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

ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
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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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
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.
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Free Radicals
Though the term sounds like it could be the world’s coolest New Radicals cover band, free radicals are of major concern to your health. We’re exposed to them every day via pollution and, essentially, just being alive. Think of what happens when you cut into an apple and then leave it sitting out for a while — that browning is a result of free-radical damage. But anyone who’s so much as glanced at a bottle of pomegranate juice knows that antioxidants are beneficial in neutralizing the effects of these environmental baddies. While there isn’t any one miracle shield that wards them all off, layering antioxidants into your skin-care routine (and your diet) sure doesn’t hurt. Start by looking for products with ingredients like ferulic acid, vitamin C, and resveratrol, which are potent free-radical fighters.
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ILLUSTRATED BY MARY GALLOWAY.
Green-Tea Extract
Now that you know what free radicals are up to, take your green tea and sip it, chug it, slather it on your skin. However you use it, know that this is one heavy hitter in the antioxidant realm. Not only is it a superhero in fighting those nasty free radicals, but green tea has also been found to possess anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties. All the more reason to whip up a quick DIY toner with the stuff.
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Hyaluronic Acid
Avid skin-care buffs have likely seen a lot of chatter around hyaluronic acid in recent years, thanks to this ingredient’s rather amazing moisture-retaining talents. “Hyaluronic acid is a large biopolymer that occurs naturally in the skin and other tissues,” Dr. Mayoral explains. “It can hold several times its weight in water, so it's a highly effective humectant when applied topically.” Think of it as acting like a teeny-tiny sponge, holding water on the surface of the skin without feeling heavy — which explains why it’s a key ingredient in L’Oréal RevitaLift Triple Power Deep-Acting Moisturizer.
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Irritants
That tingling feeling from your minty-fresh mask or cleansing cream? It’s tempting to think that just means it’s working, but it’s actually your skin crying out for help. Potentially irritating ingredients like menthol (the usual culprit for the aforementioned tingle), eucalyptus, citrus oils, and artificial fragrance are ubiquitous in common skin-care products, so be sure to check your labels, especially if your skin is the sensitive type (or if you deal with issues like eczema or rosacea).
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Jojoba
This plant oil, derived from a desert shrub, is a many-splendored thing: It’s a moisturizer, makeup remover, and even cleanser, if you’re into the oil-cleansing method (more on that later). It’s rich in fatty acids; incredibly hydrating, without being quite as comedogenic (read: pore-clogging) as coconut oil; and comes in oil, wax, and balm forms. Some studies have even posited that it can aid in both collagen production and UV protection.
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Kaolin
Remember how we mentioned clay masks as a blackhead remedy? Well, there’s a reason everyone and their sister is caking the stuff on their skin these days: Kaolin draws dirt, grime, and excess oil out of your pores like a magnet. Use a clay mask weekly for an uber-satisfying deep cleanse — just be sure to follow up with a serum and moisturizer, so you don’t dry out.
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Lasers
We could easily write an entire book on the many cosmetic uses of lasers, but first, let’s kick it back to high-school science class for a sec: Lasers are devices that have just one wavelength of light. Different wavelengths have different functions, and some are absorbed only by specific colors. “There's a laser best absorbed by melanin in the skin, which is 1,064 nanometers,” Dr. Amin explains. “So wherever there's skin contrast, we can apply the laser [to treat pigmentation].” Similarly, a vascular laser is best absorbed by blood, which is why those particular devices are used to destroy noticeable blood vessels underneath the skin. Fractional resurfacing is another kind of laser. “It essentially causes an area of damage to the skin smaller than a tenth of a millimeter, so that skin is shed, and new skin replaces it,” Dr. Amin says. Think of it as a way to force your skin cells to turn over and regenerate themselves, resulting in skin that’s “like new” — without pigment issues, wrinkles, or unsightly blood vessels. In short, the possibilities are almost as endless as the light spectrum, but, again, this is one area of skin care you’ll definitely want to explore with a trusted derm at your side.
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Melasma
Melasma is a common skin-care problem involving patches of brown discoloration on the face, often on cheekbones and along the jawline. Dr. Amin tells us the most effective treatment for this kind of pigmentation is likely tretinoin, a prescription-strength form of retinoic acid. Tretinoin is more effective at getting into the skin on a cellular level, rather than sitting on top, as most cosmetic (meaning over-the-counter) products do. But if you don’t want to get an Rx, Dr. Amin suggests combining over-the-counter retinol (brought to you by the letter “R”) with a glycolic acid. “It breaks up the cells on the surface of the skin, [allowing] the retinol to get through to the living cells.” If you do decide to go this route versus a prescription, he also recommends layering in kojic acid to reduce overall pigmentation.
