Do You Speak Derm?

Answer: no. And quite frankly, unless you’re a dermatologist, why would know your AGEs from your AHAs?

Learning about key ingredients on your skincare label and getting to grips with a few technical terms, however, will give you the confidence to make informed decisions on how to work with your derm to create the most effective, medical-grade skincare plan for treating your concerns.

So here we go…

Antioxidants: Skin loves antioxidants because they prevent damage caused by free radicals (see below). Antioxidants are molecules that are able to give up electrons to free radicals, because they have the ability to maintain stability after doing so. The human body has a pretty hard-working antioxidant defense mechanism, but when it’s subject to overexposure to the sun, a vodka bender or, heavens forbid, a barrage of cigarette smoke, it becomes overwhelmed with free radicals and simply can’t keep up. This is where antioxidant-rich skincare products come in. Think vitamins A (retinol), C (ascorbic acid) and E (tocopherol).

AHAs: Alpha-hydroxy acids are naturally-occurring, water-soluble substances extracted from fruit or milk sugars to help exfoliate the top layer of skin cells. They encourage new skin to grow, while simultaneously stimulating elastin and collagen production. Examples of AHAs found in skincare include glycolic acid and lactic acid.

BHAs: Unlike AHAs, beta-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble substances used in skincare to cut through excess oil that may be clogging your pores. The main BHA found in skincare is salicylic acid (derived from aspirin), which also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, making it perfect for treating acne-prone skin.

BPO: Otherwise known as benzoyl peroxide, BPO is one of the most effective antibacterial ingredients for treating acne, pimples, blackheads and the like. It’s an organic compound that breaks down into benzoic acid and oxygen upon contact with the skin, thereby flooding the pores with oxygen and killing the bacteria that causes acne and inflammation.

Ceramides: These lipid molecules are found in high concentrations within the cell membranes. In the skin, they form a protective layer around the cells to help retain moisture and maintain plump hydrated skin. As with most ‘goodness’ within the skin, ceramides are lost with age – exposure to the sun doesn’t help so much, either. This is why they’re very popular in skincare products, especially in anti-aging moisturizers.

Collagen: Collagen is the most abundant, naturally-occurring protein in the body. Your bones, muscles, skin and tendons are all loaded with it because it basically ‘cements’ everything together. In terms of the skin, more than 80 percent of it is composed of collagen and it’s what gives it strength, firmness and elasticity. It also plays a major role in the renewal of the skin cells. The sad news is – and yes, you know what’s coming next – collagen content decreases with age. In fact, after the age of around 20, we lose about 1 percent of it every year (sigh).

Eczema: This is a general term for any type of dermatitis in which patches of skin become rough, inflamed, itchy and start to bleed. Atopic dermatitis is the most severe and long-lasting form of eczema and while there’s no cure for it, in most cases it’s perfectly manageable – good news, because over 30 million Americans may have it at any given time. Eczema sometimes results from a reaction to irritation, but often has no obvious external cause.

Elastin: Another protein found in both the skin and tissues of the body, elastin gives cells their structure. In the skin, it’s mostly found in the dermis where it allows connective tissues to be able to stretch, contract and resume shape. The sun is a devil for damaging elastin fibers and you know what that means? Yes, a one-way ticket to saggy skin city.

Epidermis: The skin has three layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutaneous layer (or subcutis). The epidermis is the super-thin, waterproof top layer that protects the body from the environment.

Free Radicals: A free radical is a chemically unstable atom or group of atoms with unpaired electrons in its outermost shell. To make itself stable, it pinches an electron from a neighboring moleculs, thus causing damage to anything that gets in its way. Once it succeeds in stealing its missing electron, it becomes complete, but turns its victim into a free radical and starts a chain reaction known as a free radical cascade. The skin is particularly susceptible to free radical attacks, which breaks down collagen and is one of the main causes of premature aging.

Glycation: A sticky little customer, glycation is the bombardment of excess sugar molecules within the body. It’s one of the main causes of internal aging and happens when excess glucose molecules bind to collagen and elastin to form harmful new molecules called Advanced Glycation End Products, aka AGEs. These AGEs cause the collagen and elastin fibers to weaken and stiffen which results in dullness, fine lines and sagdging skin. AGEs also make the skin more vulnerable to skin saboteurs like pollution, the sun and other environmental aggressors. All in all, it’s bad news.

