It’s hard enough to make sense of your skin’s own patterns and propensities. It’s another thing to make sense of all the different terms, products, and ingredients that you see on labels or in tutorials.
To help you better understand the tenets of skincare, here’s a primer on the most essential things we think every person should understand. By simply learning these core terms, you’ll put together a few more pieces to your own skin’s puzzle. And hopefully, in understanding a few things better, you’ll see drastic improvements from your regimen moving forward. (Maybe you’ve been using a product incorrectly, or have been sleeping on a game-changing ingredient. That ends today.)
Acne: Blemishes formed when pores become clogged by trapped skin cells, sebum, bacteria, and other obstructions. Different severities exist, from whiteheads and blackheads, to cystic acne.
Anti-Aging: A term used to suggest that a regimen or product helps slow the visible signs of aging, also known as ‘photo aging’: wrinkles, fine lines, looser skin, etc.
Blackheads: An ‘open’ comedone, whose head breaches the surface of the skin and oxidizes into a dark color.
Broad Spectrum: A sunscreen that protects against both types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA and UVB.
Combination Skin: When a person’s complexion is a combination of oily (often in the T-zone) and dry (often the cheeks).
Comedogenic: Refers to the propensity of a product to clog the pores and cause acne (comedones).
Cystic Acne: A deep-embedded form of acne, most common in oily skin types. Often a cystic pimple can be felt before seen—it is usually painful and should not be pressed nor popped. (This will make its evidence much worse, and slow healing.)
Dark Spots: Typically refers to sun spots or post-acne marks, which are difficult or slow to disappear from the surface of the skin.
Dark Circles: Caused by tiredness, dehydration, or aging, this refers to the area underneath the eyes, where the skin is thinner than anywhere else on the face. It is easy to see through the skin to the blood vessels on the other side.
Dry Skin: The condition of having routinely dry/non-oily skin. Seasonal or temporary dryness can occur in people who do not normally experience it.
Free Radicals: Atoms whose unpaired electron can disrupt DNA and increase the odds of skin cancer or accelerate photoaging. Best blocked with antioxidant-rich products.
Hyperpigmentation: Resultant of sun exposure, inflammation, or for medical reasons, this is when large patches of skin experience discoloration from a sudden increase in melanin.
K-Beauty / K-Grooming: Korean Beauty / Korean Grooming, referring to the global movement of ingredients- and regimen-focused skincare. The traditional K-Beauty regimen has 10 steps, though it can be modified (up or down) to each person’s needs.
Normal Skin: When one’s skin is neither excessively oily or dry (nor some combination of the two). This would be the most “balanced” skin type.
Oily Skin: The condition of having routinely oily skin and active sebum production. This also makes one more prone to acne.
pH: The measure of something’s acidity or basicity, on a scale of 0-14. Pure water is 7, and anything below it is acidic, anything above is basic/alkaline. (pH stands for ‘potential of hydrogen’.) In skincare, we measure a product’s pH level against that of skin, which is slightly acidic at 4.7-5.75. The aim is to keep skin in this pH range after applying products, so that it doesn’t become overly dry or irritated.
Photoaging: When the skin shows visible signs of aging. Can be accelerated by exposure to toxins and UV rays, as well as slowed by a proactive anti-aging regimen, paired with a healthy lifestyle and regular use of SPF.
Pores: The small surface holes on skin that excrete sweat and oil. People with oily skin tend to have enlarged pores. When pores get blocked or clogged by dead skin cells, sebum, bacteria, and the likes, it leads to acne.
Razor Bumps: The painful, unsightly irritation experienced after shaving, when the hairs become trapped beneath the skin.
Sebum: The “oil” excreted by the skin, which naturally nourishes and conditions skin and hair. An excess of sebum production can make one look and feel greasy, or can clog pores. However, sebum production in general is important for general skin wellness.