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Noncomedogenic
This is a tricky one: For years, we’ve assumed that cosmetics labeled noncomedogenic promise not to clog pores and are therefore fair game for our breakout-prone skin, while anything without this designation should be used sparingly. Turns out, it isn’t quite that simple. Historically, this categorization was determined based on whether a product caused blackheads, but it didn’t account for any other kind of acne lesion, such as whiteheads or run-of-the-mill pimples. When trying to figure out whether a product will cause your skin to break out, your best bet is to research its individual ingredients (staying away from irritants, of course), and do a patch test before applying to your face.
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Oils
Apparently your grandmother’s insistence on using petroleum jelly as a moisturizer wasn’t too far off base. Oils can work wonders on skin, and not just for those of us plagued by dryness — oilier skin types can benefit, as well. That’s because of another fun science term called dissolution theory: Oil dissolves oil, which makes it a super effective way to remove the day’s buildup on your skin. Know that these slick salves aren’t one-size-fits-all, though, and it may take some time (and diligent patch-testing) to find the right one for you. Jojoba, sunflower, and argan oils are all great starter options. Once you’re ready, just dampen your skin, add a few drops of your oil of choice, massage it in for a few minutes, and blot the excess with a washcloth.
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Proper Support
When it comes to looking smooth and supple, skin relies on its own internal support structure, which keeps everything bouncy and in place. But this is where time is not on our side — eventually this structure starts to break down (a.k.a. aging). Dr. Mayoral explains that L'Oréal has two ingredient workhorses in its RevitaLift Triple Power line that help account for this:

“Pro-Xylane is a naturally derived biodegradable molecule that is extracted from the beechwood plant and is designed to penetrate deep into the skin’s surface layer,” she says. “It's a substance that makes the skin look fuller, because it prevents water loss from the skin.” And it’s even more powerful when paired with Pro-Retinol A, which Dr. Mayoral says helps to promote shedding of the top layer of the skin. “As we age, these cells don’t shed as readily, making the skin look dull,” she says. The result is a one-two punch of ingredients that bolster skin back to a stronger state.
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Quit It!
Whether your vice of choice is lounging in the sun sans SPF, lighting up a cigarette, or subsisting on coffee instead of water, know this: These habits can and will have a negative impact on your skin. At best, your skin will age much quicker, as sun exposure damages skin cells and tobacco harms collagen. At worst, these habits can cause serious and dangerous long-term health consequences. At the risk of sounding like an overbearing, finger-wagging grandma (she’s not just preaching petroleum jelly!), it’s definitely in your best interest to take good care of, well, you.
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Retinol
We see it everywhere, from drugstore night creams to pharmaceutical ads. But what the heck is it? Dr. Amin explains it as “a derivative of vitamin A that helps to stimulate skin turnover.” Unlike, say, a glycolic acid peel, however, this molecule actually changes the skin cell at its most basic level. “Retinol gets into the DNA of skin cells and changes how DNA is translated into the skin,” Dr. Amin says. “It triggers different genes to turn on and off, and these genes control how fast the skin cells grow and the size of sebaceous [read: oil] glands.” So is it a miracle drug? Well, maybe not, but knowing that it can be used to treat everything from pigmentation to fine lines to acne, we’d say it comes pretty close.
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Spot Treatments
We’ve all had those moments in the mirror. You’ve just woken up, your eyes are starting to focus, and there it is: An angry, bright-red, bulbous pimple. When it comes to treating individual blemishes, there are a couple of go-to spot treatments to have in your arsenal (and, no, toothpaste is not one of them). Benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic, and salicylic acid, a chemical exfoliant, have tamed many a rogue pimple and are easy to find at just about any drugstore. But if breakouts are a more persistent problem for you, ask your dermatologist about prescription-strength treatments (featuring that trusty old retinol) at higher concentrations.
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Tea-Tree Oil
Though benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinol are all powerful and well-known acne treatments, the world of natural beauty has its own secret weapons when it comes to assuaging a breakout — but you might have to venture outside the beauty aisle to find them. Pure tea-tree oil is a naturally occurring antibacterial, often used to treat bug bites and minor scrapes (which is why you’ll find it in most drugstores’ first-aid sections). But it's also been shown to work as effectively on pimples as benzoyl peroxide. A very small dab of the stuff goes a long way, so use it in moderation and consider diluting it with a second, more neutral oil.

