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Skin Care Glossary

When trying out a new product or service, you can be bombarded with terminology that leaves you scratching your head. I broke down some of the most common ingredient in skin care to help with the confusion.

ACTIVATED CHARCOAL

Long used in emergency rooms to treat alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses, this form of carbon — found in cleansers, masks, toothpastes, health drinks — has been specially treated to increase its absorbency, allowing it to sponge up dirt and oil from pores (or toxins from the stomach when taken internally).

ALGURONIC ACID

A blend of naturally sourced, sustainably produced algae extracts developed and trademarked for the Algenist line, it claims to minimize wrinkles while firming and brightening the skin.

ALPHA HYDROXY ACIDS (AHAS)

These chemicals loosen the fluid that binds surface skin cells together, allowing dead ones to be whisked away. This “glue” becomes denser as we age, slowing down the natural cell-turnover process that reveals younger skin making AHAs a particularly useful ingredient in fine line-fighting creams and cleansers.

ALPHA LIPOIC ACID

The building blocks of the proteins that make up collagen and elastin — substances that give the skin its structural support. Aging and a combination of external factors (including UV light and environmental toxins) reduce the level of amino acids in the body; creams containing amino acids may help restore them.

AZELAIC ACID

It’s a natural component of wheat, barley, rye, and the yeast normally living on human skin. Used in topical rosacea and acne treatments, synthetic versions help kill bacteria living in pores while reducing inflammation. It’s also used to lighten melasma patches and other hyperpigmented areas.

BENZOYL PEROXIDE

An acne medicine that kills pimple-causing bacteria and exfoliates pores. It can be found in concentrations up to 10 percent in over-the-counter products.

BIOTIN

Small amounts of this B vitamin are found in carrots, almonds, milk, and other foods. Aside from helping the body process fats and sugars, oral biotin is important for regulating hair and nail growth. Shampoos and conditioners containing it claim the ingredient reduces hair breakage and increases elasticity.

BOTOX

The trademark name for one of the forms of botulinum toxin used in injections targeting facial wrinkles. Botox paralyzes facial muscles, such as those that cause frown lines, in order to soften wrinkles.

BROAD SPECTRUM

A term for sunscreens proven to defend against both UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) radiation. Passing the FDA’s broad-spectrum test shows that a product provides UVA protection that is proportional to its UVB protection. “Scientific data demonstrated that products that are ‘Broad Spectrum SPF 15 [or higher]’ have been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when used with other sun protection measures, in addition to helping prevent sunburn,” states the FDA website.

CITRIC ACID

Found in many fruits, the antioxidant alpha hydroxy acid acts as a natural preservative. When used in peels, masks, and washes, it brightens and exfoliates the upper layers of the skin, encouraging new collagen formation.

COLLAGEN

This protein makes up 80 percent of the skin, and its fibers give skin its firmness and strength. Collagen naturally breaks down over time, but certain ingredients, such as retinol and peptides (including Matrixyl), can stimulate new collagen production. The most abundant protein in the human body, it makes skin thick, strong, and smooth. Laser treatments and retinoids build it up; UV rays and free radicals tear it down.

COOLSCULPTING

Invented by Harvard dermatologists, Dieter Manstein and R. Rox Anderson, CoolSculpting is a nonsurgical fat-reduction treatment that uses extreme cold to permanently kill fat cells (i.e. the science of cryolipolysis). Crystalized fat cells are naturally metabolized and eliminated by the body over the course of several weeks.

DIHYDROXYACETONE (DHA)

A natural carbohydrate, DHA is the active ingredient in most sunless tanners.

DIMETHICONE

A slippery form of silicone that hydrates and protects the skin; often found in oil-free moisturizers.

DMAE

Shorthand for dimethylaminoethanol, it’s produced by the human brain and found in sardines and other small fish. While the research is mixed, oral and topical forms claim to protect skin-cell membranes from free-radical damage, while firming, smoothing and brightening the complexion.

ELASTIN

Stretchy structural proteins that allow skin to snap back into place, elastin is particularly vulnerable to sun damage.

