5 Key Skincare Ingredients: What They Are and What They Do

Skincare is about creating and maintaining healthy skin by using products that work for you and address your skin's needs. What makes a product work for you? The ingredients – they're the most important part. Everybody’s skin is different, which means ingredients can work differently person to person, not to mention your skin changes as you age – what worked when you were 14, likely won’t when you’re 40.

But ingredients are tricky. There’s a lot of them. People talk about natural ingredients, versus synthetic and even the most basic ingredients (like vitamin C) have complicated science-y names – and let’s be honest, you can't remember a thing Mr Little taught you in year 10 science. It was something about H20’s, the AZ’s and BeeGees, but you can’t be sure (and when I say you, I mean me). So when people talk lactic that and citric this, you probably nod along pretending to know what it all means. 

Well, your nodding days are behind you. No longer will you not know the difference between an AHA and the NBA. Skincare isn’t meant to be tricky – it’s meant to be simple. So unless you happened to listen in science class (if you did – go you!), this article will help you understand 5 key skincare ingredients that you may already be using, or that you may want to try inject into your routine.  

Before we get started there are two important things you need to understand: 

  1. pH levels

  2. AHAs

 

So, Welcome to your 5-to-try Chemistry Class! 

Lesson 1: what are pH levels?

pH stands for ‘potential hydrogen’ and measures a substances acid-alkaline ratio. Your skin has a pH level, as do the products you use. The pH scale goes from 0 (battery acid, aka the most acidic) to 7 (water, aka neutral) to 14 (household bleach, aka the most alkaline). 

You want your skin to have a pH level between 4.5 – 5.5, which is the right balance between acidity and alkalinity. You want to ensure you have a bit of acidity, as it helps your skin protect itself against the elements, allergens, bacteria, pollution etc. However, these factors can also affect your pH level, taking it higher or lower that the ideal 4.5-5.5. 

If your skin goes higher than 5.5 and becomes too alkaline, it feels dry, sensitive and is subject to ageing. Our skin will naturally become more alkaline as we age, which is another reason why you may need to change your routine as you get older. At the other end, if you drop too far below 4.5 ‒ 5.5 and your skin becomes overly acidic, your skin can become inflamed, and have breakouts. Products with a high pH level bring your pH level up, and vice versa. Skin with a balanced pH looks healthy and hydrated, without flaking or redness.

Understanding pH levels is important when choosing products and ingredients that are going to work for your skin. Some brands, like Drunk Elephant, label their pH level to help you make the right choice. If your skin is too alkaline, you want products that will bring your pH level down. And if your skin is too acidic, you want products that will bring your pH level up. You can generally tell by looking in the mirror where on the pH scale you sit, or you can have your pH level measured by a dermatologist. 

 

Lesson 2: What are AHA’s? 

You’ve probably seen AHA everywhere – and when I say everywhere, I mean all over Instagram. AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acids and they're a class of chemical compounds that can be natural or synthetic. The most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid.

I'm going to break down a couple of AHAs below but, generally speaking, AHA’s are used to exfoliate, clean and restore skin tone as they are effective at separating and removing dead skin cells. 

Note: if you have red, inflamed or irritated skin, you want to steer away from too many AHAs. Too many or too high a concentrate can be too harsh and further inflame your skin. 

 

Now let's go through 5 key skincare ingredients and what you need to know about them. 

Please note: I haven’t personally used all the below products, just to give you an idea of how an ingredients is used.


1. Glycolic acid

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Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring AHA (as mentioned above). It’s derived from plants such as sugar cane, pineapple, and sugar beets. Glycolic acid can be quite strong, so if you have sensitive skin, you want to start by using a low concentration. 

What does glycolic acid do? 

  • It’s an exfoliation ingredient – it’s able to penetrate your skin deeply and easily, removing dead cells, revealing brighter, fresher skin

  • Used to treat oily and acne-prone skin, as it helps clear blocked pores and bacteria

  • Helps treat psoriasis, melasma, and seborrheic keratosis as it transfers water molecules from the air into the skin tissues, replenishing low moisture

  • Treats dull, pigmented or ageing skin, as well as scarring

  • Boosts collagen production, plumping the skin, and helping the skin tissue remain firm

Where would you find glycolic acid?

