Common Skin Care Ingredients

Here is a short set of definitions of the primary categories of skincare ingredients by their function/use.


These are substances that neutralize free radicals. Free radical damage is one of the main catalysts of the aging process. Free radicals also instigate multiples kinds of inflammation. Antioxidants can be used to reduce the skin's vulnerability to free radicals. Antioxidants have many different makeups, including solubility in both oil and water, range of activity, and other properties. Binding Agents: are ingredients that bind products together and impede the separation of water and lipids. Emulsifiers are the main binding ingredients used in skincare products.

Bioactive Agents

A loosely defined group of ingredients that affect biological processes. They generally play a role in the growth and hormone production working on the molecular level by activating or slowing specific biological functions at a cellular level.

Delivery Enhancers/Systems

These are ingredients that enhance the absorption of the other ingredients into the skin or inner skin cells. In addition, manufacturers develop newer systems like liposomes (encapsulation of ingredient into lipophile envelop) or drones (attaching a molecule that can penetrate through a skin barrier).


When you blend water and oil together, you get a smooth substance known as an emulsifier. Because most skincare products contain both oil and water-soluble ingredients, emulsions are a commonly found ingredient in formulations. For example, creams and lotions are generally emulsions. The problem with emulsions is that they separate easily and are generally unstable. Emulsifiers are the ingredients that keep the components of emulsions from separating.


These are compounds that make the skin smoother and softer. There are a large variety of emollients available on the market. Each one has a slightly different effect.


These are substances that extract moisture from the air. They are also all moisturizers. Good moisturizers will contain strong humectants.


These compounds make the skin feel softer and smoother to the touch; they also often reduce friction. They are most commonly found in hand cream.


These compounds destroy harmful bacteria, yeast, and or molds, thereby keeping the product from going off. Unfortunately, some preservatives can irritate the skin; using products that microorganisms have spoiled can be even more dangerous. Antioxidants and stabilizers can also be called preservatives since they slow the chemical breakdown of the ingredients in a skincare product.


These are compounds such as alcohol or water that can dissolve other ingredients.


Otherwise known as wetting agents. These compounds can lower the surface tension of a liquid. For example, formulas use surfactants to make a topical product easy to apply.


This is the base that contains the active ingredients.

Vitamins, nutrients, metabolites

This is the varied group of ingredients needed for good nutrition, metabolism, and other functions in the skin cells. Some of them have clinically proven benefits. Others are untested with regard to use in skincare products.

Perfectly balanced formulations

Conceivably harmful ingredients

It is difficult to arrive at an objective and well-balanced understanding of the potential toxicity of ingredients. Conventional skincare companies generally promote the safety of the ingredients that they use in their products. Yet, at the same time, alternative, organic skincare companies cast doubt on the use of synthetic ingredients. Most independent scientific studies on the subject look at the acute toxicity of high concentrations/doses instead of the chronic low-level damage from long-term use. Below you will read about some theories that look at the potential harm that ingredients can cause.

Systemic toxicity

If a topically applied ingredient is toxic, there is a good chance that it will get into the bloodstream and then spread throughout the body, causing damage to organs other than just the skin. The good news is that there are no products on the market (over the counter) that are systemically toxic. There are, however, some topical prescription drugs that, if not used correctly, such as certain hormonal creams that can be systemically toxic if not used correctly. You should check with your physician about potential side effects when using such creams.

Natural v. Synthetic

People who promote an all-natural version of skincare believe that any organic substance is more effective than its synthetic counterpart and that all synthetic chemicals are potentially toxic. The real story is considerably more complicated than that. Science has shown us that the biological effects of a specific chemical are the same whether it is in its natural (isolated) form or if it is synthetic. Theoretically, this is always true. In reality, the difference in the purity of the substance is more dependent on the contaminants it might contain rather than how it was created. Dangerous contaminants are more likely to be present in synthetic substances than natural ones, although the natural ones can also contain contaminants in certain circumstances. This means that while using organic ingredients can reduce the risk of toxic contamination, it does not alleviate it completely. The quality and integrity of the manufacturer are equally important. It is also important to keep in mind the fact that natural products spoil more easily.

Certain synthetic ingredients have no natural counterparts or cannot be made by isolating them from within a natural source. Agents like this are both a good thing and a bad thing. Some have positive effects that are much greater than those of natural agents, while others can have a harmful effect on the skin.

There is no set rule as to whether using natural or synthetic products is best. It is most sensible to make a choice on a case-by-case basis. An example would be that of vitamin E. The natural version of vitamin E is more effective as it contains only the D form of the vitamin, while the synthetic version is a combination of D and L, which are less effective. On the other side of the coin, tretinoin, a popular anti-wrinkle treatment (found in Retin A and Renova), is only available in synthetic form. This means that if you only use natural products, you will have to skip using this proved formula.

Low-level skin damage

Very few over-the-counter formulas have ingredients in them that can cause skin damage (except for those with extremely sensitive skin). The real question about skincare products is the long-term effects on the aging of the skin when there is a low level of irritation, dehydration, and other minor damage. So far, most ingredients used in formulations have not been studied for these long-term cumulative effects. This means that the effectiveness of skincare products is often not as clear as it might seem, as you need to weigh out the difference between the beneficial effects of the active ingredients and the possible low-level damage from stabilizers, preservatives, synthetic fragrances, and other inactive ingredients. It is often impossible to make an accurate judgment on whether or not the effects are worth it or not. The more you understand about the ingredients, both active and inactive - the more likely you are to be able to choose a product that will work well for you. It is also possible to make skincare products for yourself. (See DIY Anti-aging Skin Care Info pack) This will give you the ability to get rid of synthetic colors, fragrances and also reduce the need for stabilizers and preservatives as you can make it on an as-needed basis.

It is a good idea to understand what a person eats or puts on their body as much as you can. Although it is impossible to understand everything, there are some good reasons for having a good knowledge of skincare products.
Most skincare products have a full listing of ingredients on the label or box. This labeling is required by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which mandates that all ingredients be listed. The law also gives guidelines on the format for the listing.
Below you will find a list of some ingredients that may cause skin damage from prolonged use or which are simply unnecessary.
Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is a popular ingredient that is used by a large number of manufacturers. It is trendy because it is one of a small number of agents (maybe even the only agent) that has been proved to produce skin tightening and to reduce facial sag (to a low level).