ELLAGIC ACID

Commonly added to skin-care products and supplements, this polyphenol exists naturally in pecans, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, walnuts, dark-colored grapes, and red wines, and possesses antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.

EPIGALLOCATECHIN GALLATE (EGCG)

The main active component of green tea, this anti-inflammatory polyphenol has been shown to reduce sun damage and slow signs of aging by neutralizing free radicals.

FIBROBLASTS

Plentiful in connective tissue throughout the body, including the dermis, these cells produce the collagen and elastin responsible for keeping skin pliant and springy. Topical retinoids ramp up collagen production in fibroblasts.

FILLER

Injectable dermal fillers, made from FDA-approved hyaluronic acid or a biostimulatory (collagen-growing) materials, restore fullness to the face. They can be used to plump lips, minimize wrinkles and scars, smooth under-eye hollows, and contour cheeks, temples, noses, and jaw lines.

FRUIT ENZYMES

Typically sourced from papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin, they break down the keratin proteins comprising dead skin cells, offering a mild form of exfoliation.

GLYCATION

This age-accelerating process occurs when sugar molecules in the bloodstream bind to protein tissue throughout the body, creating advanced glycation end products (AGEs), free-radical damage, and inflammation. Among the tissues affected are the collagen and elastin fibers responsible for keeping skin smooth, plump, and flexible, which is why scientists now link a chronically high-glycemic diet to premature wrinkling and sagging.

GLYCERIN

It’s a humectant, meaning it pulls moisture from the atmosphere to hydrate skin. Commonly used in moisturizers and hydrating cleansers, this is an inexpensive ingredient.

GLYCOLIC ACID

An alpha hydroxy acid derived from sugarcane, it dissolves the gluelike substance between skin cells, aiding in exfoliation and improving skin texture. It’s commonly used in high-end products, such as cleansers, creams, and peels.

HEMP SEED OIL

Pressed from the seeds of industrial hemp plants, this supercharged moisturizer packs vitamins, minerals, and inflammation-quelling essential fatty acids.

HYALURONIC ACID

A sugar molecule found naturally in the skin, it increases skin’s moisture content and prevents water loss. It can hold 1,000 times its weight in water and is typically found in expensive creams and serums.

HYDRAFACIAL

The trademarked name for a four-step exfoliating treatment offered at spas and dermatologist offices. The facial includes a gentle acid peel, vacuum pore extraction, a moisturizing cocktail of hyaluronic acid and antioxidants, and a tailored take-home kit of topical.

INGESTIBLE

The common term for any oral beauty aid — pills, drinks, powders, and the like.

INJECTABLE

Any substance capable of being injected into the body. In the cosmetic realm, it refers mainly to neuromodulators, fillers, and fat dissolvers.

INTENSE PULSED LIGHT (IPL)

A machine that emits many wavelengths of light — as opposed to lasers, which use just one concentrated beam — to remove hair or erase acne, dark spots, wrinkles, spider veins, and more. While gentler and less expensive than lasers, it isn’t always as effective.

ISOLAZ

FDA-cleared for mild to moderate acne, this in-office device combines vacuum suction with broadband light to extract gunk from pores and destroy zit-causing bacteria before infusing skin with treatment serums.

JUVÉDERM

The trademarked name of a gel made from hyaluronic acid that’s injected into wrinkles and lips to restore lost volume.

JUVÉDERM VOLBELLA XC

A fine hyaluronic acid-based filler that plumps lips and smoothes lines for up to one year.

JUVÉDERM VOLLURE XC

FDA-approved for the correction of moderate to severe facial wrinkles and folds (think: smile lines), this injectable filler, made from sugar-based hyaluronic acid, may last up to 18 months. Finer and more fluid than the original Juvéderm, it moves naturally (and imperceptibly) with facial expressions.

JUVÉDERM VOLUMA XC

Made of hyaluronic acid, a water-absorbing sugar molecule found throughout the human body, and spiked with the anesthetic lidocaine, this injectable gel filler is FDA-approved for restoring lost volume in the cheeks.