  • Exfoliants

  • Face washes

  • Cleansers

  • Toners

  • Serums

  • Face masks

Products that use glycolic acid: 

  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum

  • Olay Regenerist Night Resurfacing Elixir

  • Avon Anew Clinical Advanced Retexturizing Peel

  • DermaDoctor Picture Porefect

 

2. Rosehip oil

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You’ll be shocked to learn that rosehip oil is extracted from the rose’s hip. Never woulda guessed it, huh? The rose’s hip is the fruit that’s left once the rose has bloomed. Rosehip is a wonder-woman ingredient as it contains fatty acids, vitamin C and E which all work to hydrate and protect your skin. It’s ideal for anyone with sensitive skin. 

What does rosehip oil do?

  • Hydrates dry and sensitive skin

  • Helps reduce inflammation

  • Protects skin from the sun and sun damage, and prevents wrinkles and ageing

  • Repairs damaged skin tissue, and helps improve the appearance of pigmentation

  • Restores skin tone

Where would you find rosehip oil?

  • Face and body oils

  • Serums

  • Scrubs

Products that use rosehip oil: 

  • Sukin Certified Organic Rose Hip Oil

  • Go-To Face Hero

  • Dr Lewinn's Miracle Radiance Renewal Serum

  • The Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil

  • Frank Body Creamy Face Scrub

 

3. Lactic acid

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Lactic acid is another AHA. It's an organic compound that can be produced naturally and synthetically. When natural, it's derived from milk, fruit, vegetables and other plants. It's quite a powerful ingredient, particularly as it's antibacterial. 

What does lactic acid do?  

  • Gently but deeply exfoliates skin, promoting skin renewal

  • Hydrates and slows cell water loss by increasing production of the skin's natural fats and oils

  • Helps dehydrated, lifeless, and congested skin

  • Used to treat and reduce hyperpigmentation (brown or red spots), mild to moderate acne, lines and wrinkles

  • Seen as gentler and less irritating than glycolic acid, as it's more hydrating

Where would you find lactic acid?

  • Exfoliants

  • Acid treatments

  • Toners

Products that use lactic acid: 

  • Go-To Exfoliating Swipeys

  • Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

  • REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic

  • Herbivore Botanicals Prism Exfoliating Glow Potion

  • Kate Somerville ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment

 

4. Citric acid

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Citric acid is, you guessed it, derived from citrus fruits! Probably the easiest to understand as ‘citric’ tends to be a dead give away. It’s another AHA that exfoliates skin, but it's also loaded with antioxidants. Citric acid is often used to adjust the pH of products to prevent them from being too alkaline. 
Why don’t your want products to be too alkaline? Because as we discussed at the start of the post, skin that is too alkaline is dry, sensitive and ages quickly. 

What does citric acid do?

  • Unclogs pores, and as such, is used to treat mild acne

  • Helps reduce pigmentation, sun damage, and dark spots

  • Reduces wrinkles and signs of ageing

  • Helps with evening your skin tone

Where would you find citric acid?

  • Peels

  • Toners

  • Cleansers

  • Scrubs

  • Face masks

Products that use citric acid:  

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial

  • Go-to Properly Clean

  • Aesop Amazing Face Cleanser

  • The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

  • Philosophy Purity Made Simple Facial Cleanser

 

5. Glycerin aka Glycerol/Glycerine

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Glycerin is a colorless, odorless liquid that is sweet-tasting and non-toxic. (It’s actually used to sweeten food!) Glycerol is found naturally in fat, and is generally obtained from plant and animal sources, but can be made synthetically too. It's a fantastic skincare ingredient as it’s a humectant. NO idea what that means? I didn’t either. It means it has the property of attracting water to itself, so basically it's a moisturiser that attracts more moisture. Skincare inception. 

What does glycerin do?

  • Deeply moisturises ‒ if you have red, dry, cracked skin, this is the ingredient you want to be using

Where would you find glycerin?

  • Moisturising products

  • Cleansers (it helps maintain hydration while cleansing skin)

Products that use glycerin: 

  • Frank Body Everyday Face Moisturiser

  • Go-To Properly Clean

  • La Roche-posay Toleriane Soothing Protective Skincare

  • Burt's Bees Shea Butter Hand Repair Creme

  • Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion