Popular Skin Care Ingredients Explained

Go to any supermarket or mom-and-pop shop and you might find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of skin care products on the shelves. Whether you’re just starting out on a first-time skin care regimen or you’re a longtime user, knowing what specific ingredients do in your most popular products can be beneficial.

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Popular skin care ingredients

If you’re looking for something to help you with a specific skin condition, knowing what’s in your skin care products can be important information. Dermatologist Wilma Bergfeld, MD, walks us through some of the most popular skin care ingredients, what they do and how they work.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA)

Over-the-counter skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHA, (glycolic, lactic, tartaric and citric acids) have become increasingly popular in recent years. Creams and lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids may help with fine lines and wrinkles, irregular pigmentation and age spots. It may also help shrink enlarged pores. Side effects of alpha-hydroxy acids include mild irritation and sun sensitivity.

“To avoid burning, you should apply sunscreen in the morning every day,” advises Dr. Bergfeld.

To help avoid skin irritation, start with a product with a maximum concentration of 10% to 15% AHA. To allow your skin to get used to it, you should only initially apply the skin care product every other day, gradually working up to daily application.

Glycolic acid

This AHA helps exfoliate your skin and boost collagen production (the protein that strengthens connective tissue). It not only helps clear your pores and smooth fine wrinkles, but it can also help hydrate your skin. Creams and lotions with this ingredient often help with improving eczema, while cleansers that use this ingredient can assist with blackheads.

Lactic acid

This AHA is produced in muscle cells and red blood cells. Like glycolic acid, products with this ingredient such as foot peels can help with exfoliation while others can help with moisturizing your skin.

Beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid)

Salicylic acid removes dead skin and can improve the texture and color of sun-damaged skin. It penetrates oil-laden hair follicle openings and, as a result, also helps with acne. There are many skin care products available that contain salicylic acid. Some are available over-the-counter and others need a doctor’s prescription.

“In many cases, salicylic acid can be less irritating than skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids,” explains Dr. Bergfeld. “But they provide similar improvement in skin texture and color.”


Skin care products containing hydroquinone are often called bleaching creams or lightening agents. These skin care products are used to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots (melasma or chloasma) related to pregnancy or hormone therapy. Over-the-counter skin care products such as AMBI® Fade Cream contain hydroquinone.

“Your doctor can also prescribe a cream with a higher concentration of hydroquinone if your skin doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments,” says Dr. Bergfeld.

Hydroquinone is also sometimes combined with sunscreen because sun exposure causes skin hyperpigmentation. It’s best to test hydroquinone-containing products in a small area, as some people are allergic to it. If you’re allergic to hydroquinone, you may benefit from the use of products containing kojic acid instead.

Kojic acid

Kojic acid is also a remedy for the treatment of pigment problems and age spots. Discovered in 1989, kojic acid works similarly to hydroquinone. Kojic acid is derived from a fungus, and studies have shown that it’s effective as a lightening agent, slowing production of melanin (brown pigment). With continued use, kojic acid may make your skin more susceptible to sunburn.


Look to retinol to improve acne and acne scarring, mottled pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone and color, and your skin’s hydration levels.

Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is found in many over-the-counter “anti-aging” skin care products. Tretinoin, which is the active ingredient in prescription Retin-A® and Renova® creams, is a stronger version of retinol. If your skin is too sensitive to use Retin-A, over-the-counter retinol is an excellent alternative.

“Vitamin A has a molecular structure that’s tiny enough to get into the lower layers of your skin, where it finds and boosts collagen and elastin, which is a protein that strengthens your skin’s flexibility” explains Dr. Bergfeld.

L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

This is the only form of vitamin C that you should look for in your skin care products.

“There are many skin care products on the market today that boast vitamin C derivatives like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl palmitate as an ingredient,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “But L-ascorbic acid is the only useful form of vitamin C in skin care products.”

With age and sun exposure, collagen synthesis in your skin decreases, leading to wrinkles. Vitamin C is the only antioxidant proven to stimulate the synthesis of collagen, minimizing fine lines, scars and wrinkles. It may also improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin. Initial use of vitamin C-containing creams can cause stinging or redness, but these side effects generally go away with continued use.

Hyaluronic acid

Skin care products containing this substance are often used with vitamin C products to assist in effective penetration. Hyaluronic acid (also known as a glycosaminoglycan) is touted for its ability to “reverse” or stop aging. In news reports, you might have heard of hyaluronic acid as the “key to the fountain of youth.” This is because the substance occurs naturally (and quite abundantly) in humans and animals, and is found in young skin, other tissues and joint fluid.

“Hyaluronic acid is a component of your body’s connective tissues, and it’s known to cushion and lubricate these tissues,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “As you age, however, forces of nature destroy hyaluronic acid. Poor diet and smoking can also affect your body’s level of hyaluronic acid over time.”

Niacinamide (vitamin B3)

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that helps build keratin and keep your skin firm and healthy. It can help retain moisture and stop skin flushing. If you have rosacea, face masks with this ingredient can help reduce redness and swelling.


This silicone-based ingredient is the second-most common ingredient in moisturizers. If you’re dealing with dry skin, moisturizers with this ingredient can be beneficial, especially in the winter. This non-toxic ingredient can help with scar tissue and makes your skin feel incredibly soft.