KERATOSIS PILARIS

These red bumps on the legs and the backs of arms occur when sticky cells within the hair follicle clump together to form a plug, preventing them from being whisked away through routine exfoliation. This common condition, believed to be genetic, can be minimized but not cured with lactic acid creams or scrubs.

KOJIC ACID

This skin lightener, especially popular in Japan, has been proven to be effective at blocking the production of new melanin in the skin, but it can also cause skin irritation when used in higher concentrations.

KYBELLA (DEOXYCHOLIC ACID)

An FDA-approved injectable treatment for fat under the chin, the drug dissolves the membranes lining fat cells, causing them to release their contents, which are then expunged by the body’s own immune cells over several weeks.

LED

Light-emitting diode devices give off a narrow range of a specific wavelength of light. (Different wavelengths target different skin issues; for example, blue light kills the bacteria known to cause acne.) Much less intense than lasers or IPL, many LED devices are safe enough for hand-held use at home.

LICOCHALCONE

A molecule found in licorice-root extract, licochalcone has the ability to both soothe inflammation and help control the production of oil in the skin, making it an effective treatment for acne and redness.

LIPOSOME

A tiny vesicle (bubble-like sac), similar in construction to a cell membrane, used to encapsulate ingredients and enhance penetration into the skin; an effective delivery system.

MICRODERMABRASION

Performed by dermatologists and facialists, this treatment exfoliates the top layer of dead skin cells with a wand that sprays on and then vacuums off extremely fine aluminum-oxide crystals. A newer form of the technology uses a vibrating diamond tip in place of the crystals.

MICRONEEDLING

A cosmetic procedure during which a device studded with tiny needles pierces the skin to incite the body’s natural healing response, resulting in increased cell turnover and collagen production to improve skin’s tone and texture. At-home tools have shorter pins, which work superficially; professional devices with longer needles drive deeper for more significant improvements in wrinkles and scars (along with greater downtime).

NEUROMODULATORS

Injectable purified toxins that relax the muscles responsible for the development of expression lines, like those on the forehead, between the brows, and around the eyes.

NIACINAMIDE

A form of vitamin B3, it strengthens the skin’s outer layers, improves elasticity, and curbs redness and irritation.

OCTOCRYLENE

An active ingredient in sunscreens, this clear, colorless chemical offers only limited protection against UVA and UVB rays on its own, but can stabilize and strengthen the sun-protective powers of any UV filters it’s combined with.

OCCLUSIVES

Thick moisturizing ingredients, such as petrolatum, that slow the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS

Abundant in herring, mackerel, wild salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, and olive oil, these essential fatty acids maintain the function of cell membranes throughout the body, preserving cells’ ability to take in nutrients, dispose of waste, and hold onto water. In the epidermis, this can translate to smoother, more supple, hydrated skin.

PARABENS

A class of preservatives used to protect cosmetics against the growth of bacteria and fungi. These controversial ingredients — including methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben — have been shown to possess weak estrogen-like properties, but the FDA deems them safe when used at very low levels (.01 to .3 percent) in cosmetics.

PARSOL

A trademarked class of sunscreen ingredients that absorb specific wavelengths of UVB and UVA light, minimizing photo damage to the skin. The most widely used, Parsol 1789 (known generically as avobenzone), absorbs UVA rays. Many broad-spectrum sunscreens pair the ingredient with others that filter out UVB light.

PETROLATUM

A purified by-product of petroleum, this thick, odorless, and colorless substance coats the skin to hydrate and prevent water loss and is used in standard (i.e., not oil-free) moisturizers. It can clog pores and cause acne in those who are prone.

Q-SWITCHED LASERS

Delivering quick, powerful pulses of energy, these lasers (like the Nd: YAG, the Ruby, the Alexandrite) heat and destroy pigment in the skin, making them most effective at clearing brown spots and tattoo ink.

