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Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Gl - Glycerin

This moisturizer must-have is a game changer for dry skin. Here’s why: Glycerin is a powerful humectant that acts like a magnet, attracting water molecules from the air (a.k.a. humidity), latching onto them as well as all the other skin-softeners in a cream, and keeps the whole shebang right where rough patches and alligator-like skin need them most: below the surface. This creates supple, plump skin cells from the inside out. Glycerin is also an ideal ingredient to help battle breakouts because it delivers oil-free hydration, which helps heal acne-prone skin without instigating any potential pore-clogging aftermath.

For more information on glycerin, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/glycerin).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Ly - Lycopene

This natural antioxidant is responsible for creating the red color in fruits and veggies, such as tomatoes, guava, mangoes, and pink grapefruit. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies suggest that eating a lycopene-rich diet can reduce the risk of some types of cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease. Research has also found that eating lycopene-rich foods or applying topical lycopene acts as a natural skin defense, lessening sunburns as a result of ultraviolet exposure. While the SPF equivalent is quite low, considered to fall approximately around SPF 3, some skin experts say that lycopene could help subtly boost skin’s natural UV defenses and ward off DNA damage as a result of sun exposure. Pasta pomodoro, anyone?

For more information on lycopene, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/lycopene).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

H - Honey

Skin experts say honey is a sweet addition to a sensitive-skin regimen—to counteract constant dryness or seemingly never-ending breakouts. This sticky substance can attract water and moisture from the air and the deeper dermal layers in skin to prevent dehydration top-to-bottom. That’s exactly why it’s often laced into face creams and body moisturizers, as well as luxe bath elixirs. This all-natural ingredient has also been shown to have impressive antimicrobial effects, making it a common solution for acne-prone skin. It heals imperfections without causing irritation, and it takes redness down, too.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Ch - Charcoal

When charcoal is in its activated form (which basically means that it’s gone through a special chemical process to purify it), it makes for a stellar skin-care ingredient. This compound can boost the prettifying power of a slew of complexion-perfecting cocktails, particularly face masks and cleansers. What's more, charcoal can target a ton of skin concerns, especially clogged pores or excess oil production. “Activated charcoal has absorptive characteristics," says Dr. Graf. "When it’s applied to skin, it has the ability to draw out impurities, which is what makes it an excellent deep-pore purifier.” When this natural ingredient is in its purest form, carbon, charcoal is also commonly used in makeup as an all-natural coloring agent in eye makeup such as liner and mascara. Think: Kohl as in char-kohl.

For more information on charcoal, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/activated-charcoal).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

S - Sulfur

Sulfur is a naturally occurring mineral that’s typically found near volcanoes, and yes, when found in Mother Nature, has an aroma often associated with rotten egg. Here's why it's a skin superstar: It’s long been reputed as an unparalleled complexion-perfecter by dermatologists. “Sulfur has anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as the ability to increase natural skin exfoliation,” says Dr. Graf. “It’s able to kill bacteria that’s trapped in pores, as well as calm skin, so pimples are able to flatten out and heal faster.” Look for anywhere from six to 10 percent in spot treatments, but be diligent about the application — sulfur can have a bleaching effect on fabrics. Another plus of the all-natural mineral: Sulfur’s anti-bacterial component is exactly why it has also been shown to treat and prevent the onset of common skin conditions such as rosacea, seborrhea dermatitis, and dandruff.

For more information on sulfur, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/sulfur).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

M- Mud

Mud is, well, mud, right? Not quite. Depending on where this clay-like mixture is extracted — such as the Dead Sea or at the surface of an Arctic glacier, for instance — it can contain a dramatically higher level of mineral content and have amazing retexturizing and pore-perfecting beauty benefits. When laced into deep-pore cleansers or skin-purifying masks, mud sucks excess oil or blockages out of the skin. Literally. The result is clear, radiant, and squeaky-clean skin. Bonus: Mud imparts skin-essential trace minerals (such as iron, zinc, and copper), which have all been shown to play a crucial role in how healthy skin cells function optimally.

