Decoding Skincare: Part II

This is Part II of a two-part post. Be sure to read part I here.

What to Look For:  Superstar Ingredients


Number one on the list is sunscreen. Whether you choose a chemical or physical filter, nothing makes more of a difference when it comes to anti-aging. Dermatologist John R. Stanley, MD says, “All the other things you could do to your skin are so minor compared to sun protection…” and Dr. George Costarelis adds, “the major difference between young and old skin is the extent of sun exposure: That can lead to loss of collagen and elastin, which usually keeps your skin taut.” Read more about the different sunscreen ingredients and how to choose one here. Remember, daily use is critical as sun damage happens cumulatively over time.

Retinoids (Vitamin A)

See this post for lots on retinoids and how they smooth, firm, and regenerate the skin. Dermatologists sing their praises, and they’re the beauty secret of many an ageless-looking starlet. Look for retinol, retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate. Or opt for full strength from the dermatologist (or Differin now available at the drugstore.) If not used as directed, retinoids can cause severe irritation. Used judiciously, they are second only to sunscreen in their benefit to the skin.

Vitamin C

Read more about Vitamin C and the many names it goes by here. Our bodies don’t make it, so we must get it from our diet. Adding it to our skincare gives an extra boost of radiance and brightness. Vitamin C helps build collagen and fade hyperpigmentation. It’s also great to use under sunscreen for strengthening your defense against UV rays.

Acids:  AHA and BHA

You don’t necessarily need a professional chemical peel to have bright, clear, flake-free skin. Using gentle alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy acids as a regular part of your at-home skincare regimen keeps old, dead layers of skin at bay. Reduce fine lines, fade hyperpigmentation, and clean and shrink the appearance of pores. AHA is best for dry skin; exfoliating the surface effectively, while BHA is best for oily, acne prone skin because of its ability to penetrate the pore lining and clear acne. Look for AHA concentrations between 8 and 10%, and BHA up to 2% for best results. AHA can be in the form of lactic acid, glycolic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, dicarbonous acidhydroxy-acetic acid, and alpha hydroxy acid, to name a few. BHA goes by salicylic acid or beta hydroxy acid.


A component of B3, niacinamide aids collagen and elastin production, has anti-inflammatory, properties, and helps to fade hyperpigmentation. Great for rosacea, acne, and more; it also has antioxidant properties. Also goes by Vitamin B3 and nicotinic acid.


There are several different types of peptides available in skincare today. Helping to build collagen is what peptides do best. They also protect against the degradation of collagen. There is evidence that specific peptides help relax wrinkles. They go by many names, including acetyl tetrapeptide-9, Argireline, Caprooyl tetrapeptide-3, Hexapeptide-11, Matrixyl and more.

Epidermal Growth Factors

Lab-derived proteins, EGFs support the renewal and regeneration of damaged cells. They stimulate cells to produce collagen; especially to bring repair to irregular or aged cells. Most manufacturers have their own names for their proprietary combination of growth factors, like SkinMedica’s “human fibroblast conditioned media.” If EGFs are part of the product you’re looking at there’s a good chance it’s advertised on the front of the package. You can read more about EGFs here.

Photo credit: Global Aesthetic Leaders

Snail Secretion

Yep, you read that right. There are now skincare products made with the mucus from a particular type of snail. Allegedly no snails are killed or harmed in the process of obtaining the ingredient. You might see it listed as Helix aspersa extract, or snail secretion filtrate. Snail secretion contains proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans, glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, copper peptides, antimicrobial peptides, copper, zinc, and iron.  Studies demonstrate that snail secretion stimulates collagen and elastin, and increases the production of fibroblasts. Other studies have shown it to be effective at healing burns, suggesting it has similar properties to EGFs.


Ceramides are found naturally in our skin, though their presence diminishes with age. We also have fewer when our skin barrier is compromised (often from skincare practices that are too harsh or drying). Ceramides help keep the good stuff in your skin and the bad things out. Skin without enough ceramides looks dull, dry and can appear more wrinkled. A healthy amount of ceramides means a smooth, glowy complexion with better moisture retention. There are nine types of ceramides, and usually you’ll see a number (1-9) after the word “ceramide” on the list of ingredients.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic Acid is a humectant that can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. It helps absorb and retain moisture in the skin. Our natural reserves of HA start declining in our thirties, so using it in our skincare helps to plump up the skin and can even fill out the look of fine lines. (This is the same ingredient used for facial fillers that are injected under the skin to plump up fine lines and wrinkles.) You might see it listed as hyaluronate sodium, Hylan, sodium hyaluronate, or glycosaminoglycan.

Photo credit:

Vitamin E

The best version of Vitamin E as far as your skin is concerned is D-alpha-tocopherol. It acts as a soothing anti-inflammatory, helps retains moisture in the skin and defends against UV rays. D-alpha-tocopherol is especially useful against UV rays in combination with Vitamin C.

The above is far from an exhaustive list but can serve as a reference if you want evidence-based ingredients in your skincare. Honorable mention to copper, reservatol, caffeine, and Coenzyme Q-10. Some of the ingredients listed here qualify as natural, and others are synthetic. Not all of them will agree with everyone’s skin. If they do, you’re in luck. The best products will have a combination of the above ingredients.

Natural Ingredients: The Good and the Bad

What follows are lists I copied from Paula Begoun, “The Cosmetics Cop,” founder of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Her books and skincare are the result of exhaustive research and collaboration with some of the top dermatologists and skincare chemists in the country. Click here for more information from her related to these lists.

According to Ms. Begoun, the following natural ingredients shouldn’t ever be in your skincare products

  • Alcohol*
  • Allspice
  • Almond extract
  • Angelica
  • Arnica
  • Balm mint oil
  • Balsam
  • Basil
  • Bergamot
  • Cinnamon
  • Citrus juices or oils
  • Clove
  • Clover blossom
  • Coriander oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Cypress
  • Fennel
  • Fir needle
  • Geranium oil
  • Grapefruit
  • Ground up nuts
  • Horsetail
  • Lavender oil
  • Lemon
  • Lemon balm
  • Lemongrass
  • Lime
  • Marjoram
  • Oak bark
  • Papaya
  • Peppermint
  • Rose
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Witch hazel
  • Wintergreen
  • Ylang ylang

Paula says that while some of the above ingredients can have beneficial properties for the skin, the negative impact outweighs any benefit. There are plenty of natural ingredients that are good for the skin without any of the irritating side effects.

*An important note on alcohols. The alcohol on the above list represents a drying, abrasive class of alcohol. There is a different category of alcohols that have the opposite effect. They’re common in moisturizers and conditioners for their emollient, moisturizing properties. Examples of “good” alcohols are cetyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and Cetearyl alcohol. Some of the common alcohols that you don’t want to see in your skincare products are SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, or methanol. 

Paula Begoun’s list of the top natural ingredients that are proven to be great for the skin:

  • Clays
  • Chamomile
  • Bisabolol
  • Seaweed
  • Kaolin
  • Amino acids
  • Ceramides
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Grapes
  • Green tea
  • Chocolate
  • Licorice
  • Oats
  • Soy
  • Willow Herb
  • Coconut oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Canola oil
  • Shea butter
  • Honey
  • Mica
  • Olive oil
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Argan oil
  • Carnauba wax
  • Meadowfoam
  • Rice Bran oil
  • Turmeric
  • Rosa canina Fruit oil
  • Palm oil
  • Omega fatty acids
  • Corn oil
  • Glycerin
  • Lecithin
  • Aloe vera
  • Jojoba oil
  • Pomegranate
  • Algae extracts
  • Sea whip extract
  • Feverfew extract
  • Bearberry
  • Mulberry
  • White tea
  • Cocoa butter
  • Sesame oil
  • Borage oil
  • Ubiquinone
  • Acai oil
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B3
  • Goji Berry
  • Coffeeberry extract
  • Evening Primrose oil
  • Tamanu Oil
  • Curcumins
  • Silybum marianum extract

My personal preference

I look for ingredients that are clinically proven to give healthy, more youthful looking skin (like the ones listed in this post). I use products that combine both natural and synthetic ingredients. Several reputable brands make products that contain both, so it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.

Me at 39 years old: I’m a skincare freak. But if I could only use one product, it would be sunscreen.

I don’t avoid parabens or phthalates, although after my research for Part I of this post, I’ll be giving those ingredients more consideration. I use sulfates for my hair and skin in moderation.

I don’t buy any skincare without first checking out the ingredients. I don’t usually know what every single item listed is, but I know which to look for, and which to generally avoid. (When in doubt, there’s Google!) While anyone can have an adverse reaction to something, you’re more likely to get good results (and avoid disastrous ones) when you make an informed purchase.

Since I’m acne prone, I have this list of pore-clogging ingredients bookmarked on my phone. (Remember, the higher up on the list of ingredients, the higher the concentration of said ingredient. The first seven or so are generally the most impactful.)

Certain online retailers don’t provide ingredients for every skincare product they sell.
If you can’t find them at the manufacturer’s website, you should email the company and let them know you need to see an ingredients list before you will be purchasing anything. This is a real pet peeve of mine. It’s as if they assume all consumers are ignorant or easily suckered in by marketing. (Sadly many are. Don’t be that consumer.)

Expensive does not equal better. While many of the best skincare actives can be pricier, there are plenty of expensive products that do little but moisturize and look pretty on your vanity. Salespeople are paid to recite a script loaded with misleading promises about their products. Be an informed consumer who knows what works for your skin. There isn’t much a pushy salesperson dislikes more.

There are quality skincare ingredients that make noticeable improvements to the complexion, but there is still no fountain of youth in a jar. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s time to do a little fact-checking.

If you have any favorite ingredients I left out or any harmful ones you think people should know about, leave them in the comments! It would be impossible for me to mention them all and I welcome your input.


References and further reading:

My other posts on skincare: Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, and more sunscreen.  Vitamin C, epidermal growth factors, retinoids, and more retinoids.

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Philip Kamalii

Hey, I really liked your post