The easy-to-understand ingredients guide

Skin Care Glossary Sheet Mask

Get to know what you’re putting on your skin, and why

Beauty Crew Beauty Writer / May 26 2017

If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients list on a beauty product and thought it sounded like it had been written in another language, you’re not alone. In fact, our go-to buys, be it perfumes, makeup, nail polishes or skin care products, often contain numerous ingredients that we can’t even pronounce let alone understand what they are.

Because knowledge is power, we’ve created a simple skin care glossary to help you understand what certain ingredients are, what they do and why they’re often included in the beauty products we know and love. To help us do so, we spoke to corporate trainer from Dermalogica and the International Dermal Institute, Sarah Shepard.


Shepard explains that parabens are used as an effective preservative in foods, drugs and cosmetics. “For many years now, parabens have been considered the safest, mildest and most commonly used of all preservatives in cosmetic formulations as well as food products and many medicines. They are used in skin care products to preserve the product and give the product a good shelf life,” Shepard says.

While we have seen a rise in paraben free cosmetic formulas in recent years, Shepard asserts that “without preservatives, everyday foods and cosmetic items would become overloaded with bacteria, mould and fungus, and present genuine health concerns, skin infections and even blindness.”


Sulfates are primarily degreasing or cleansing agents. There are two most commonly used anionic surfactants founds in cleansers and shampoos: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). According to Shepard, “Both SLS and SLES are derived from Lauryl alcohol, which is isolated from coconut fat or palm kernel oil.” However, SLS “is a powerful and harsh surfactant (meaning that it removes sebum very effectively). Since sebum protects the skin and hair from drying out and conditions its surface, using SLS as a surfactant can lead to dry, fly-away hair and a diminished barrier property of the skin. SLS is strong enough to de-fat the skin and hair and has been shown to be quite irritating to the eyes (it can also be irritating to the skin),” says Shepard.

SLES on the other hand is a milder surfactant. Shepard explains, “SLES does not easily de-fat the skin and hair and has been shown to be much less irritating to the eyes. The main reason to use SLES is because it is a mild cleanser. It cleans gently yet effectively, without dryness, or stripping of lipids often associated with harsher surfactants.”


There is a collection of ingredients that fall under the umbrella of silicones. As a general rule, ingredients ending in ‘cone’ are silicones, and feature “unique fluid properties of silicone to give it a great deal of slip, and in its various forms it can feel like silk on the skin,” says Shepard.


Dimenthicones, as Shepard explains, are “important for their emollient properties and their ability to enhance the barrier layer of the skin to prevent dehydration, which is often associated with sun exposure.”


“Cyclomenthicones are particularly suited as delivery vehicles for a variety of active ingredients and are used extensively for wound healing and reducing inflammation,” says Shepard.


According to Shepard, products that claim to be natural “imply the product has been made solely from botanical resources without any use of chemical additives. It also infers that the natural ingredients should not be processed or altered.”


“Organic ingredients imply that an ingredient has been grown without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides,” explains Shepard.

It is also important to note however, that each country has its own rules and regulations surrounding how to determine if a product is organic or not, which in turn makes it difficult to know how organic a product actually is.

Additionally, although the popularity of natural and organic ingredients is on the rise, (just this week we’ve seen the natural beauty trend skyrocket on Pinterest) that is not to say beauty products containing active chemical ingredients should be avoided. In fact, Shepard believes “purchasing natural and organic products is really a lifestyle choice.


“Talc is an inactive powder made from finely ground magnesium silicate, which is a mineral. It is used in a formula as a bulking agent. Talc can add a softness or a sliding ability to a product or formula, or can be used as an absorbent,” says Shepard.


Shepard explains acetone is “a chemical used within a formula, predominantly as a skin toner. It can be used in skin care products to degrease the skin. However, potential side effects are that acetone can be drying on the skin and can cause dehydration and irritation.”

If you’re looking to further your understanding on powerful skin care ingredients, check out which potent anti-ageing ingredients you should start using today.

Image credit: Getty

Kate started working for BEAUTYcrew in early 2016, first as a contributor, and was then named Beauty Writer in 2017. She loves picking the brains of the industry's top experts to get to the bottom of beauty's toughest questions. Bronze eyeshadow palettes are her weakness and she's forever on the hunt for the perfect nude nail polish to suit her fair skin. Her words can also be found in Men's Health magazine, and she now works in PR.