When reading the label of a beauty product, you may feel like you need a translator to figure out the laundry list of ingredients.
Even products with few ingredients may still have words you’ve never heard of. You may be unable to pronounce them, let alone understand what they do.
Then there’s marketing copy and social media, which speak of newly-trending ingredients that you (apparently) can’t live without. Hyaluronic acid, plant-based ceramides, and CBD are just some of the must-have ingredients that have popped up on feeds recently.
Of course, you can live without any beauty product, but can some of these ingredients actually make a difference in the health of your skin?
Get the scoop on what buzzwords live up to the hype and which you can skip below.
Morgana Colombo, MD, a board certified dermatologist and co-founder of Skintap says it’s important to know which ingredients really matter.
Social media “creates the idea that people need so much to achieve results, and a lot of time less is more,” she says.
“Many people feel compelled to use every ingredient shown to be helpful for the skin, but that’s not necessary,” says Elaine Kung, MD, a clinical assistant professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College and dermatologist with Future Bright Skin. “In fact, one or several ingredients has the ability to help many skin concerns.”
Plus, your skin is unique.
“What you need should be targeted toward your skin,” Colombo says. All the hype “is dangerous because [it] makes younger people overdo things that aren’t beneficial or necessary for them.”
This knowledge can help you achieve better skin and save you money.
Many Americans consider beauty products an investment. A 2021 Skinstore.com survey shared that the average American spends more than $320 per year on skin care products and will shell out roughly $15,000 on skin care products in their lifetime.
The report indicated that no other country is this financially invested in their skin care, and it’s understandable to want a return on that investment.
To get that return on investment, you’ll need to decipher the ingredients on the label. You’ll also want to consider:
- how they’re used
- the amount of certain ingredients in the product
- what elements don’t mix well
Otherwise, products may be ineffective or cause adverse reactions.
When evaluating whether or not to recommend an ingredient to a patient, dermatologists use an array of criteria. Here’s how to think like a dermatologist when considering products and trendy ingredients.
Keep these four questions in mind:
- Is it effective?
- How do you apply it?
- Does it penetrate the skin?
- Is it tolerable for your skin?
Is it effective?
It should go without saying: You want your products to work. Your dermatologist does too.
“The number one thing that makes an ingredient matter to a dermatologist is, ‘Is it efficacious to achieving the end result?’” Colombo says.
If you’re trying to nix dryness, you don’t need to invest in retinoids designed to aid in acne and aging support if you don’t have these issues.
Kung and Colombo suggest looking to dermatologists and peer-reviewed studies rather than social media to pinpoint whether or not an ingredient is suitable for you.
Can it be applied topically?
Generally, Colombo suggests trying topicals — or products applied to the skin — before trying oral medications.
In some cases, oral medications may interact with other medications. For example, oral tranexamic acid can increase the risk of blood clots if taken with some types of birth control.
However, oral medication may be the best first-line treatment for some issues. For instance, it may prevent permanent scarring from acne.
Sometimes a combination of oral and topical treatments is the best route. Talk with your dermatologist to learn more about what treatment is right for you.
Does it penetrate the skin?
Colombo says that for some ingredients to be effective they need to penetrate the skin. Others, like the zinc in sunscreen, should stay on the skin’s surface to ward off as much of the sun’s rays as possible.
Colombo suggests you ensure a product’s ability to penetrate the skin — or not — aligns with your desired beauty goal.
Is it tolerable for your skin?
Colombo looks at potential side effects when evaluating a product.
“We don’t want [the ingredient] to cause a bigger problem,” Colombo says.
She also cautions that the answer to this question often varies by patient.
For example, not everyone who uses retinoids experiences dryness. Those who do may be able to combat it with a moisturizing regimen. Others may want to avoid them altogether.
Allergies also play a role. For example, some people may be allergic to fragrances in products,
Trends may come and go, but Kung and Colombo say these ingredients have earned their place as mainstays in skin care.
Colombo says products containing 15 percent azelaic acid need a prescription, but those with 10 percent or less are often available over the counter.
Kung says zinc’s anti-inflammatory properties make it an effective ingredient for treating:
She also adds it can aid in speeding up wound healing and that zinc oxide is a common ingredient in sunscreen.
Before taking oral zinc, speak with a physician to ensure dosing is appropriate.
