When reading the label of a beauty product, you may feel like you need a translator to figure out the laundry list of ingredients. This beginner-friendly guide can help you think like a dermatologist when considering new additions to your skin care routine.

The global cosmetics market was valued at about $500 billion in 2017 and is expected to grow to $800 billion by 2023.

Data also shows that the average American spends an average of 23-25$ per makeup or moisturizing skin care product.

With consumers investing this much in skin care, it’s important to get the most out of your dollar. 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.

Read on and get the scoop on what beauty buzzwords live up to the hype, which you can skip below.

Mary Sommerlad, MD, is a London-based consultant dermatologist for Vichy. She describes skin care on social media as a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, it’s fantastic to receive free information that’s easily accessible to a wide-ranging audience,” says Sommerlad. “However, the information gleaned is only as reliable and accurate as the person making the content.”

Sommerlad recommends getting skin care advice from verified dermatologists or brands that work closely with skin care professionals.

She also advocates for treating your skin with compassion and respect.

For Sommerlad, being compassionate toward your skin means understanding “that skin is a reactive organ that reflects our general health and well-being … and that being patient is more effective long term rather than having expectations that skin concerns can resolve within a week or 2.”

Respecting the skin means avoiding habits that can damage the skin and lead to long-term problems, like sunbathing or harsh products and procedures.

“I’d like to see people treat their skin like any other organ,” says Sommerlad. “If something isn’t right … see a medically trained doctor to get a diagnosis.”

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 have 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.”

When evaluating whether or not to recommend an ingredient, dermatologists use various criteria. Here’s how to think like a dermatologist when considering products and trendy ingredients:

Is it effective?

“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 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. For example, a 2019 study suggested that topical application of peptides combined with oral supplementation helped improve skin qualities like elasticity.

Another 2019 study indicated that oral supplementation helped with skin appearance, including firmness.

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 many sun 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.

“Tolerability is going to have a lot to do with skin type,” Colombo says. “Some people have more sensitive skin. Some people have more resistant skin.”

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, according to the National Health Service (NHS).

Decoding ‘hypoallergenic’

If you have sensitive skin, you’ll likely want to use particular ingredients that don’t irritate. Does that mean you should reach for products labeled “hypoallergenic?”

The term refers to products that don’t contain known allergens. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes, “There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.”

Instead of looking for products labeled as hypoallergenic, it’s best to look at a product’s ingredients list to rule out specific allergens that may irritate.

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Trends may come and go, but Kung and Colombo say these ingredients have earned their place as mainstays in skin care.

Azelaic acid

Colombo says azelaic acid has anti-inflammatory properties that make it an effective treatment for acne and rosacea.

A 2020 review of acne treatments indicated this ingredient was not as effective as benzoyl peroxide but about as effective as tretinoin when treating acne.

A 2022 review suggested azelaic acid was effective in rosacea treatment. It also indicated that off-label use of the ingredient helped with acne.

Colombo says products containing 15% azelaic acid need a prescription, but those with 10% or less are often available over the counter.


According to the NHS, zinc can help speed up wound healing. Kung also notes that zinc oxide is a common ingredient in sunscreen.

A 2018 study suggested topical zinc was a promising low cost alternative to acne treatments like retinoids.

A 2021 study of zebrafish suggested topical zinc oxide becomes toxic and loses effectiveness in protecting the sun’s rays after 2 hours of UV radiation exposure. Researchers called for care when formulating sunscreen with zinc oxide.

Before taking oral zinc, speak with a physician to ensure appropriate dosing.

Ascorbyl Palmitate

Kung explains that this ingredient is a form of vitamin C. It’s used in skin care products to help:

A 2017 study also suggested that topical use of vitamin C had anti-aging (or, as we like to say, “pro-aging”) effects.

Vitamin E & C

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, 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.

You should always speak with a healthcare professional before taking supplements.

Retinol and retinoids

Kung explains that retinol is an over-the-counter form of vitamin A. Retinoids, on the other hand, may need to be prescribed by a physician or dermatologist. However, Differin gel is one retinoid available over the counter.

Kung says they are often used for:

  • wrinkle prevention
  • smoothing fine lines
  • acne treatment

A 2017 review indicated support for topical retinol in acne treatment, partly for its anti-inflammatory benefits.

