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A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Essential Skincare Ingredients

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We write about skincare for a living, yet even we can get overwhelmed by ingredients and what they do. Skincare is an ever-growing industry with new developments consistently on the rise. Not only is it tough to keep up with buzzwords, but also, what pairs well with what, how they benefit the skin, and when they should be applied in our skincare routine. It’s a lot. While we have a respectable grasp on terms to know, we can’t speak on them the way the pros can. So, if you’re new to the space, below is an expert glossary of the 17 must-know skincare ingredients for beginners (along with recommended skincare products).


About the Experts:

Valérie Grandury is the founder of luxury French skincare brand ODACITÉ.
Jan Marini is the founder and chairman of science-backed JAN MARINI SKIN RESEARCH, INC. skincare.
Anisha Khanna is the co-founder & CEO of SONÄGE SKINCARE.
Orla Stewart-Becker, PA-C is a physician assistant to Jay Calvert, M.D., F.A.C.S., at RoxSpa Beverly Hills medspa.

Your Guide to Skincare Ingredients for Beginners

1. Aloe Vera

GB+_Dr Zenovia Hormonal Dermatology Aloe Vera Blemish Soothing Moistrizer Clear Complexion

You’re likely no stranger to this popular, attractive plant, which pops up in hot climates like the desert. But did you know aloe vera doubles as a skincare savior?

“This ancestral skincare ingredient has been used throughout history to treat a variety of skin conditions like burns, wound healing, dryness, and after-sun redness and sensitivity,” skincare expert Valérie Grandury tells us. “Ancient Egyptians called it ‘the plant of immortality’—I call it the fairy godmother of good-looking skin!”

We personally love that gentle, nourishing aloe vera is effective on all skin types and found in many over-the-counter products. It can also temporarily soothe more serious conditions like eczema. One product that stands out to us in particular is the DR. ZENOVIA Aloe Vera Blemish Soothing Moisturizer. Not only is it used for general skin irritation and hydration, but it additionally targets acne. Aloe vera is also a key ingredient in Grandury’s latest launch, the ODACITÉ Intense Repair Eye Cream. The ingredient helps alleviate irritation that’s often present around the eye.

2. Alpha Hydroxy Acid

Ren Clean Skincare ready steady glow tonic

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are potent skincare ingredients renowned for their exfoliating and rejuvenating prowess. Common AHAs include glycolic, lactic, citric, malic, and tartaric acids derived from fruits, milk, and sugarcane. These compounds work by shedding dead skin cells, promoting a smoother texture, reducing fine lines, and fostering collagen production. This results in improved skin tone, diminished dark spots, and enhanced firmness. However, AHAs heighten sun sensitivity, so practicing good sun protection is key. It’s usually best to begin your AHA routine with lower concentrations, especially for sensitive skin, gradually increasing to avoid irritation.

Our AHA recommendation to fade imperfections? REN CLEAN SKINCARE Radiance Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic helps smooth skin texture, even tone, and even minimize the appearance of fine lines and pigmentation. So basically, you’ll be left feeling instantly dewy and glowing!

3. Bakuchiol

Hervibore Moon Dew

Retinol effectiveness has been scientifically proven, but it’s not for everyone, depending on your skin sensitivities. If you experience severe redness or peeling from even gentle retinol use, we recommend bakuchiol, which SONÄGE SKINCARE co-founder Anisha Khanna stands by, too.

Bakuchiol is a plant-based alternative to retinol, derived from the Psoralea corylifolia plant. It mimics the effects of retinol by promoting collagen production and improving skin texture. “It can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and promote skin rejuvenation, without the potential side effects associated with retinol,” she says. “This makes it suitable for sensitive skin.”

Our pick? The popular HERBIVORE BOTANICALS Moon Dew 1% Bakuchiol + Peptides Retinol Alternative Eye Cream. This product helped put the natural ingredient on the map, thanks to its ability to (gently) help smooth fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes.

4. Benzoyl Peroxide

TULA SKINCARE Go Away Acne Spot Treatment

Benzoyl peroxide is a skincare powerhouse, especially for treating acne. Available in various formulations, such as creams, gels, and scrubs, it effectively targets the bacteria (Propionibacterium acnes) contributing to acne development. This versatile ingredient combats breakouts by eliminating bacteria, reducing inflammation, and preventing new lesions. Beyond its antibacterial capabilities, benzoyl peroxide exfoliates the skin, removing dead cells and unclogging pores, while also controlling excess oil production for a less oily complexion.

Blackheads, whiteheads—they’re no match for TULA SKINCARE Go Away Acne Spot Treatment. It uses 5% benzoyl peroxide to get rid of excess oil, dead skin cells, and acne-causing bacteria, plus soothing probiotics and tea tree oil to minimize redness and flaking.

5. Ceramides

Supergoop Daily Dose Hydra Ceramide Boost + SPF

You know how your skin feels after a sunburn, allergic reaction, or other skin sensitivity? Well, the prime ingredients that can take away that painful discomfort are ceramides

“These are lipids (fatty acids) that play a vital role in maintaining the skin's barrier function, helping to retain moisture, protect against environmental stressors, and keep the skin hydrated and supple,” Khanna says.

When we’re personally dealing with a compromised skin barrier, we turn to none other than the FIRST AID BEAUTY Ultra Repair Face Moisturizer. Like the brand’s name suggests, this nurses our damaged skin barrier back to health. And when it comes to skin barrier discussion, you can’t put ceramides in a sentence without SPF or sunscreen. We love the popular SUPERGOOP! Daily Dose Hydra Ceramide Boost + SPF 40 Oil because not only does it protect the skin from harmful UV rays, but it doubles as a face oil.

6. Glycerin

GB_ Fenty Beauty Hydra Vizor Invisible Moistrurizer Broad Spectrum Spf30 Sunscreen

Glycerin, or glycerol, is a prevalent skincare ingredient celebrated for its moisturizing properties. This clear, odorless, and colorless liquid is commonly sourced from plants but can also be synthetically produced. Functioning as a humectant, glycerin attracts water to the skin and aids in moisture retention, making it a valuable component in diverse skincare formulations.

Glycerin is a staple in moisturizers, cleansers, serums, and various other skincare products. Its capacity to deliver adequate hydration without leaving a greasy residue has contributed to its widespread use in many beloved skincare items.

A standout glycerin-infused product we love is FENTY SKIN Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen with Niacinamide + Kalahari Melon. This moisturizer that doubles as a sunscreen impressively draws in moisture to rejuvenate dry, chapped skin, giving you the soft and supple (and protected!) complexion you've always wanted.

7. Glycolic Acid

SONÄGE SKINCARE Glow To Go Glycolic Acid Peel Pads

You may notice this popular ingredient in your chemical exfoliation products because glycolic acid is known for kicking dead skin cells to the curb.

“This is one of the few ingredients I’d put in the near ‘miracle’ category,” says skin expert Jan Marini. “Glycolic acid is in the family known as alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), and it’s the smallest molecule of anything else under that umbrella. Using glycolic acid results in smooth, resurfaced, glowing skin. It ­makes pores look significantly smaller, and it’s excellent for interrupting the factors in the follicle that can cause acne. It also­ encourages significant collagen production, while making the skin look moist and volumized.”

We love a little luxury, as found in one of our favorite Aussie brands, ALPHA-H. Their Liquid Gold Exfoliating Tonic offers luminous, clear skin thanks to glycolic acid-enforced exfoliation. If peel pads are more your thing, we love the convenience of the SONÄGE Glow to Go Glycolic Acid Peel Pads.

8. Hyaluronic Acid

111SKIN Hyaluronic Acid Aqua Booster

Arguably one of the most common, easy, and multifaceted skincare ingredients, hyaluronic acid (aka hyaluronate), “is a gooey, slippery, natural substance that your body produces,” says physician assistant Orla Stewart-Becker. 

Found throughout the body in eyes, joints, and skin, it’s also the main ingredient found in many dermal fillers, such as Restylane and Juvederm. “It helps skin stretch and flex, and it reduces wrinkles and lines by hydrating and plumping the skin,” she says. “It’s also been proven to help wounds heal faster, and it can reduce scarring. I find that topical hyaluronic acid in conjunction with in-office treatments can help maintain longer lasting results with at-home use.”

For all the silky-smooth goodness, we love the luxurious 111SKIN Hyaluronic Acid Aqua Booster, and Our IPSY community agrees! And for our Gen Z skincare beginners looking to kick dry skin to the curb, we vouch for SWEET CHEF Celery + Hyaluronic Acid Serum Shot as a great place to start. Plus, the packaging is too cute!

9. Lactic Acid

GB+_KATE SOMERVILLE® ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment

Like the aforementioned glycolic acid, lactic acid also falls under the AHA umbrella. Lactic acid can be found in beets and sugarcane. “It’s used in skincare formulations to exfoliate the skin by removing dead cells, promoting a smoother and brighter complexion,” Khanna says. “It helps renew skin, targeting concerns such as acne, fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots.”

