From RF To EGF: What Do Beauty Abbreviations Actually Mean?

Being blindsided by long, polysyllabic words or modern-day acronyms you have to surreptitiously Google is no fun. And while the average person can’t possibly have a Sheldon Cooper-sized brain that’s full of enough vocabulary to put a Merrian-Webster dictionary to shame, it’s useful to have a few non-everyday terms up your sleeve.

In the world of aesthetics and skincare there are many words to be heard at the derm’s office that could get you in a tizzy. And when it comes to acronyms and shortened treatments, procedures and active ingredients? Well, you can’t move for AHAs and TCAs.

Herein, a few of the most common abbreviations we recommend you have some understanding of. Gold stars to be distributed shortly…

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 making them super-effective for treating sun damage, age spots, fine lines and wrinkles. Examples of AHAs found in skincare include lactic acid and the most common of all, glycolic acid.

Unlike AHAs, beta-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble substances. BHAs are used in skincare to exfoliate your skin on an even deeper level by cutting 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.

Otherwise known as benzoyl peroxide, BPO (which is sometimes referred to as BP) is one of the most effective antibacterial ingredients for treating acne, pimples and blackheads. 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.

EGF is a tissue-stimulating polypeptide that was first discovered in the ‘50s and consequently developed to speed wound recovery. Otherwise known as epidermal growth factor, EGF has been creeping into skincare products over the past few years due to the belief that it has the ability to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin. It also stimulates biochemical pathways to help promote repair and regeneration within deeper levels of the skin.

“If you apply skincare containing growth factors to burnt, photodamaged or aging skin, it can help drive ingredients down to when cellular activity takes place. This revitalizes the tissue and results in younger-looking skin,” explains says Dr. Dendy Engleman, board-certified and nationally-acclaimed dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York City.

GAGs are glycosaminoglycans – a group of unbranched polysaccharides that are found in abundance in the body and help maintain and support the structure of the skin. GAGs are highly negatively charged with a high viscosity and low compressibility, which makes them vital for lubricating fluid in the joints and helping the skin retain moisture. HA is a GAG. Speaking of which…

Hyaluronic acid, or hyaluronan, is large 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. Studies show that HA has the ability to hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, which is why it’s often used to great effect in moisturizing skincare products.

You know those annoying, hard, often red bumps that sometimes appear on the tops of your arms, thighs or hiney? That’s Keratosis Pilaris. KP develops when the skin produces too much keratin which blocks the hair follicles and often looks a little like goosebumps. The reason why KP occurs in some people and not in others has never been properly understood (yes, we know, man on the moon and all that) but gentle, chemical exfoliation, retinoids and/or medical-grade moisturization goes a long way in treating it.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is a type of increased pigmentation that’s brought on by some sort of trauma to the skin. This includes injuries or the likes of dark spots that remain long after inflammation has healed. The most common cause of PIH is acne, but it can also result from a burn, psoriasis or following the improper use of an at-home laser device (which is why we recommend you always seek out a professional physician). The good news is that PIH responds well to consistent treatment and will fade as the skin regenerates itself.

RF is a non-surgical, skin tightening technology that uses radio frequency energy to heat underlying tissue, stimulate collagen production and encourage cell turnover. With continued treatments, RF procedures such as Thermage and Exilis have been proven to help promote firmer, thicker and more youthful-looking skin. In terms of the electromagnetic spectrum, RF energy is relatively slow. In fact, it’s about 100 million times slower than visible light and over 1 billion times slower than an X-ray.

The term Rx is said to stand for the Latin word for ‘recipe’ and, when seen on cosmeceuticals, denotes an FDA-approved, ‘prescription only’ product. These medical-grade products are considered to be ‘drugs’ because they combine powerful active ingredients with high-end technology and are targeted to treat medical conditions such as acne and pigmentation. Rx products in skincare usually include ingredients such as tretinoin and hydroquinone.

You’ll often see the phrase ‘SLS-free’ on skincare products these days. SLS, in longer terms, is sodium lauryl sulfate: a cleansing ingredient and foaming agent that’s widely used in skincare, haircare, toothpaste and household cleaning products. Sulfates such as SLS are added to these products to create a lather and help remove dirt and oil. The thing is, sulfates are known to be skin irritants. They can cause dryness, irritation and some people find they exacerbate acne spots.

TCA is a non-toxic chemical called trichloroacetic acid and has been used in chemical peels for decades. A derivative of acetic acid (vinegar), TCA peels might be less popular than glycolic peels, but they’re way more penetrative. A professionally applied TCA peel delves deep into the skin, so while it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s a great choice for patients with scarring or pigmentation issues.

“TCA is super-effective, but can be a truly table-gripping experience!” explains Dr. Steven Swengel CEO, medical director and board-certified dermatologist at Refined Dermatology in Los Gatos, CA.

“A TCA peel goes deep, and the deeper you go the more your nerve endings feel it. To put it into perspective, a strong TCA peel feels like somebody’s placed a scorching hot iron on your skin.” Thankfully, TCA peels vary in strength so can be customized for your specific concerns (and pain tolerances).

While ultra-violet radiation only makes up for around 10 percent of sunlight, it’s the most damaging part of the electromagnetic spectrum that penetrates the earth’s atmosphere. UV rays are split into three wavelengths – UVA, UVB and a third, much-less-talked-about UVC.

In short, UV radiation dries the skin, breaks down collagen and elastin, causes melanin to go into overdrive (hello, melasma) and damages the DNA in your skin cells which leads to fine lines, wrinkles or more seriously (but thankfully, far less common) skin cancer. It’s literally the number one reason for premature skin aging, which is why wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis is so vital.