2018 was the year of skin care. So many amazing new products hit the market offering solutions to essentially any skin woe you could dream up, all of them highlighting trendy “hero” ingredients, each more innovative than the ones before it. This is all great, but do you ever look at your beautifully curated skincare shelf and wonder what the hell all those ingredients are doing for your skin? Here’s a handy breakdown so you can be extra savvy.
Despite the name, Hyaluronic Acid is actually naturally occurring in our bodies. It works kind of like sponge beneath the surface of the skin, holding in moisture (a single gram can hold SIX liters of water) so that the layers above it look plump and firm. If there was a fountain of youth, it would be made of Hyaluronic Acid. It’s the main ingredient in dermal fillers that give an immediate effect so you can mimic the results at home with skincare products that contain it. It’s universally beneficial, meaning any skin type can benefit from it and it’s completely safe. Try it in a serum, since the higher concentration of the ingredient will yield the best result.
Ceramides are another naturally occurring ingredient that makes up 50% of our skin’s natural barrier. Our body produces these lipids to protect the skin and retain moisture at the surface. The problem is, they are very easily depleted by hot water, environmental pollutants, soaps, and certain chemicals. By replenishing the skin with products that contain ceramides, you can restore the barrier and retain moisture more effectively. This is an ingredient I love to see in my cleansers since this is the step that strips the skin more than any other.
Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A that unclogs pores, increases cell turnover to improve tone and texture, and boosts collagen products to smooth lines and wrinkles. There are prescription-only versions that are more powerful but recent over the counter versions pack a pretty powerful punch. The main draw to this ingredient is its ability to multi-task. It can improve the texture of congested skin while also plumping the surface for an anti-aging effect. For the best effect, use one with at least 0.1% Retinol. Apply in the evening only to cleansed skin, and before other serums. Do not mix retinol products. If you’re new to retinol, choose the lowest percentage and work your way up to higher concentrations as it can cause redness and irritation in more sensitive skin.
Niacinamide is vitamin B3 and nicotinic acid and is an excellent skincare ingredient to fight aging while also improving the appearance of large pores and evening tone and texture. If your pores are giving your skin an unrefined appearance, this is a great ingredient to shop to refine them and aid in that “flawless” blurred finish. Look for it in cleansers and water-based serums. Apply after cleansing and before moisturizers. It can be layered with other serums, but it tends to have a tackier texture and can pill over other products so I usually apply it first during the day, and after my retinoid at night.
One of the ways our skin gets congested is from skin cells bundling together, resulting in bumpy texture, clogged pores, blemishes, and an overall dull appearance. Glycolic Acid is a relatively small molecule from the Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) family that works to penetrate the skin’s surface and break up these bundled cells. It breaks up excess sebum (oil), dirt, and other impurities that lead to acne while also exfoliating at the surface to brighten and improve pigmentation issues. It’s excellent in liquid solutions (like toners), water-based serums and even in creams. Apply after cleansing/toning and before other water-based serums (it will help the other products absorb more effectively).
Vitamin C works similarly on your skin, as it does internally. It’s an excellent anti-oxidant and protects the skin from free radicals in the environment that can accelerate the aging process. Essentially, it can keep you looking younger, longer. However, not all Vitamin C is created equally. For skincare, keep a lookout for Ascorbic acid (also known as L-ascorbic acid). This type of Vitamin C has all the antioxidant properties as well as the ability to firm and lift the skin while smoothing and brightening its texture. Look for water-based serums, treatments, and suspensions as well as creams. Apply after cleansing and toning.
Another type of AHA, Lactic Acid is a naturally occurring acid that exfoliates the skin without friction. Meaning you can dissolve the dull, dead skin on your face without having to use an abrasive scrub. The lack of abrasives also allows it to penetrate beneath the surface of the skin to rapidly increase the cell turnover and result in a more youthful, brighter, smoother complexion. Something that separates it from other AHA’s is the ability to stimulate collagen synthesis to firm and lift skin that has lost its elasticity. Lactic acid is a true multi-tasker—it increases the ceramides in the skin’s protective barrier; it increases water retention; it works to prevent congestion; it improves pigmentation – it’s an excellent acid to add to your regimen (especially if your skin is more sensitive) and works best as a water-based serum or suspension/cream based treatment. Apply after cleansing and toning. As with all acids, give your skin time to adjust between applications.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) are similar in many ways to their cousins, AHA. They both break up cellular bonds to refine skin’s texture, improve signs of aging and exfoliate the skin without harsh abrasives. Where they’re different is how deeply they penetrate the skin. Water-soluble AHA are excellent for normal to dry skin, while oil soluble BHA work best on normal to oily, acne prone skin since it can get deep into the pore and purge oil, dirt, and other impurities (Salicylic Acid is probably the most widely used BHA). It’s also gentle enough for people with sensitive skin or rosacea. This ingredient is excellent in cleansers, toners, water-based serums, and liquid solutions. If you’re using BHA and AHA together in your regimen, try alternating them on different days to ensure your skin doesn’t become sensitive.
For decades, we were led to believe that oil was the archenemy of good skin. Luckily, the Korean skincare boom changed our minds for good. Oil serums, cleansers, and essences are oil blends that can break up oil and impurities without tugging at the skin, while also nourishing the skin at the surface. Something to note, while oils have their place in most regimens, you cannot moisturize with oil alone. The reason being, no oil is humectant – they essentially put a sealant on your skin to hold good things in and keep bad things out, but the molecules are too large to penetrate deep enough for it to be used as a standalone moisturizer. Instead, the best way to use them is in a double cleanse protocol or as a layer on top of your day or night moisturizer. To Double Cleanse, use an oil-based cleanser to gently break up makeup, dirt, and oil on your skin, rinse, then follow with a gel-based cleanser to effectively remove everything so it can be rinsed away. If you’re using a beauty oil as a treatment, apply after your moisturizer to boost its benefits and lock the actives into your skin so they can work more effectively. Note that not all oils are created equally, and some should never be put on the skin. Coconut Oil, for example, is one of the most comedogenic oils on the market, meaning it will clog your pores and cause your skin to be congested. Stick to lightweight, non-greasy oils such as Marula, Rose Hip and Squalane.