Kung explains that this ingredient is a form of vitamin C. It’s used in skin care products to help:
- protect against free radical damage
- support collagen production
- reduce hyperpigmentation
Kung says vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that can protect the skin cells from free radical damage and strengthen the skin’s barrier.
It’s found in foods, like spinach and broccoli, as well as supplements and topical creams and serums.
A 2016 review of vitamin E applications in dermatology indicated that topical uses of vitamins E and C in pharmaceuticals are often ineffective. In certain situations, however, vitamin E can combine with vitamin C to reduce skin cancer risks and sun damage.
Kung agrees that vitamins C and E can effectively team up to protect the skin. She adds that zinc oxide, niacinamide, vitamin C, and vitamin E work well together in sunscreens.
Individuals should always speak with a health care professional before taking supplements. Too much vitamin E obtained by supplements may lead to a small but increased chance of prostate cancer in men,
according to one 2014 study.
Retinol and retinoids
Kung says they are often used for:
- wrinkle prevention
- smoothing fine lines
- acne treatment
Kung says retinols and retinoids work to treat acne by exfoliating the skin at the cellular level.
Kung recommends peptides to patients seeking to slow down the visible signs of aging. These amino acids support collagen and elastin and can help achieve firmer skin.
Kung says using peptides and retinol together is generally safe and effective.
Better known as vitamin B-3, Kung says niacinamide can:
- reduce redness
- act as an anti-inflammatory
- treat acne
- brighten the skin
- reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- provide UV protection
- signs of aging
- the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer
Green tea extract
Colombo says social media is right about this trendy antioxidant. She notes that green tea extract can:
- soothe the skin
- lessen free-radical and sun damage
- help with rosacea
Though Kung explains the body naturally produces the fatty acid known as ceramides, she says it’s useful in beauty products too. Ceramides may moisturize the skin and offer protection from environmental factors, like pollutants and extreme weather.
A 2020 study of individuals with eczema indicated that a cream or lotion with ceramides could relieve dryness and hydrate the skin after one topical application.
Kung says this buzzy ingredient lives up to the hype by providing hydration. She says it can also help the skin appear plumper.
Why? Kung explains that hyaluronic acid traps water to the skin and attaches to collagen.
A 2019 study indicated that kojic acid was an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation when used in creams and lotions and could provide UV protection.
Like kojic acid, Colombo says this ingredient can aid in treating hyperpigmentation. She says it’s also effective when used in combination with hydroquinone.
Dermatologists say the ingredients you need depend on your skin type. Even some that are tried-and-true won’t work for everyone.
That said, some ingredients can generally be skipped altogether, including:
Perfume and fragrance
Artificially-scented products may make a product smell more appealing, but Kung says these items often cause irritation.
Further, if a product is not clear, it probably contains coloring. This ingredient only serves to make the product look more attractive to the consumer but has no other value.
Coconut oil on the face
Colombo warns that coconut oil clogs pores. While it may offer some benefits for the skin, it can also lead to breakouts on the face. It’s best to leave it as a body moisturizer, especially if you’re prone to acne.
Though CBD oil may reduce inflammation, Colombo says its use as an “anti-aging” tool is unproven and overstated.
Ingredient interaction is highly individual. “In certain skin types, certain combinations can lead to increased irritation,” Columbo says.
She often sees irritations in patients who combine retinols with ingredients like:
- salicylic acid
- glycolic acid
- benzoyl peroxide
It’s best to avoid the sun if using retinol or applying it at night because of an increased burn risk.
But other times, patients do fine with these ingredients, particularly if used at different times.
Kung says that patients often note skin irritation after using an AHA or BHA cleanser with vitamin C and retinol.
“At a minimum, the AHA or BHA can ‘exfoliate’ the outer layer of the skin, causing more penetration of other [active ingredients],” Kung says. “Furthermore, the AHA or BHA products may even change the pH of the other skin care ingredient products, which will change their penetration.”
Kung suggests discussing skin care product combinations with a dermatologist and stopping use if you notice irritation.
There’s a ton of noise in the beauty industry, with new trending ingredients constantly popping up on social media and through other marketing avenues. But ingredients only scratch the surface of a product’s efficacy.
Dermatologists say it’s also essential to evaluate potential side effects, skin type, and whether the ingredient is most effective when applied topically or taken orally.
You can nix ingredients like synthetic fragrances, colors, and CBD oil from your regimen. Though they may enhance the smell and look of a product, items with these ingredients are more likely to cause allergic reactions.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.