For more information on mud, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/mud-masks).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

WH - Witch Hazel

This natural extract (found in the Hamamelis virginiana, which is essentially a shrub-like plant, native to North America) is typically found in skin-care toners as well as acne-based treatments. That's because of its astringent-like quality, says James Hammer, a cosmetic chemist. So, how does a plain-Jane plant transform into a scientifically proven liquid skin-soother? Once the leaves and twigs of the aforementioned plant are distilled, the calming compounds can be extracted — and surprisingly, witch hazel can be lurking in countless skin-care concoctions that line your bathroom shelf — including face and body creams as well as eye treatments. The skin type that will benefit the most from it: Complexions that are prone to excess oil production, especially in the T-zone area. Witch hazel’s natural antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties can help keep pores in the clear without stripping skin’s natural oils along with it. Magic.

For more information on witch hazel, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/witch-hazel).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Pk - Pumpkin

Pumpkin is packed with antioxidants including carotenoids, as well as essential fatty acids. All of which add up to an amazing cocktail of natural shields that can protect skin from environmental aggressors. (Think: Ultraviolet light and free radicals, the highly unstable molecules that attack healthy skin cells, and over time, lead to premature aging.) Dermatologists also say that pumpkin extracts have gentle skin-sloughing enzymes, shown to spur cellular renewal and dissolve dry, dead skin cells lingering on the surface of skin. They'll help to whisk away blackheads and minimize the appearance of pores. The result: A more evenly toned and radiant complexion that feels baby soft, too.

For more information on pumpkin, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/pumpkin-products).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

GSo - Grape Seed Oil

As the name implies, this extract originates in the grape seed, a part of the fruit that’s typically discarded during the vino-making process. However, once in this nutrient-rich oil form and applied topically to skin, it has powerful, free-radical-fighting antioxidants that can impart a natural sunscreen-like effect. Grape seed oil is also a source of superior skin moisturizers, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and vitamin E, that can also keep skin supple and therefore minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Skin experts agree that grape seed oil is an exceptional hydrator that can soothe and nourish dry skin when formulated in just about any treatment. We'll drink to that.

For more information on grape seed oil, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/grape-seed-extract).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

GA - Glycolic Acid

Derived from sugarcane, this alpha-hydroxy acid is the smallest of the alpha-hydroxy acids. That makes it a super effective (and gentle!) exfoliant as well as an amazing moisturizer, too. “Science shows that it’s capable of penetrating the superficial layers of skin,” says Dr. Graf. Typically, when mixed into over-the-counter skin treatments such as cleansers, serums, and moisturizers, look for an active dosage of approximately eight to 10 percent glycolic acid. “Glycolic acid has been scientifically shown to help decrease fine lines and wrinkles, evening skin tone, lightening age spots, and improving skin texture,” says Dr. Graf. Downsides? As far as skin experts are concerned, there aren't any. It’s safe to use during pregnancy, and it rarely causes any irritation or makes skin more sensitive to the sun.

For more information on glycolic acid, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/glycolic-acid).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Bl - Blueberries

There's a lot of skin-care benefits packed into these little berries. Recent research focuses on ellagic acid, an antioxidant found in blueberries that not only wards off free radicals — the tiny molecules that totally disrupt the healthy DNA of skin cells and lead to premature aging — but also provides inherent photo-protection to skin. Studies show that ellagic acid prevents ultraviolet damage by preventing the production of collagen-degrading enzymes, which could play an essential role in turning back the clock on skin. The beauty benefit of the blueberry doesn’t simply stop at potentially preventing wrinkles, though. When applied topically, treatments laced with this extract have been shown to reduce redness and inflammation, as well as help heal acne.

For more information on blueberries, check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/blueberries-skin-care-antioxidants).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

SB - Shea Butter

This all-natural emollient is extracted from the Vitellaria paradoxa nut tree, native to Africa where it’s been used for centuries to soothe, protect, and hydrate skin from head to toe. While this mega moisturizer is an emollient that is mostly made of triglycerides (fatty compounds that give shea butter its thick, waxy texture), it has more tricks up its sleeve. Skin experts point to how quickly this hydrator penetrates into skin’s superficial epidermal layers without leaving behind a greasy residue. Used in a wide range of skin-care—from body creams to hair conditioners and lip balms—pure shea butter also touts other healthy skin essentials, such as linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that can soothe and calm inflammation.

