Skincare ingredients debunked: What the hell do these words mean?

  • Marie Claire is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
  • Think of us as your handy pocket dictionary

    The skincare ingredients list on the back of product bottles is so bloody confusing, unless you’re a scientist or a boffin, it’s unlikely you’ll know what it all means and what each one does to skin. Which is why, we decided to set the record straight and tell you exactly what some of the most common skincare ingredients actually mean. We teamed up with ZO Skin Health to demystify the confusing world of skincare ingredients.

    You are most welcome.


    Retinol is the big name on campus for effective anti-aging. It is a derivative of vitamin A and if you want to desperately reduce the sight of fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation, nothing will help you do that better than retinol creams and serums. ‘A widely used term within the skincare industry, Retinol based products can help improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles whilst also smoothing the surface area of the skin. You should apply a retinoid once a day, most preferably in the evening as skin will be sensitive to sunlight afterwards – use after cleansing and before applying your moisturiser.’

    Indeed Labs Retinol Reface, £19.99 Look Fantastic


    Because of the world we now live in, we, and our skin, are exposed to some pretty nasty outside aggressors and antioxidants are our defence system. They help combat the effects of free radicals (those nasty external stressers). ‘Antioxidants are an essential ingredient when it comes to anti-ageing and keeping your skin looking youthful and healthy. Antioxidants help target the elements responsible for signs of aging, but can also calm skin and help revitalize dull-looking skin.’


    We’d say this is one of the less common  skincare ingredients, but keep your eyes peeled, because you’re going to want it. ‘Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3 and nicotinic acid, is a very effective ingredient that offers multiple benefits for aging skin such as improving the appearance of uneven skin tone, large pores, wrinkles and dullness. Niacinamide can be applied on the face of an AM and PM, just a couple of drops patted over the skin after cleansing and before moisturising.’

    Vitamin C

    If you suffer for dull skin and all you really want is to look in the mirror and glow brightly, then this antioxidant should be your first port of call. ‘Vitamin C is most commonly taken orally; however, the ingredient also has varying benefits when applied directly to the skin. Vitamin C provides a range of benefits including evening out your skin tone, protecting your skin against pollution, improving hydration and keeping an overall youthful appearance.’

    Dr David Jack Integrative Beauty Good Morning, £89

    skincare ingredients Dr david jack

    Alpha Hydroxy Acids/AHAs

    Oh golly acids for skin are so bloody confusing aren’t they?! There are so many different types and they’re always abbreviated (which we reckon is just to confuse matters more), but it’s worth taking note of what they do, because AHAs will transform your skin. ‘Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs as they are more commonly known, are natural acids which come from acidic fruits such as lemons and oranges. These acids reduce the look of wrinkles and can prevent future wrinkles whilst also making skin much smoother.’ If you spot glycolic, malic or lactic on packaging – these are all AHAs.


    We all know that collagen has something to do with the skin and it’s always mentioned when people talk about fighting the signs of aging, but what exactly is it? ‘Collagen is a naturally occurring protein found in your body. It’s an essential component, providing structural support for your organs, skin, tendons, muscles, cartilage and bones. The skin loses collagen over time, so it is an imperative ingredient to add into your skincare routine, it can be found in many day and night creams as well as face masks.’

    Elemis Pro-Collagen Advanced Eye Treatment, £34.40 Fabled

    skincare ingredients Elemis

    Jojoba Oil

    The first confusing thing about this skincare ingredient is how to pronounce it. We like to say ho-hoba oil. ‘Jojoba oil has some very powerful antioxidants which help in regenerating the skin cells, leading to a more youthful and glowing complexion. Jojoba oil is not only good for the face, but can also be used over the body instead in replacement of your normal moisturiser.’ Use when skin is warm and slightly damp after a bath or shower.

    Hyaluronic Acid

    Probably the one that you’ll see most on product packaging and with good reason. It is the super duper hydrating ingredient that plumps skin and gives it one hell of a moisture boost. ‘The Hyaluronic Acid solution is able to work deep into the skin’s layers to improve and benefit hydration and elasticity. Hyaluronic Acid is commonly used for its ability to combat the signs of ageing and eliminate skin imperfections.’

    Institut Esthederm Intensive Hyaluronic Mask, £31 Fabled

    skincare ingedients institut esthederm

    Coenzyme Q10/CoQ10

    You probably recognize this most from Nivea adverts. They bang on about Q10 all the time. It’s a super powerful antioxidant. ‘Collagen is highly important because it keeps your skin firm, while elastin gives your skin flexibility, when collagen is lost, this causes the skin to wrinkle and sag. CoQ10 helps the skin by acting as a strong antioxidant. It helps to banish those free radicals that promote premature ageing. It can be ingested, via foods like whole grains and oily fish or though supplements.’

    Salicylic Acid

    Another punchy, yet really useful skin acid. Salicylic acid is a B Beta Hydroxy Acid or a BHA. It removes dead skin cells from the skin, both on the surface of your skin and deep within your pores, providing a deep exfoliation targeting the more clogged areas of the skin. Skin problems such as zits, blackheads and oiliness are all caused by excess oil and dead skin cells, Salicylic acid works in ridding the cause, which means you’re less likely to suffer with blackheads and spots. Salicylic acid is best applied in the PM, using only a small amount as it is a very strong solution.’

    Guys, print this off and take it beauty shopping with you.

    Reading now

    Popular beauty stories