. Face oils generally act as emollients

Essence: A water-based skincare product that contains a high content of active ingredients to hydrate, protect, and boost the overall health of skin

Exfoliant: A go-to skincare product designed to remove dead cells from the surface of the skin. Also known as a facial scrub, exfoliators help prevent build-ups that can result in blemishes / congestion and will improve the texture and feel of skin 


Free radicals: An uncharged and unstable molecule that damages skin cells. They’re missing an electron, and if they steal one from the atoms in your skin, it damages your DNA and breaks down your skin's collagen, leading to premature wrinkling, dark spots and saggy skin

Fragrance-free: AKA unscented, meaning nothing synthetic has been added for extra scent. You may be able to smell the natural aroma of the raw ingredients used, it might contain chemicals that neutralise/mask the odours of other ingredients or the product may just have little to no detectable smell at all. Fragrance is the #1 cause of allergic reactions in skincare, so fragrance-free products are recommended for people with sensitive skin


Genistein: A naturally occurring plant hormone found in soybeans. In skincare, it’s known for its brightening and antioxidant effects. Part of the plant estrogen family, studies have shown that it can stimulate collagen production in postmenopausal women

Glycerin: A humectant (find in H) that attracts water into the outer layer of your skin from deeper levels of your skin and the air. A common ingredient in moisturisers and hydrating cleansers, it’s effective and inexpensive

Guaraná: A go-to ingredient in anti-ageing and cellulite creams, it’s a caffeine-packed seed extract that smooths the skin by ramping up blood flow. Applied topically, it tightens, moisturises and reduces puffiness

Gua sha: A traditional Chinese healing method that uses a smooth-edged tool to stroke the skin. The motion can cause redness by raises small, red, rash-like dots that show under your skin called petechiae. Gua sha is used to de-puff the faces and treat chronic pain and muscular tension all over the body. Careful, bruising can occur


Humectant: A common moisturising agent found in lotions, shampoos and other beauty products for your hair and skin. They're known for their ability to retain moisture. Previously Ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid (see below) are common examples of humectants

Hyaluronic acid: Naturally occurring in the body, it’s the main component of what gives your skin structure and is responsible for its plump and hydrated look. Products containing hyaluronic acid (aka sodium hyaluronate) are non-greasy and lightweight

Hydrated: A term used for skin that has an adequate amount of moisture / water content. Having hydrated skin is very important to maintain anti-oxidant stability within skin. A lack of hydration in skin can present at flaky, roughened and inflamed

Hydrogel: A gel that holds 99% of liquid due to its molecular capacity of holding 500 times its size. It’s used extensively in the medical world for wound dressing and to speed up the healing process whilst cooling affected areas. For the face, it commonly comes in toner or mask form

Hypoallergenic: Skincare and makeup products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions and are gentler on the skin than other products

Hyperpigmentation: A common condition that causes certain areas of your skin to become darker than the rest due to an overproduction of melanin. It can appear in small patches or cover larger areas

Hypopigmentation: The opposite to the above, when your body isn’t producing enough melanin / pigmentation and bleaches in parts, causing white patches on the skin (aka Vitiligo) 


Injectables: A term used to describe cosmetic injections containing either a fluid/gel to modulate muscle contraction or filler.


Jojoba oil: An oil extracted from the seeds of an American shrub. When used on the face and body, it soothes and moisturises, keeping the skin from looking oily whilst helping prevent clogged pores. Jojoba oil composition mimics the skin’s natural oil, sebum. It can also be added to haircare products to combat dryness such as dandruff, breakage, and split ends


Kaolin: A fine soft white clay used for making porcelain and china, as a filler in paper and textiles, and in medicines. It’s also the mildest and most gentle clay mask ingredient you can use on your face

Keratosis pilaris: Sometimes referred to as “chicken skin,” it’s a common and harmless condition that causes rough patches and small, acne-like bumps on the skin. It’s triggered by a build-up of keratin around the hair follicle, which can clog pores and cause inflammation or redness. Treatments with chemical exfoliators AKA acids, is advised


Lactic acid (LA): A colourless, syrupy acid formed in sour milk, fruit and vegetable sources as well as produced in musculature tissues during strenuous exercise. LA is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and is used to remove dead skin cells, lighten dark spots, and improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles

Lipids: Organic compounds found all over your body. They occur both on the top of your skin (as sebum) and within the stratum corneum (as ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids)


Maskne: A portmanteau of "mask" and "acne”, the term surfaced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to refer to acne and other rashes of the face that occur in association with frequent mask wearing