RETIN-A

The brand name for the prescription vitamin A derivative tretinoin. First approved by the FDA for the treatment of acne, Retin-A was eventually found to fight signs of aging by speeding up exfoliation, repairing skin on a molecular level, and boosting new collagen production.

RETINOIDS

This is the catchall phrase used to describe all vitamin A derivatives used in skin care.

RETINOL

A derivative of vitamin A used in fine line-fighting products to stimulate the turnover of skin cells and increase collagen production. The maximum amount allowed in over-the-counter products is 1 percent. Retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde are weaker, less-irritating forms of retinol.

ROSACEA

A chronic skin disease marked by persistent redness, easy flushing, broken blood vessels, and pimples on the nose and cheeks primarily. Rosacea tends to run in families, especially those of Northern or Eastern European descent. The cause is unknown; there is no cure; and controlling triggers (heat, UV, spicy foods, alcohol) is crucial to treatment.

STEARYL ALCOHOL

A fat that binds together the ingredients in creams and cleansers and gives them a silky texture.

SQUALENE

Rich in fatty acids and antioxidants, this natural moisturizer is made by the skin, but diminishes with age. For skin-care purposes, it can also be derived from olives, rice bran, wheat germ, sugarcane, or palm trees.

SULFATES

These cleansing agents remove dirt and oil and are responsible for creating lather. There are more than 100 different varieties — some synthetic, others from natural sources, like coconut or palm oil. They’re found in facial cleansers, body washes, shampoos, and shaving creams. All types have the potential to dry and irritate the skin. They’ve come under scrutiny in recent years for their potential damage to the environment.


THERMAGE

A radio-wave machine used by doctors to penetrate into the deepest layers of the skin and generate heat that stimulates the formation of new collagen to firm skin.

TITANIUM DIOXIDE

A mineral in sunscreens that shields the skin from UVA and UVB rays.

TRANEXAMIC ACID

A synthetic derivative of the amino acid lysine, it interferes with UV light-induced pigment production to even the complexion. Both topical and oral forms are now being used to treat melasma and other pigmentary disorders.

TRICHLOROACETIC ACID (TCA)

A key ingredient in chemical peels used to treat sun damage and hyperpigmentation, TCA promotes shedding of the outermost layer of dead skin cells, allowing new cells to rise to the surface in the days following treatment. TCA peels are generally light to medium strength, with the former requiring a series of two to three for best results; the latter requiring only a single session (but carrying about a week of downtime).

ULTHERAPY

A non-invasive FDA-cleared treatment that relies on ultrasound energy to lift and tighten the skin by boosting collagen synthesis.

UVA RAYS

The wavelength of ultraviolet light that leads to signs of aging by destroying existing collagen and elastin within the skin and undermining the body’s ability to create more of each. The rays cause skin cancer, and they are also generated in tanning beds. They are constant throughout the year, which is why sun protection should be worn daily regardless of season.

UVB RAYS

The high-energy wavelength of ultraviolet light that leads to darkened pigment in the form of tanning, freckles, and age spots — plus, of course, sunburns. They are strongest in summer months.

VBEAM

A pulsed-dye laser used primarily to treat vascular issues, like broken capillaries, rosacea, port wine stains, bruises, and the like. It works by targeting and collapsing offending blood vessels, and is safe for all skin tones.

VITAMIN C (ASCORBIC ACID)

An antioxidant that boosts collagen production and inhibits pigment formation. Like many antioxidants, it’s an unstable molecule that can break down quickly when exposed to light and air. Common derivatives, like ascorbyl palmitate and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, tend to be more stable than pure ascorbic acid but slower acting.

VITAMIN E (TOCOPHEROL)

This moisturizing antioxidant protects against free-radical damage.

XEOMIN

An FDA-approved neurotoxin, similar to Botox and Dysport, it blocks the release of chemicals that cause muscle contractions to soften frown lines. Said to be a purer form of the botulinum toxin, it may be less likely to cause irritation and allergic reactions.

ZINC OXIDE

A mineral in sunscreen that prevents UVA and UVB light from entering skin and doing damage.

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