Humectant: Any cosmetic ingredient that either absorbs moisture or is able to assist another substance in doing so. Humectants include things like AHAs, HA, glycerin and urea which are used in skincare to help the skin retain moisture and keep it soft, firm, plump and hydrated.

Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic Acid (HA), or hyaluronan, is a type of polymer found naturally in the body. Composed partly of sugars, it’s found in the eyes and joints where it functions as a lubricant, and in the skin’s structure where it acts as a powerful humectant (see above). Studies show that HA has the ability to hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, making it one of the best polymers in the world (either natural and synthetic) for retaining moisture. Hint: you NEED this in your moisturizing routine.

Hydroquinone: This is the most common topical solution for treating stubborn skin discolorations. Often referred to as HQ, it’s a very effective skin lightener due to its ability to inhibit melanin production. Prescription-strength hydroquinone is seen as the gold standard for doctor treatment, but it can cause sensitivity and leave the skin susceptible to the sun, which is why alternative treatments are often preferred. The FDA currently recognizes HQ to be a safe ingredient, but due to dangers associated with the substance, it’s been banned in parts of Europe, Australia and Asia. Tread carefully.

Hypoallergenic: Hypoallergenic means the ingredients have a lower chance of causing allergic reactions, but NOT that it won’t cause an allergic reaction at all.

Melanoma: Melanoma is a type of cancer that develops in the melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) which are found in the epidermis of the skin. Melanoma is much less common than basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, but it is far more dangerous because it’s more likely to spread to other parts of the body. Like basal cell and squamous cell cancers, melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages.

Noncomedogenic: This means ingredients within a product have been tested and proven not to clog pores under lab conditions. Everyone’s skin is different, however, so this is no guarantee your skin won’t still react and/or breakout.

Occlusives: These rich ingredients work in harmony with humectants to provide a seal on top of the skin and therefore help prevent moisture from leaving the epidermis. Occlusives are usually rich in texture and include ingredients like shea butter, dimethicone and mineral oils.

Paraben-free: Parabens are synthetic preservatives that keep skincare products from being destroyed by bacteria and mold. Some people experience negative reactions to parabens so if you’re sensitive, always try to buy paraben-free.

Peptides: These are natural or synthetic proteins, composed of small chains of amino acids. They act as humectants to help the skin retain moisture, but some are also able to penetrate the upper layer of the skin and communicate with cells to help them function more efficiently. Some of the most common peptides used in skincare are palmitoyl oligopeptide, palmitoyl pentapeptide and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7.

Photoaging: The aging process can be split it into two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic (or chronological) aging makes up just 10 percent of the process, takes place over time and is genetically determined so is totally out of your control. On the other hand, extrinsic (or environmental) aging is controlled by your lifestyle and accounts for about 90 percent of the body’s aging process. Yes, eek. Photoaging sits in the second camp and is caused by repeated exposure to UVR (ultra violet radiation). The effects of photoaging on the skin include pigmentation as well as degradation of collagen and elastin (read: wrinkles and sagging).

Retinoids: Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that work to topically target concerns like wrinkles, sun damage and hyperpigmentation by increasing collagen synthesis and epidermal thickness. They range from prescription-strength, highly active retinoids like tretinoin (Retin-A and Renova), through to gentler, medical-grade retinol treatments which cause fewer side effects and far less skin sensitivity. You can even buy retinol solutions over the counter at your local drugstore – although it’s questionable as to how much active retinol these actually contain. Just saying.

Rosacea: Not to be confused with sunburn or acne, rosacea has multiple clinical components. These include the visible presence of facial redness, pimples, pustules, bumpy breakouts, skin thickening, even dry eyes and/or blurry vision. More severe forms of rosacea include hard, yellowish-brown bumps on the skin and rhinophyma – otherwise known as ‘WC Fields nose.’ While the real cause of it has yet to be determined, factors that exacerbate rosacea include alcohol, caffeine, certain foods – especially very spicy foods – and extremes of temperature. Acne, on the other hand, is primarily a disorder of the sebaceous glands.

Skin cancer: There are many types of skin cancer – including melanoma (above) – but the two most common are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. As with melanoma, these form in the epidermis of the skin, in the basal and squamous cells respectively. Unlike melanoma, however, they grow slowly and rarely spread. Almost eight out of ten skin cancers are basal cell cancer and they usually develop on sun-exposed areas.

Written by: Georgia Gould