MelanomaAn aggressive type of skin cancer that develops in the skin cells and usually occurs on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun or UV radiation

Melanin: The pigment that gives skin its colour, created by cells called melanocytes. It occurs in the hair, skin and iris of the eye in people and animals. It is responsible for tanning

Melasma: A chronic skin condition characterised by brown patches of pigment usually on the face. It tends to occur more in women and can be triggered by hormonal changes such as pregnancy, UV rays and heat

Micellar water: Water containing a mild detergent that forms large micelles (aggregations of molecules) and is used as a cleanser for the skin. Rather than washing it off, a micellar water cleanser is usually wiped on (which also wipes off makeup, oil and dirt) and then left to dry. It’s mild enough for sensitive and acne-prone skin

Microdermabrasion: Performed by dermatologists and skincare specialists, this treatment exfoliates the top layer of dead skin cells with a diamond tip wand or fine aluminum-oxide crystals. It removes the thicker, uneven outer layer of skin and can treat scarring, discolouration, sun damage and stretch marks

Microneedling: A cosmetic procedure that involves pricking the skin with tiny sterilised needles. The small wounds cause your body to make more collagen and elastin, which heal your skin and help you look younger

Mineral makeup: Products made of natural minerals from the earth, such as iron, mica and zinc oxides. Benefits include that it has built-in sunscreen, it’s non-comedogenic, is lightweight and doesn’t look or feel like you’re wearing makeup (even though it gives a good coverage)

Mist: A skincare product that you spray on your face. Not only are they refreshing and deliver an instant hit of hydration with ingredients like vitamins, extracts and essential oils, a liquid mist will set makeup, tighten pores, nourish skin and give you a healthy glow 


Natural: Products which contain ingredients that come from natural sources but are not necessarily organically produced. They may contain preservatives and chemicals like other products, however, their main ingredients are plant-based (such as herbs, roots, essential oils and flowers)

Niacinamide: A form of vitamin B3 that can be applied to the skin. It can be helpful for managing acne, rosacea, and signs of aging including hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps balance oil production and is good for all skin types

Non-toxic: Aka “clean” or “safe” products that are free from ingredients that can cause toxic reactions in humans. It can also mean packaging, such as using a biodegradable material in lieu of plastic 


Occlusives: Thick moisturising agents, such as petrolatum or silicone, that form a protective layer on the surface of the skin and to slow moisture loss. A common treatment for dry skin conditions

Oils: Applied to cleansed skin, alone or under a moisturising cream, they provide the skin with nourishment and vitamins that can penetrate into the upper layers

Organic: Refers to how a product’s ingredients were farmed, i.e naturally sourced ingredients that are grown and processed free from pesticides and harsh chemical additives 


Parabens: A type of artificial preservative used in makeup, body and skincare products to stop the growth of bacteria, mold and fungi; however, they can irritate (especially for people who have sensitive skin or skin conditions)

Peptides: Tiny protein fragments and chains of amino acids that promote collagen growth and help repair skin. In skincare products, peptides are used because they penetrate deep into the skin

Petroleum jelly: A purified by-product of petroleum, it’s a thick, odorless, and colourless mixture of mineral oils and waxes that coat the skin to hydrate and prevent water loss. It’s good for dry skin, but can clog pores and cause breakouts in other skin types

pH balance: This “power of hydrogen” indicator shows how alkaline or acidic the body is. The ideal pH is 6.5-7.5. A healthy pH balance can be maintained with a clean diet, drinking plenty of water and by adding a pH-balanced serum to your skincare regime

Probiotics: Strains of live, good bacteria derived from fermented foods and supplements or applied topically via mists, creams and serums to improve gut and skin health

Propolis: A resin-like combination of tree sap and beeswax made by bees to fill in honeycomb crevices. It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to heal wounds and smooth the skin

Psoriasis: A condition in which skin cells build up and form scales and itchy, dry patches, which can be triggered by infections, stress or cold. Topical ointments and medication can offer relief

Phthalates: Primarily used to keep plastic from becoming brittle and breaking. In cosmetic and skincare products, they can be used as a solvent or binding agent and in some of the fragrances in lotions and shampoos 



Retinoids: The general term used to describe all Vitamin A derivatives used in skincare

Retinol: A derivative of Vitamin A (see above) used in fine line fighting skincare products to stimulate the skin cell replenishment and increase collagen production