For more information on shea butter, please check out this story (http://www.refinery29.com/shea-butter).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

TTo - Tea Tree Oil

Taken from the leaves of the Australian tea tree, this antiseptic and antifungal oil is renowned for its natural acne-fighting properties. And, research shows that while tea tree can take slightly longer than other proven (yet not naturally derived) zit zappers, such as benzoyl peroxide, it can reduce breakouts just as effectively and is completely free of any harsh side effects. Still, use it sparingly and simply spot-treat pimple-prone areas — ODing on topical tea tree oil could cause inflammation.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

C - Vitamin C

Vitamin C, the mega-antioxidant found in most citrus foods, is the ultimate immune system booster, but it’s just as important in your skin-care regimen. Years of research highlight its stellar pigment-reducing abilities, which results in more evenly toned and radiant skin. What doesn’t get as much play is the crucial role that vitamin C plays in collagen synthesis. Scientists say that you truly can eat your way pretty: Women who ate more vitamin C had fewer wrinkles and more naturally hydrated skin, compared to those who had diets rich in carbohydrates and fats (which experts say could have an adverse effect and spur the degradation of collagen). The best way to benefit? Have vitamin C in your skin-care regimen — and eat it, too.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

E - Vitamin E

An oil-soluble antioxidant (its label code name is often tocopherol) is a healthy skin-care staple, and for good reason. It works. Because vitamin E is naturally found in human skin and produced by the sebaceous (a.k.a. oil) glands, it aids in providing a natural shield for skin. And, decades of research prove that it provides impressive protection against free radicals. It’s able to absorb ultraviolet light and therefore provide a natural form of photo protection. (Although, it is highly unstable, which is why it’s always cocktailed with its antioxidant-cousin vitamin C. Dermatologists also tout its anti-inflammatory characteristics, which are believed to be tied to its antioxidant powers, too.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

D - Vitamin D

Vitamin D is created in skin, as UV light hits it. However, over time, skin’s natural ability to produce vitamin D starts to drop — approximately 75 percent is lost between the age of 20 to 70. As a result, doctors suggest taking supplements to get ample D, and others recommend it to lessen exposure to ultraviolet light, a proven carcinogen that can lead to the development of skin cancers. What's more, adequate vitamin D in skin has been linked to a decrease in acne, as well as a boost in collagen production and overall radiance. As a result, some skin care is being formulated with topical versions of D to aid in anti-aging (however, it doesn’t affect levels in the body). No wonder it’s a hot topic.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

B - Vitamin B

Vitamin B is a true look-good, feel-good necessity. The vitamin B family includes 1, 2, 6 and 12, and are often referred to as the B complex vitamins. Each plays a crucial role in aiding in the production of energy within all of the cells of the body — including that of hair and skin — and are also required for the overall health of the eyes, the liver, and the nervous system. And, if skin cells are operating at their max, well, they’re less likely to show signs of aging because they’re able to repair and rejuvenate in a speedy and efficient manner. Added bonus: Years of research show that provitamin B5 plays an integral role in keeping hair healthy and youthful, most notably because this form of B can penetrate the hair shaft and strengthen the strands’ proteins, helping hair to be less prone to damage, split ends, and even frizz.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

AHA/BHA

This skin-perfecting dynamic duo is like the Dolce & Gabbana of skin-care—they’ve been around forever and never disappoint. Unlike gritty scrubs, these acid-based exfoliants gently loosen dead-skin cells lingering on the surface past their prime and rev cell turnover from the bottom up. They’re almost always paired together because they work synergistically for stellar skin-smoothing, brightening, and pimple-fighting. While the long-winded name sounds all fancy, essentially they’re just a perfectly balanced, low-dose combo of a slew of the same buffers you’ve reached for a million times before. “Alpha hydroxy acids include glycolic, lactic, citric, and malic acids, while beta hydroxy acid refers to salicylic acid,” says James Hammer, a cosmetic chemist. The result: Skin is in the clear.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Re - Retinol