It can also help protect your hair against breakage and create a slick, smooth feeling in your follicles. This is why you’ll find this ingredient in hair products that help reduce frizz and split ends. But it’s important to note that it’s heavy and builds up quickly, sometimes preventing water from getting into your roots. If you use a product with dimethicone, you’ll want to use a clarifying shampoo once a week to help clear up any buildup.

Copper peptide

Copper peptide is often referred to as the most effective skin regeneration product, even though it’s only been on the market since 1997. This ingredient promotes collagen and elastin production, acts as an antioxidant and promotes production of glycosaminoglycans like hyaluronic acid. It also increases the benefits of your body’s natural tissue-building processes by firming, smoothing and softening skin — and it does this in less time than most other anti-aging skin care products.


This natural moisturizing ingredient helps repair dry or cracked skin. You’ll find this in a number of lip balms or face creams. This is a great ingredient for oily skin that can help reduce blackheads, pimples and acne. Because of its ability to lock in moisture, you can benefit from using products with glycerin at the end of the day to keep your skin moisturized overnight.

Are all "personal care products" regulated as cosmetics?

People often use the term "personal care products" to refer to a wide variety of items that we commonly find in the health and beauty sections of drug and department stores. The term "personal care product," however, is not defined by law.

Under the law, some of the products commonly referred to as "personal care products" are cosmetics. These include, for example, skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup preparations, shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, toothpastes, and deodorants. Some, however, are regulated as drugs. Among these are skin protectants (such as lip balms and diaper ointments), mouthwashes marketed with therapeutic claims, antiperspirants, and treatments for dandruff or acne.

Some "personal care products" meet the definitions of both cosmetics and drugs. This may happen when a product has two intended uses. For example, a shampoo is a cosmetic because its intended use is to cleanse the hair. An antidandruff treatment is a drug because its intended use is to treat dandruff. Consequently, an antidandruff shampoo is both a cosmetic and a drug, because it is intended to cleanse the hair and treat dandruff. Among other cosmetic/drug combinations are toothpastes that contain fluoride, deodorants that are also antiperspirants, and moisturizers and makeup marketed with sun-protection claims. Such products must comply with the requirements for both cosmetics and drugs.

Generally, drugs must either receive premarket approval by the FDA or conform to final regulations specifying conditions whereby they are generally recognized as safe and effective, and not misbranded. Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives. Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing.

In addition, some "personal care products" may belong to other regulatory categories, including medical devices (such as certain hair removal and microdermabrasion devices), dietary supplements (such as vitamin or mineral tablets or capsules), or other consumer products (such as manicure sets).

7 Makeup Products That Double As Skincare

If you can count on one hand the times you wore full-coverage foundation in the past 15 months, you’re not alone. Reality is, our attitudes toward makeup have shifted to “skinimalism.” See: a 180 percent increase in Pinterest searches year over year for “natural everyday makeup” and a quadrupling of searches for “glowing skin,” according to the service’s 2021 trend report. And as we’ve pared down our routines, one MVP category has emerged—skin-care/makeup hybrids. “We wear makeup 8 to 12 hours a day, so we should maximize these hours with skin care too,” says Lynnette Cole, a makeup expert, aesthetician, and PÜR global education director. What makes this new wave of cosmetics unique is that in addition to offering coverage or color, they also “act as a skin moisturizer or protectant,” says Ginger King, a cosmetic chemist of 26 years. Ahead, the benefits of wearing skin care infused makeup—plus products and at-home recipes that bring the glow.

Skin Actually Improves Over Time

The makeup-as-skin-care trend generally incorporates ingredients you might think you’d find only in a high-tech serum. “I’ve noticed a lot of products with extra boosts of moisture thanks to hyaluronic acid,” says Gabrielle Pascua, a Los Angeles–based makeup artist and skin-care therapist. She’s also starting to see more formulas for acne-prone skin that provide anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects with salicylic acid. For example, Clinique’s new Even Better Clinical Serum Foundation Broad Spectrum SPF 25 has hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid, and vitamin C. That’s like five skin-care and makeup steps in one time-saving bottle—pretty awesome, right? Just one note: You want to make sure you’re not repeating ingredients with this type of makeup that you’re already using in your separate skin-care routine—you don’t want to accidentally overdo it with exfoliation or unknowingly aggravate your skin.

Your Face Gets A Break In Warm Weather

Wearing conventional makeup that’s heavy on skin can trigger irritation when you add humidity to the equation, because the moisture mixed with oil makes products penetrate deeper into the skin. On top of that, “heat can make skin more sensitive,” says Nechelle Turner, national makeup artist and educator for Jane Iredale. “Products that are more calming and lighter in weight are better.” No matter what makeup you wear, Pascua suggests prepping beforehand with a toner like Kiehl’s Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion to mitigate some of the oil.

Maskne Is Less Likely

Breakouts are sometimes unavoidable because friction from the mask rubbing repeatedly on certain areas can cause skin irritation, says dermatologist Allison Arthur, MD. Your skin is also trapped in hot, humid air (a breeding ground for bacteria). If coverage is still important to you, grab a tinted moisturizer instead of a matte foundation. “The moisture will provide more slip between the face and the mask and will actually help ease that friction from the start,” Pascua says. On top of that, Turner suggests looking for an ingredient like willow bark extract in skin-care/makeup products because it reduces inflammation and fights acne-causing bacteria. Consider Physicians Formula’s Super BB Powder for a face-covering-friendly pick.

Maryan Barbara
Maryan Barbara

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