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The Ultimate Guide To Solving Every Skin-Care Problem, Ever

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    ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.

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    If you’ve ever so much as glanced at an ingredients label, then you know that the world of skin-care science can be a little intimidating. Retinoids, enzymes, barely pronounceable terminology, and a name for just about any skin issue under the sun (hello, xerosis) — for the average person just trying to navigate the day-to-day of decent skin, it can feel a little overwhelming. So to give you a leg up, we put together a little vocab lesson to shed some light on the ingredients, conditions, treatments, and products you might come across most often.

    To help us understand the finer points of everything from alpha hydroxy acid to zinc oxide, we chatted up two experts in the field: Snehal Amin, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery and Flor Mayoral, MD, of Mayoral Dermatology in Miami. Dr. Mayoral, a spokeswoman for L’Oréal, also shared some insight about a couple of new-to-us terms like Pro-Xylane, a key ingredient (and anti-aging superpower) in L’Oréal’s RevitaLift Triple Power line. Click through for the alphabetized 411 on all things skin care — because when it comes to keeping skin happy and healthy, knowing is half the battle.


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    Acids
    From lactic to glycolic to salicylic, acids pop up on all kinds of products and treatments — and it isn’t easy to keep them straight. Dr. Amin breaks it down in layman’s terms for us: “The dead skin cell layer on our skin is mostly protein. Hydroxy acids like lactic acid can break apart these proteins and encourage shedding of that dead skin layer.” For many, this can mean skin that’s less blotchy, a little brighter, and smoother. However, these acids — either at higher concentrations like chemical peels or lower concentrations like at-home treatments — aren’t for everyone. “Someone who has very sensitive skin or an issue like rosacea shouldn’t really be using any acids,” Dr. Amin adds.

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    Blackheads
    We have some choice words for whoever told us that blackheads, pimples, and other pesky skin problems subside after puberty. Blackheads are essentially caused by a backlog of oil trapped inside the pore (not to be confused with sebaceous filaments, which look similar but are not the same thing). Clay masks can soak up this excess oil to alleviate the source of the problem. Light buffing with a soft cloth can help exfoliate, and products with salicylic acid can penetrate the pores for de-clogging duty. Blackheads can also be extracted, but to keep it hygienic and prevent scarring, we recommend having a licensed aesthetician handle that.

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    Ceramides
    If you follow skin-care science, you’ve likely seen this word pop up frequently. And for good reason: These waxy lipid molecules act as a sort of moisture shield for your skin, preventing moisture from leaving the surface and protecting the skin from environmental factors. Naturally occurring in the skin, their synthetic counterparts are now also found in plenty of products like gentle cleansers and moisturizers.

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    Dark Circles
    The bane of many a Monday morning, dark circles are commonly chalked up to lack of sleep. But according to Dr. Amin, they can actually be caused by a number of different factors, from internal to external: pigmentation (whether from sun exposure or genetics); thickening of the skin caused by eczema; vascular congestion (dilated vessels) beneath the skin; or loss of fat in the periorbital area, which can cause a shadow. Each of these requires different treatments, he says, but sometimes it takes some trial and error to find the right solution. “If you put Retin-A on the eye area, it will work if it’s a pigmentation issue but not if it’s an allergy issue causing vascular congestion.” If you chronically suffer from raccoon eyes, your best bet is to talk with your dermatologist to find out the source, so you can treat it appropriately.

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    Elastin
    This protein, found in connective tissue, is responsible for the bounce (or elasticity) in your skin. As we age, elastin degrades and our skin begins to lose the literal spring in its step. Plenty of products boast elastin-replenishing powers, but these claims are debatable at best — some scientists are skeptical about whether a topical treatment could be effective in this regard. It’s inevitable that we’ll all lose a little firmness in our skin with time, but limiting excessive sun exposure can help protect elastin and keep it from ghosting on you, at least in the short-term.