T-Zone: The “T” shape that consists of the forehead and nose (and some people include the chin, too). The T-Zone is often referenced when discussing oil patterns or acne accumulation on the skin, since it tends to be oilier than other parts of the face.
UVA Rays: The ultraviolet rays that penetrate deep into the skin and accelerate photoaging.
UVB Rays: The ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns and can increase the chance of melanoma/skin cancer.
Whiteheads: A ‘closed’ or trapped comedon that is beneath the skin, but whose head turns white due to the pressure of trapped debris.
Acmella Oleracea: An herbal extract that helps relax facial muscles and reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids: AHAs, such as glycolic/lactic/citric acid, which help dissolve dead surface cells and promote brighter, smoother, and more even complexion.
Amino Acids: The “building blocks” of proteins that help the skin produce collagen, elastic, keratin, and more—and in turn, which keep skin firm and supple.
Antioxidants: Fighters of skin-aging free radicals, toxins, and UV rays. An antioxidant-rich skincare regimen blocks these things from the surface of the skin.
Argan Oil: An ultra-nourishing, non-comedogenic oil that is commonly found in skin and hair products. Rich in Vitamin E.
Barley Extract: An antioxidant-rich ingredient that also improves hydration and suppleness.
Beta Hydroxy Acid: BHAs, typically salicylic acid, which helps dissolve dead skin cells and sebum trapped within the pores. Can help treat and mitigate acne.
Cactus Extract: A soothing, hydrating, and firming ingredient. Cactus extract is also rich in linoleic acid, which helps control sebum levels in the skin.
Ceramides: Ceramides fortify the skin’s barrier functions, by trapping moisture inside the skin and forming a defense from pollution, toxins, and the likes.
Charcoal: Known for its purifying, detoxifying powers, charcoal is found in both cleansing and moisturizing products.
Cica: Also known as Tiger Grass, cica is extremely soothing, and can calm minor inflammation or more severe cases, like eczema or psoriasis.
Clay: Has the most absorbent powers of any cleansing ingredient. Commonly found in face masks or cleansers, to help extract excess sebum, grime, and impurities from the pores.
Collagen: The protein base of our skin and bodies. Collagen contributes to skin’s firmness and suppleness. As we age, the body produces less collagen, which leads to looser skin.
Emollient: Topical products that form a layer over top the skin, like moisturizers and oils. These products should be applied last in a skincare regimen (since other products won’t likely penetrate them). They can help preserve moisture levels in the skin.
Glycerin: A common humectant ingredient in skincare, that helps pull moisture into the skin.
Haloxyl: A proprietary peptide-powered complex that helps minimize the appearance of dark circles under the eyes.
Heartleaf (Houttuynia Cordata): Antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, heartleaf is a soothing addition to any skincare regimen, and is especially beneficial for sensitive skin.
Humectant: Humectants are those products applied to the skin that draw water from the air around them (like glycerin and hyaluronic acid). They are better for people with dry skin who need added moisture, but should be avoided in dry months, since humectants can compensate for the lack of moisture in the air by pulling hydration from deeper within the skin.
Hyaluronic Acid: A humectant ingredient that is able to pull moisture from the air and hold up to 1,000x its own weight in water.
Jojoba Oil: A non-comedogenic, ultra-moisturizing ingredient, suitable for all skin types.
Kaolin: A common type of clay used in deep-cleansing, purifying masks and cleansers.
Niacinamide: A super smoother, niacinamide helps improve skin’s surface texture and appearance; it can reduce the appearance of pores, as well as hyperpigmentation, dark spots, rough patches, dullness, fine lines, and more.
Oat Extract: A soothing and nourishing ingredient, particularly beneficial for dry skin.
Peptides: Amino acids that form the building blocks of proteins in the skin (which help in the production of collagen, elastin, and keratin).
Polyhydroxy Acid: PHAs (like lactobionic acid, gluconolactone, galactose), help dissolve dead surface cells, but they don’t penetrate as far as AHAs. They are gentler overall, since sometimes AHAs can make skin more sensitive to things like sunlight.