We consider the all-star in this category none other than the KATE SOMERVILLE® ExfoliKate™ Intensive Exfoliating Treatment. We turn to this classic when we need to revive dull skin on the fly. It gets the job done!

10. Mandelic Acid

Avant Proactive Madelic Acid Restoring and Anti Pollution Toner

Mandelic acid is a game changer in skincare, offering a gentle yet practical approach to achieving a radiant complexion. Derived from bitter almonds, this alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) has become a sought-after ingredient for its wide range of benefits.

At its core, mandelic acid serves as a mild exfoliant, working diligently to slough off dead skin cells and promote a more refined skin texture. Mandelic acid is softer than some of its more potent AHA counterparts, making it an ideal acne treatment choice for individuals with sensitive skin.

Beyond its acne-tackling powers, mandelic acid has earned acclaim for its impact on hyperpigmentation. Whether you’re dealing with dark spots or an uneven skin tone, mandelic acid's capacity to inhibit melanin production can contribute to a more uniform complexion.

For a gentle yet effective nighttime treatment, we love to reach for the AVANT SKINCARE Proactive Mandelic Acid Restoring & Anti-Pollution Toner. This lightweight toner does wonders for treating pesky breakouts, fading hyperpigmentation, banishing fine lines, and smoothing out uneven texture to reveal a refined, glowing complexion.

11. Niacinamide

Collateral_GLOW RECIPE Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops

We promise this one’s a lot easier to use than it is to spell or pronounce. Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide is an ingredient “which theoretically has the ability to adapt its effects to different skin cells,” Khanna explains. “This makes it an option for all skin types, even sensitive skin.”

Niacinamide targets skin texture, fine lines, wrinkles, and the appearance of enlarged pores. If we have to choose one product featuring this ingredient, we’ve gotta go with a classic: the GLOW RECIPE Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops. Or, if you’re looking for the added benefit of sun protection (answer: always!), we love the GLOW RECIPE Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Sunscreen SPF 50. The gentle mineral and chemical sunscreen hydrates, helps protect your skin, and even delivers a glow boost.

12. Peptides

Yensa Beauty Pink Lotus Peptide Renewal Face Cream with swatch

Peptides, short chains of amino acids, are potent players in the skincare game, offering a wide range of benefits that can help lead to a more radiant complexion. Acting as the building blocks of proteins (including collagen!), peptides stimulate its production, helping to promote skin elasticity and reducing fine lines. But their anti-aging prowess doesn’t end there. Peptides can also help improve texture and firmness, making them valuable allies in the quest for more youthful skin.

Beyond collagen stimulation, peptides also contribute to hydration, aiding moisture retention and creating a plump appearance to your skin. Some peptides can also help regulate pigmentation, which can lead to a more even skin tone and fewer dark spots. Additionally, certain peptides act as antioxidants, defending against free-radical damage and supporting overall skin health. To reap all these rewards, look for skincare products like serums and lotions containing peptides. We love the YENSA BEAUTY Pink Peptide Renewal Face Cream, which uses antioxidant-rich pink lotus extract and firming peptides to help brighten, depuff, and smooth tired and dull skin. 

13. Retinol (or Vitamin A)

TONYMOLY Plump-kin Retinol Eye Cream

“Medically, retinol is considered the ‘gold standard’ for aging, acne, discoloration, and even rosacea,” Marini—who enforces this ingredient in her JAN MARINI Age Intervention Retinol Plus product—says. “Retinol trumps virtually every other skincare ingredient. It’s able to reverse much of the damage that has been programmed into your skin (your DNA)—much of which occurred before the age of 10. In my opinion, there’s nothing that equals the beyond dramatic impact of a good retinoid for virtually every common skin concern.”

Becker-Stewart agrees, suggesting you go big or go home when it comes to this anti-aging, active ingredient. “I believe it works best in higher concentrations, which can be found in medical-grade retinol creams and serums.”

She’s a fan of the ingredient because it “increases skin cell production, reduces hyperpigmentation, unclogs pores, exfoliates skin, and increases collagen production—which in turn can minimize fine lines and wrinkles, while enhancing elasticity,” she says. “But it can irritate your skin so it’s best to start slow or do a test patch prior to full use.”

If you’re new to retinol, we recommend going with a tried and true, science-backed favorite. The MURAD Retinol Youth Renewal Serum features Tri-Active Technology—a fast-acting retinoid, a time-release retinol, and a retinol booster—to help enhance your inner glow. We also love the TONYMOLY Plump-Kin Retinol Eye Cream, which also incorporates pumpkin extract, to help plump, smooth and firm the eye area. 

14. Salicylic Acid

Murad Clarifying Cleanser

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) most commonly associated with acne-prone skin, or oily skin, that overproduces sebum. The acid is developed from willow bark, and targets breakouts by chemical exfoliation and keeping pores clear. It can reduce mild blackheads and whiteheads and help prevent future breakouts. “In higher concentrations, it can cause dryness and irritation, so consult with a dermatologist on how often certain products are recommended for use,” Stewart-Becker advises. Her rec to patients? The ZO SKIN HEALTH Complexion Renewal Pads, which combine both salicylic and glycolic acid with other antioxidants to help remove excess surface oil and pore-clogging debris. 

“After cleansing, I use them to help remove any excess makeup or oils,” she says. “It tingles a little bit, but my skin is much smoother immediately, and within a day it removes any clogged pores I may have had previously.” We also love the MURAD Clarifying Cleanser for a gentle, alcohol-free, sulfate-free rinse.

15. Squalane

CLARITYRX Nourish Your Skin Squalane Moisturizing Oil

Squalane, a skincare ingredient derived from squalene, offers remarkable hydrating benefits. Squalene is extracted from human skin sebum and certain plants, and its potential for oxidation and skin irritation is mitigated by its stabilized form, squalane. Known for its exceptional moisturizing properties, squalane is a potent emollient, restoring the skin's lipid barrier and preventing moisture loss without leaving behind a greasy texture.

Its lightweight and non-comedogenic nature makes it suitable for all skin types. Additionally, squalane contains antioxidant properties and can help protect the skin from free radicals and contribute to anti-aging effects. In various skincare products like moisturizers and serums, squalane enhances hydration and imparts a smoother complexion.

We recommend incorporating CLARITYRX Nourish Your Skin Squalane Moisturizing Oil into your skincare routine to achieve optimal skin hydration, suppleness, and a visible reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.

16. Vitamin C

Beautystat Universal C Skin Refiner

Vitamin C is scientifically proven to regulate melanin, even out skin tone, fight free radicals for youthful skin appearance, and boost production of collagen to firm skin,” Grandury says. “It can also degrade and oxidize in the presence of air and sunlight, making it less stable and potent, and potentially irritating, so encapsulated vitamin C is key.” 

Our pick for an encapsulated vitamin C product? The BEAUTYSTAT Universal C Skin Refiner. The cosmetic chemist-developed product brightens pigmentation, helps retexturize, and firms, thanks to a patented system. We also stand by the REN CLEAN SKINCARE Glow Daily Vitamin C Gel Cream, which combines all the brightening benefits of vitamin C with a nourishing base that saves you time in your skincare routine.

17. Vitamin E

Malin+Goetz Vitamin E Face Moisturizer

Vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant, is a favorite ingredient in skincare for its many benefits. Primarily, it serves as a shield against oxidative stress, combatting free radicals generated by environmental factors like UV radiation and pollution. The alpha-tocopherol form of vitamin E is particularly noteworthy for its biological activity in the skin. Vitamin E also functions as an emollient and helps foster skin hydration and prevents dryness.

Additionally, it contributes to wound healing by aiding in the repair of damaged skin and reducing the appearance of scars. While not a substitute for sunscreen, vitamin E can provide additional protection against UV damage when used alongside other sun protection measures. You’ll often see vitamin E show up in skincare products such as moisturizers and serums, as it caters to diverse skin types and enhances overall skin health and resilience for a nurtured and youthful complexion.

We’re obsessed with the MALIN+GOETZ Vitamin E Face Moisturizer for its lightweight yet intensely hydrating finish. This moisturizer alleviates dryness and irritation in the skin barrier and serves as the perfect makeup primer.

Ready to take your skincare game to the next level? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started with your own IPSY beauty subscription, and treat yourself with these products and more. Already an IPSY member? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and TikTok @IPSY.

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About the author
Chelsea Hall
Chelsea Hall
Chelsea is an NYC-based fashion and beauty writer with over 7 years experience. She has held roles at publications such as Harper's Bazaar, WWD, InStyle, and Marie Claire. Her writing has also appeared on ELLE.com and POPSUGAR.com.
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Article Last Updated January 17, 2024 12:00 AM