Rosacea: A common skin condition that causes blushing or flushing and visible blood vessels in your face. Triggers can include the weather (especially heat and UV levels), exercise, skincare ingredients, food or alcohol 


Salicylic acid: The only type of beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that is used in skincare products to treat acne. Perfect for oily skin, it’s best known for its ability to deep clean excess oil out of pores and reduce oil production

Sebum: An oily, waxy substance produced by your body's sebaceous glands. It coats, moisturises, and protects your skin. An overproduction of sebum can lead to oily skin and breakouts

Sensitive skin: When the skin is easily irritated and experiences unpleasant sensations, such as itching, tingling, burning, bleeding etc. Common sensitive skin conditions include (as mentioned previously) acne, eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea

Serums: Thin-viscosity topical products that contain concentrated amounts of active ingredients. They typically come in small bottles with a dropper, and you only need a few drops to treat your whole face

Sheet masks: Face-shaped masks that are typically made out of thin pieces of cloth with holes for your eyes, mouth, and nose. They're soaked in serums that are infused with ingredients that are meant to stay on the skin rather than be rinsed away

Silicone: Derived from sand and commonly used in serums and moisturisers. They create an elegant, silky, and spreadable texture and prevent moisture loss. Their properties also make them porous (allowing the skin to breathe)

Squalene: An oily liquid hydrocarbon that occurs in shark liver oil, plants and human sebum. It’s a light, moisturising ingredient used in many go-to skincare products, like anti-aging creams, lip gloss, and sunscreen

Stratum corneum: The outermost layer of your skin. It’s composed of skin cells held together by lipids with a layer of dead skin cells and oil on top. It keeps hydration in and potential irritants and allergens out

Sulfates: Chemicals used as cleansing agents such as in household cleaners, detergents and shampoo (to create a lathering effect to remove dirt and oil from your hair) 


Titanium dioxide: A solid white and naturally occurring mineral that is used in sunscreens to shield the skin against UVA and UVB rays (see below)

Toner: An astringent liquid applied to the skin to firm, reduce oiliness and help balance the skin’s pH

Triclosan: An antibacterial and antifungal agent used in cleansers for breakout-prone skin 


UVA rays: Natural energy produced by the sun. Ultraviolet A (UVA) has a long wavelength can cause premature skin aging. It damages the collagen and elastin in your skin, resulting in a tan

UVB rays: Natural energy produced by the sun. Ultraviolet B (UVB) has a short wavelength and is most associated with causing sunburn and skin cancers like melanoma 


Vampire Facial:  A cosmetic procedure that involves drawing blood from your arm, separating platelets and applying them back onto your face to hasten cell turnover and collagen growth. The benefits include younger looking skin

Vegan: Products not produced from an animal or an animal by-product. This means that traditional ingredients like beeswax, honey, collagen, lanolin and keratin are not used

Vitamin A: An essential nutrient that supports skin, eye, and reproductive health, and immune function. The skin absorbs vitamin A when applied topically, stimulating the production of new skin cells

Vitamin B: An antioxidant that helps to treat signs of ageing and alleviate sensitivities. The most common ones found in topical skincare products are vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), and vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

Vitamin C: A powerful antioxidant that neutralises free radicals on the skin. It can help strengthen and plump the skin, brighten dark spots and prevent hyperpigmentation from forming

Vitamin D: A fat-soluble vitamin that we can get from our diet but primarily is made by our own bodies. It can provide antioxidant protection, improve hydration, and block UV radiation on the skin

Vitamin E: A moisturising antioxidant that protects the skin against free-radical damage and is used in many cosmetic products

Vitamin K: Aka phytonadione, vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin. Applying it to the surface of the skin can promote a smoother, more youthful glow due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties 


Water: Distilled, deionised or purified and free from contamination, water (or Aqua as it’s often called) plays an important part in skincare and cosmetics. It hydrates and cools the skin, helps to dissolve ingredients and increase absorption and aids in the formation of emulsions (creating a lighter textured product)

Whiteheads: Closed skin pores or hair follicles clogged with oil, dead skin cells and bacteria

Windburn: A painful skin inflammation that occurs after prolonged exposure to windy environments. You can get windburn almost anywhere a cold breeze blows

Witch Hazel: An astringent lotion made from the bark and leaves of the witch hazel flower plant. It can relieve inflammation, tighten pores and help reduce razor bumps and acne 




Zinc Oxide: An earth mineral used as a thickening, lubricating and active ingredient in sunscreens and makeup. It’s very effective in preventing UVA and UVB rays from entering the skin and doing damage

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