Prickly Pear Cactus: Anti-inflammatory and soothing, prickly pear cactus helps calm and nourish skin of all types.
Retinoids/Retinol: Vitamin A derivatives that are proven to reverse and significant;y slow signs of photoaging. Can be found OTC in smaller doses, or prescribed in higher concentrations (typically as tretinoin).
Rosehip Oil: Super nourishing and firming for the skin. Rich in fatty acids and skin-toning linoleic acid.
Salicylic Acid: The most common type of beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which helps unclog pores and prevent acne.
SPF: “Sun Protection Factor”; SPF refers to a product’s ability to block skin from the sun’s UV rays. A product’s SPF number refers to how much longer you can be in the sun without burning. (SPF 15 is 15 times longer, for example.). However, SPF should always be reapplied every two hours in the sun, and after swimming or sweating.
Vitamin A: Helps mitigate acne and improve surface texture, while slowing and reversing signs of photoaging.
Vitamin B: B3 (Niacinamide) improves surface texture and appearance. B12 helps increase cellular metabolism and expedites turnover (to disappear dark spots and improve healing), while also helping to firm skin.
Vitamin C: A super antioxidant that prevents signs of aging and helps brighten skin’s appearance.
Vitamin D: You can synthesize Vitamin D with some (healthy) sun exposure. It is anti-inflammatory and can bounce free radicals. (Just be sure to wear SPF to prevent UV damage to the skin.)
Vitamin E: Helps strengthen skin’s barrier functions, and also a terrific antioxidant.
Vitamin K: Helps boost collagen production in the skin, which can also expedite wound healing.
Cleanser: Flushes away dirt, grime, oil, and other buildup from the surface of the skin. Use twice daily (morning and night) as the first step in your skincare regimen.
Cleansing/Detox Mask: Can be used once weekly to extract excess sebum and grime from deep within the pores.
Concealer: Dense, skin-toned product that helps mask small blemishes like acne, dark circles, and inflammation.
Essence: Lightweight sprays that can treat or nourish the skin (depending on the formula). Usually applied after cleanser, before serums and moisturizers.
Exfoliator: A physical scrub or chemical substance that helps shed dead surface skin cells, to prevent clogged pores and dullness.
Eye Cream: A targeted cream (or serum) for the area around the eyes, which is particularly susceptible to photoaging, puffiness, and dark circles. Eye creams are often loaded with skin-firming peptides or circulation-boosting caffeine.
Hydrating/Deep Nourishing Mask: A leave-on or overnight mask that deeply nourishes the skin. Can be used every few days or once a week as a supplement to an existing hydrating regimen. (Best worn overnight.)
Moisturizer: A core skincare step, moisturizer nourishes the skin while also preventing moisture loss—by shielding skin with its emollient powers. Daytime moisturizers often include SPF, too.
Night Cream: A bedtime moisturizer that is typically more concentrated with ingredients (as opposed to daytime moisturizers), and which lacks SPF. Night creams sync with the body’s overnight cellular regeneration to expedite healing and magnify ingredient benefits.
Serum: A lightweight product applied after cleansers and essences, but before moisturizers. Serums can either deeply nourish (like with hyaluronic acid), exfoliate (like with glycolic acid or other AHAs), or treat/prevent conditions (like treat acne/breakout-prone skin with ingredients like salicylic acid).
Sheet Masks: Typically hydrating, sheet masks are usually loaded with high-concentration serums to deeply condition or treat the skin.
Spot Treatment: A formula that targets a specific blemish with neutralizing ingredients (be it a dark spot or breakout), since applying the treatment to the rest of the face could be aggressive or unnecessary.
Toner: Can help balance skin’s pH levels between cleanser or treatment and hydrating/moisturizing steps. Toners can also tone oil levels and help soothe skin after a shave. Avoid toners with alcohol.