Retinol is by far the gold standard of anti-aging. Nearly three decades of medical research proves it packs a serious wrinkle-reducing punch. This vitamin A derivative is able to spark cell turnover and, as a result, kick-start the production of new skin cells while spurring an increase in fresh collagen. Skin is kept looking radiant and evenly toned by warding off the excess production of hyperpigmentation and fine lines, both now and down the road. There are two forms of this anti-aging powerhouse — over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoid. The latter is more potent, and therefore, possibly more irritating (the most common not-so-pretty side effects of retinol include redness and flaking, as well as increased sensitivity to the sun). Dermatologists recommend baby-stepping into a retinol-based skin-care — starting with a low dose and increasing over time. Look for formulas that also have skin-soothers such as hydrating hyaluronic acid to help lessen irritation.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Cu - Copper

Collagen is typically the main buzzword in winning the war against wrinkles. But elastin, its protein partner-in-crime, also plays a crucial role in maintaining a youthful complexion. “Elastin is as important as collagen to maintain a youthful appearance to skin and lessen the appearance of lines—and topically applied copper helps to stimulate the skin's natural production of elastin,” says Adam Geyer, MD, a dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Columbia University. However, until recently, high-tech science and ingredient innovations to help boost or preserve healthy elastin in skin were subpar. Cue: Copper. “Some studies show that it may stimulate skin’s natural production of elastin,” says Hammer. Translation: If you're serious about anti-aging, add elastin-boosting copper to the mix for a 360-degree approach to skin firming.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Cf - Caffeine

This commonly used stimulant is a morning staple (thank you, Starbucks). But, when formulated in skin-care — specifically eye cream and cellulite-fighting body creams — it could have a de-puffing or slimming effect. “Caffeine has been shown in some studies, and when in active levels in a formulation, to act like a diuretic when applied topically to skin,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. “What it seems to be able to do is help surrounding skin cells to drain, therefore imparting a smoother appearance in skin’s superficial layers.” Translation: Its Spanx-like skin-care effect is only temporary, and you have to be diligent about applying to see results. Most recently, scientists are looking into whether caffeine consumption (in coffee and as well as some teas) may help lower the production of non-melanoma skin cancers. No conclusive evidence yet, but research is continuing. Now, that's the kind of news that gets us buzzing.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Co - Collagen

“This protein is naturally found in skin — along with bones and joints — and it’s the connective material that keeps skin plump and healthy,” says Hammer. But eventually, cells churn out less and less collagen and over time, and skin isn’t as springy as what it once was. That's when fine lines and wrinkles start to pop up. Another collagen-degrading culprit, besides the hands of time: ultraviolet light and free radicals. Both lead to collagen-thwarting cellular damage. While infusing skin with collagen via topical treatments is not on the horizon, there are plenty of science-backed ingredients that may help instigate skin’s natural production (including retinol and peptides). Recently, dermatologists have been looking to hyaluronic acid-based injections (known as fillers) to also help boost collagen production over time as well.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

SPF - Sun Protection Factor

This well-known acronym might look like just three little letters, but they have a major impact on the health—and appearance—of skin. SPF dictates the amount and effectiveness of sunscreen—but only in terms of its protection against ultraviolet B rays (a.k.a. UVB), the wavelength most associated with scorching skin, and most prevalent in the summer months and tropical locations. SPF doesn't measure UVA, the deeply penetrating light that leads to premature aging, so it's important to look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen. So, how does the number after SPF translate in terms of protection? An SPF of 30, the minimum amount recommended by dermatologists, means you can stay in the sun thirty times longer than you would have been able to if you went sunscreen-free and not get burned. (If it takes you five minutes to fry, now you’ve got 150 minutes to have some fun in the sun).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Gi - Ginseng

Long used in ancient Chinese medicine, this herbal extract is made up mostly of ginsenosides, the active ingredient that may make it a compelling anti-ager. Recently, researchers have looked at its role as a natural photo-protector, particularly from ultraviolet B light (the shorter rays associated with burning skin, which can contribute to skin aging). When applied topically, red ginseng has been shown to decrease the negative side effects of UVB exposure, especially loss of elasticity and increase in wrinkles by spurring collagen degradation. What’s even more on the radar of skin experts: How active levels of ginseng extract laced in skin-care could prevent harmful changes to cellular DNA, that can over time, lead to skin cancer.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Ac - Acai

