Decoding Beauty Terminology: A Handy Glossary Of Terms

Glossary of beauty terms

These days words like peptides and parabens and free radicals are bandied about at an alarming rate, but how many of us actually know the significance of those terms? One of my very favourite things to do is to read the little inserts that come with skincare and high end cosmetics, and try to decode the jargon and buzzwords to find out what's actually inside. Here's a wee glossary of terms to look out for the next time you're shopping for skincare.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): These are exfoliating acids that can be naturally derived from fruit (such as citric acid), milk (lactic acid) or sugar cane (glycolic acid), but are often created synthetically. Used to remove dead skin cells, treat fine lines and wrinkles, smooth the skin’s texture and brighten the complexion, they can be found in low doses in skincare products, while higher doses are used in chemical peels.

Decoding Beauty Terminology

Antioxidants: Antioxidants are things that fight against free radicals. These are molecules that occur naturally when the body uses oxygen, but can damage skin at a cellular level, speed up the aging process and contribute to lines and wrinkles.  Luckily there are literally hundreds of antioxidants that can protect us against free radicals –common cosmetic ones are ascorbic acid (Vitamin C to me and you), tocopherol (Vitamin E), and Vitamin A. These are our hero ingredients...I really think the Flaming Lips should write a song about all this.

Beta hydroxy acids: When we talk about BHAs in skincare we’re pretty much talking about salicylic acid, which I’m  borderline obsessed with. If you’ve oily or blemish prone skin, salicylic acid is pretty much the bomb. It’s an exfoliating agent with a smaller molecule size than alpha hydroxys, and it’s fab at getting right into pores and clearing them out. Used to be made from willow bark, but now it's just as likely to be made in a lab.

Collagen: A type of protein that's essential for plumped up skin, healthy hair and strong nails.   It's created naturally in the body but we can supplement our natural reserves by applying it topically in our skincare or by taking it in supplements. In Asia, they're mad for collagen drinks and snacks including all sorts of collagen sweeties - like these collagen marshmallows!


Hyaluronic Acid: Another powerhouse of an ingredient that occurs naturally in the body and helps retain moisture in the skin. It's a humectant - which means it attracts water - so it's great at hydrating the skin but, more excitingly, it can plump the skin and soften wrinkles. It's most effective as an injectable filler - it's what Restylane is made of -  but can also be used in cosmetics or taken as a supplement. It pops up in everything from lipgloss to serum.

Parabens: There’s a lot of confusion and anxiety about parabens, which are chemical preservatives that extend the lifespan of your products, even though there's not a whole lot of scientific fact behind the fear. While I’m not convinced parabens in beauty products are necessarily a bad thing , there are now lots of great cosmetics using different types of preservatives. So if this is something that worries you, you should find it easy enough to vote with your feet. Read more here. 

Peptides: One of the latest skincare buzzwords, peptides can be a bit confusing to get your head around. They’re basically teeny tiny bits of protein molecules, made up of amino acids, that can make skin cells behave in certain ways. Think of them as miniscule Harry Potters, charming our cells into doing wonderfully helpful things - like increasing microcirculation, or producing more good stuff like collagen or hyaluronic acid. Word on the street is that they can reduce wrinkles, but there hasn't really been enough research to prove it. Oh, and pentapeptides? These are just a type of peptide comprised of five amino acids.

Retinoids: Retinol is vitamin A (see also: antioxidants), an anti-aging all star that has, unlike many skincare ingredients, been scientifically proven to work against wrinkles, skin discolouration and acne. You'll see it crop up in all manner of lotions and potions but pay attention to the dosage: at its most effective you need a lot of it, which means it's medicine and not skincare (I'm currently using Retin-A, which was prescribed by a doctor). That's not to say over the counter products don't work - the Skinceuticals offering is very good, and Roc and Philosophy also have good retinol offerings. You do need patience though: retinoid creams take on average 12 weeks before you'll start to see results.

Any other beauty buzzwords you're wondering about?  Tell us in the comments, and we'll do our best to demystify 'em for you!

Which superstar ingredients do you look for in your skincare?




Related Articles

More from Beauty