A 2016 study suggested retinols have pro-aging benefits.

Kung says retinols and retinoids treat acne by exfoliating the skin at the cellular level.


Kung recommends peptides to people seeking to slow down the visible signs of aging. These amino acids support collagen and elastin and can help achieve firmer skin.

A 2020 clinical study of 22 Asian individuals indicated that using peptides topically for 2 weeks may help reduce wrinkles.

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

A 2021 review suggested niacinamide could help with a number of skin concerns, including:

  • signs of aging
  • psoriasis
  • hyperpigmentation
  • 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

A 2019 review suggested green tea extract had pro-aging benefits and could protect against the harmful effects of UV radiation.


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.

Hyaluronic acid

Sommerlad says this buzzy ingredient lives up to the hype by providing hydration.

“I recommend hyaluronic acid (HA) as it really helps keep the skin well hydrated, which is key to a healthy skin barrier,” she says.

Kung says it can also help the skin appear plumper.

Why? Kung explains that hyaluronic acid traps water in the skin and attaches to collagen.

The body naturally produces HA to retain water to keep your tissues hydrated, but you can give your skin a boost by adding this ingredient to your routine, too.

According to a 2021 study of 40 women ages 30 to 65 with signs of photoaging, HA was effective at improving:

  • smoothness
  • plumping
  • hydration
  • fine lines
  • wrinkles

It’s also known to help with wound healing, as noted by a 2022 review.

According to Kung, HA also works well with retinol.

Kojic acid

Colombo recommends kojic acid to people who want to improve hyperpigmentation.

Kojic acid “inhibits melanin production, so it’s good for hyperpigmentation,” she says. Colombo notes that kojic acid is particularly beneficial to those sensitive to hydroquinone.

A 2019 study indicated that kojic acid was an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation when used in creams and lotions and could provide UV protection.

Tranexamic acid

Like kojic acid, Colombo says this ingredient can aid in treating hyperpigmentation. She says it’s also effective when used in combination with hydroquinone.

A 2019 study suggested tranexamic acid and hydroquinone were equally effective, but people reported higher satisfaction and fewer side effects when using tranexamic acid.

Bonus pick: thermal water

Another ingredient these three derms love is thermal water. This mineral-rich water is derived from natural springs and may help improve suppleness and reduce irritation.

“Thermal Spring water has a lot of beneficial qualities,” says Kung. “I use spring water after laser treatments on my patients, which immediately reduces post-procedure redness.”

It’s also been shown to balance the skin’s microbiome and support conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

Colombo recommends it as a soothing treatment after laser procedures to help cool and calm down treated skin and during airplane travel to help hydrate the skin on the go.

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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 irritate.

Added colors

Further, if a product is not clear, it probably contains coloring. This ingredient only makes the product look more attractive to the consumer but has no other value.

Propylene glycol

Propylene glycol is often used to extend shelf-life and prevent caking. It can be irritating, which may be why the Contact Dermatitis Society named it the 2018 Allergen of the Year.

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.

CBD oil

Though CBD oil may reduce inflammation, Colombo says its use as a pro-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 people who combine retinol 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, people do fine with these ingredients, particularly if used at different times.

Kung says people often note skin irritation after using an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta hydroxy acid (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.

What acid is best for anti-aging?

Glycolic acid is often considered the best acid for graceful aging support due to its small molecular size.

This allows the acid to penetrate the skin deeply and stimulate collagen production, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

What ingredient is best for firming the face?

Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, is considered one of the best ingredients for firming the face. It helps increase collagen production, improve skin texture, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

What ingredients penetrate the skin?

Hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, retinol, and vitamin C are known for their ability to penetrate the skin effectively.

These ingredients have small molecular sizes or specific properties that allow them to penetrate the skin’s barrier and deliver their benefits.

What is the most powerful anti-aging ingredient?

Retinoids, including prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin and over-the-counter retinol, are among the most powerful pro-aging tools.

They can help reduce wrinkles, improve skin texture, and increase collagen production for long-term benefits.

There’s a ton of noise in the beauty industry, with new trending ingredients constantly popping up on social media and 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 specializing in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of the digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.