“The extract of the açai berry is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, both of which have been shown to slow down skin aging,” says Hammer. Researchers have also found that those who consumed just one serving of acai juice or pulp had significant antioxidant activity up to 24 hours afterward, which could thwart free radical damage from the inside and out. Why do free radicals play such an integral role in speeding up the aging process? These electron-hungry molecules snatch an electron from otherwise healthy cells, leaving them damaged and less apt to thrive and create new, undamaged cells in their place. Antioxidants give the free radical an extra electron, so that they leave healthy skin cells—and your beautiful, smooth, radiant skin—alone. So, it’s no surprise that acai is popping up in skin-care like crazy. It could have just as good skin-protecting capabilities when in a jar, too.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Mn - Mangosteen

Over the past few years, skin experts have continued to move the extract of this tropical superfruit to the top of their antioxidants list. According to the American Cancer Society, although the scientific evidence is not concrete, it may have the potential of becoming a future cancer treatment. Whether taken from the juice, bark, or puree of the fruit, mangosteen extract is shown to have high levels of a compound called xanthones, which exhibit amazing antioxidant superpowers. It has been scientifically linked to anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial benefits, too. It’s no surprise this ‘queen of the fruit’ is popping up in cutting-edge skin care, as product innovators try to capture its antioxidant superpowers in a jar, too.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Pe - Peptides

Think of peptides like the stealth anti-ager—especially for sensitive skin. Their main role is to stimulate the production of collagen, an essential youthful skin protein that keeps skin supple, plump, and line-free—all without causing any irritation. These teeny-tiny amino acid chains are able to spur collagen synthesis in skin because they’re made of the exact same stuff—proteins are amino acids. "Amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins and many other different types of organic molecules," says Diane Keenan, Dove Scientist. "Research has shown that peptides have the ability to play an active role in the healing process. They also act as messengers, stimulating skin cells to perform specific functions critical to healthy growth." Take that, fine lines.

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Rb - Raspberry extract

“Extract of raspberries are a good source of natural fruit acids, including antioxidants such as vitamin C and polyphenols,” says Hammer. Recently, raspberries are getting a lot of buzz in the world of supplements, as some studies suggest that raspberry ketone (the main extract of the fruit) can aid in fat burning, resulting in weight loss. Others imply that raspberry may have the ability to keep skin healthy from the inside out by boosting growth factors in skin, essential for youthful elasticity, as well as potentially acting like Miracle-Gro for hair (especially for those who suffer from alopecia, a skin condition that results in excessive hair loss on the head or body).

Illustrated by: Niky Roehreke

Qu - Quinoa

Considered to be as good as gold by the ancient Incas (and pronounced keen-wah), this pseudo-grain is actually the fruit of a plant. It's a nutritional superhero — considered a complete food for several reasons. It’s high in protein (crucial for healthy, lean muscles) and fiber (important for a healthy digestive system), and the long-term benefits include lowering risk of diabetes, weight gain, and cardiovascular disease. But that’s not all — cue countless do-your-body-good inorganic minerals including magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus, vitamins and polyphenols, flavonoids, and phytosterols. But what does all that mean for skin? Science suggests that a diet rich in antioxidants and protein equates to healthy, beautiful skin from the inside out.

Skin Care Made Simple: R29's Periodic Table Of Beauty Elements

By , Illustrated by


Flash back to chemistry class, but with a prettifying twist. Decode your skin-care labels with this comprehensive list of need-to-know ingredients that will transform the skin-perfecting game. Here, the 29 beauty essentials guaranteed to give you the best of both worlds—created by Mother Nature, but proven by cutting-edge science.

Research confirmed by Dr. Jeannette Graf, MD; Dr. Francesca Fusco, MD; Dr. Dennis Gross, MD; James Hammer, cosmetic chemist; and Diane Keenan, Dove Scientist.