Witch hazel is another handy secret from the natural beauty canon: When used as a toner, it can reduce redness and inflammation (just try to use an alcohol-free version to avoid drying your skin). Finally, raw honey mixed with turmeric can make for an excellent acne-soothing mask or spot treatment.
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UV Index
We know that it’s absolutely crucial to protect our skin from too much sun. But exactly how much is “too much” depends on the individual. Dr. Amin explains that everyone’s minimal erythemal dose (a.k.a. the time it takes until you burn) is different — meaning there’s no one magic number to look for in the UV index. There are also two key types of rays from which you want to shield yourself: UVA are the sun’s long-wave rays, which are the ones typically responsible for aging your skin; UVB are the short-wave rays that cause burns. The SPF number on your sunscreen bottle only speaks to the level of protection you get from UVB rays. It’s important to look for broad-spectrum sun protection because it covers both.

“From a patient's perspective, it's really about sensitivity, what kind of activity they'll be doing, how long they'll be in the sun, and what kind of clothing they have on,” Dr. Amin adds. “My one rule for patients is that they never get a sunburn. If you follow that rule, everything else kind of makes sense.” Bottom line: Better safe than sorry, so wear SPF — and if you start turning a little pink, it’s time to reapply.
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Vitamins
We’re not talking the chewable Flintstones kind. While not as heavily studied by scientists as, say, retinol, certain vitamins do have potential benefits for the skin as antioxidants — which is why topical vitamin C products (also known as ascorbic acid) are suddenly everywhere in the skin-care world. “The problem is, it's not very stable once you put it on the skin, because ultraviolet light destroys antioxidants,” Dr. Amin says. “My view is that it probably doesn't hurt the skin, and it may actually help, but you want to make sure your product is actually working.” Your best bet is to look for vitamin C formulas packaged in darkly colored glass jars that have a dropper applicator. It’s not just for a cool apothecary vibe; this actually helps to protect the product from light exposure, therefore maintaining its potency and stability until it’s applied to your skin.
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Water
Dry skin and dehydrated skin are two very different beasts: The former is most often determined by seasonal changes or genetics, while the latter can be chalked up to water content at the cellular level. How to tell the difference? Dehydrated skin often feels tight and sensitive and has a hard time “bouncing back” into shape (a quick pinch test on your wrist is a good indicator). Staying hydrated is key for healthy skin, but it’s not just about chugging water all day — eating water-rich foods (like cucumbers and watermelon) and steering clear of common dehydrators (like alcohol, caffeine, high-sodium food, and tobacco) will also help to keep skin cells happy and your natural moisture barrier intact.
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Xerosis
This intimidating term is actually just derm-speak for dry skin (hey, we had to find something for "X"), but it’s a condition that affects a lot of us. Keeping skin happily moisturized isn’t as simple as springing for a luxe night cream — all the products in your routine should work together to add and maintain moisture. Start by eliminating harsh, foamy cleansers and astringent-like toners, which strip the skin of its natural moisture barrier. The oil-cleansing method is a fab way for dry-skinned gals to wash their faces each day without sudsing up. And be sure to look for products that work to seal in or retain moisture: Ceramides and hyaluronic acid, for starters, are excellent quenchers for thirsty skin.
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Yogurt & Yolks
If we believed everything we saw on Pinterest, our skin would be in bad shape. But the world of online DIY beauty tutorials does hold some gems, and most of them are already in your refrigerator. Yogurt and eggs are two of our favorite natural beauty go-tos: Yogurt is said to have calming, anti-inflammatory properties, and eggs have been extolled for everything from fighting acne to tightening skin. Are any of these claims 100% scientifically backed? No. But you’re not likely to harm your skin with these ingredients, and they just might prove beneficial in the long term, so it can’t hurt to try. If the experiment fails, at least you can use the leftovers as a tasty snack.
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Zinc Oxide
If you’ve made it all the way to “Z,” then you’ve hopefully come to understand the golden rule of skin care: Prevention is key to maintaining healthy skin. In other words, SPF is a requirement, not a suggestion. Though it may be confusing and overwhelming sifting through the sea of SPFs on drugstore shelves today, know that physical UV protection (in the form of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) can’t be beat when it comes to shielding skin from the damaging effects of the sun. Many derms prefer these blockers, which act as a physical barrier between UV rays and your skin, versus chemical sunscreens (common ingredients are avobenzone and oxybenzone), which act as filters to reduce UV penetration to the skin. Either way, the moral of the story: Wear sunscreen.
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