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Decoding the science behind skincare ingredients

Decoding the science behind skincare ingredients
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Don’t know your AHAs from your HA, your retinol from your retin-A and what exactly vitamin C is doing to your skin? Here are some answers.   

Every year, multiple trends emerge, each promising to redefine the beauty industry. Skincare products and cosmetics – although they aren’t exactly new – are improved with supposedly revolutionary ingredients claimed to perform wonders on our skin, from exfoliation to sun protection, anti-aging to personal care. According to an NPD Group report, skincare sales increased by 15% to $1.3-billion in the US in 2018, with a growing demand for natural brands.

While there are many ingredients in beauty products – be they natural, organic or synthetic – understanding what they are and how they may or may not affect one’s skin is important. Yet, reading through the products’ labels’ ingredients lingo can be a daunting – and at times, puzzling – exercise. Focusing on ingredients found in moisturisers, day creams, night creams, serums and masks, here is our guide to the latest buzz words in skincare.

 Alpha Hydroxy Acid

 More commonly referred to as AHAs, alpha hydroxy acids have recently gained popularity in over-the-counter skincare products. Lactic acid, malic acid, mandelic acid, glycolic acid and citric acid all form part of the AHA family and each acid in the alpha hydroxy group is derived from either plants or fruit – malic acid is extracted from apples, while glycolic and mandelic acid are derived from almonds and citric acid from citrus fruit. They are said to increase cellular turnover through the exfoliation of dead skin cells that sit on the surface of our skin.

Dr Maureen Allem, a medical doctor with a special interest in aesthetics, explains:

 “The function of an AHA is to increase cellular turnover, which means we are exfoliating the dead superficial layer of the skin and encouraging new, healthy skin cells to the top. To treat any textural irregularities, AHAs are a go-to ingredient. By increasing the cell turnover rate daily, we can signal the fibroblast to product more collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid in the deeper layers of the skin.

It is important to note that, according to online medical platform Web MD, the use of alpha hydroxy acids is safe as long as they are used at a 10% concentration in a facial moisturiser or a serum. In some cases, AHAs can make the skin extra sensitive to sunlight and it is recommended to wear a broad spectrum (blocking both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen daily. In addition, highly sensitive skin types could find their skin conditioning worsening with skin irritation forming due to the powerful exfoliation of the top layer of skin. 

Hyaluronic Acid 

As we age, our skin’s ability to produce this moisturising molecule decreases and loses some of its plump and elasticity.

Hyaluronic acid is the most powerful moisturising molecule found in our bodies.  It is produced by the same cells that produce collagen, and as we age we produce less of it, which makes our skin become dryer and less plump as we age,” explains Dr Cara Duminy, skincare specialist and owner of Cape Aesthetics.

Dr Vanessa Lapiner, a South African dermatologist, adds that hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning that it is a molecule that draws water into the skin; it can help give a refreshed appearance to skin and smooth fine lines. Another benefit, says Lapiner, is that hyaluronic acid has a high safety profile and can be tolerated by most skin types with very low risk of any undesirable reactions.

Kojic Acid

Kojic acid, which is a chemical produced from different fungi – such as yeasts, moulds and mushrooms – is said to combat pigmentation thanks to the effect it has on the skin’s ability to produce melanin, a naturally occurring pigment responsible for the colour of our eyes, hair and skin. According to an article published in Medical News Today in October 2017, kojic acid works by blocking tyrosine from forming, which, in turn, prevents the production of melanin and stops the pigmentation from forming.

Allem says, “To reduce pigmentation you need to use a tyrosinase inhibitor, this will block pigmentation pathways and will prevent excessive pigment from forming.”

Vitamin A

According to aesthetic medical practitioner Dr Alek Nikolic, vitamin A when applied topically think moisturiser, face cream or serum is often called a “superhero” ingredient for the skin. Nikolic says it has many skin benefits including reducing pore sizes, improving the skin’s texture with visual and tactile softening, increasing collagen and elastin production, and reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

The term desquamation refers to the natural process where skin cells are created, shed and replaced. One of the main factors that affects the effectiveness of the desquamation process is age; vitamin A works as a skincare ingredient that speeds up the desquamation process, loosens dead skin cells and increases cell regeneration rates. Although Duminy warns that the exfoliating effect of vitamin A can cause inflammation, discomfort, redness and itchiness, such effects should subside once the skin builds up a tolerance to the product.

“We often recommend using vitamin A products two or three times a week on a skin that has never used them before in order to slowly build tolerance and minimise discomfort. 


Retinol is the natural form of vitamin A and is found in many over-the-counter cosmeceutical products – moisturisers, eye creams, day and night creams as well as serums – that are readily available. It is important to consult a medical expert when using retinol and pay extra attention to the precautions, as well as possible side-effects. Medical experts advise to use products including retinol at night; because of the effect this product has on the level of skin sensitivity, experts also recommend using it in conjunction with an SPF.

L-Ascorbic Acid

L-ascorbic acid is an anti-oxidant and has also been recognised as the most effective topical form of vitamin C (other ingredients containing vitamin C include magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and ascorbyl palmitate). When L-ascorbic acid is used in high concentrations, it can also aid in the increase of collagen production, which means that products with this ingredient can be used by all skin types and for all skin concerns, says Allem.

 “Collagen is a protein that acts as building blocks or matrix of the skin. It is what binds the cells together. It also provides skin with its tensile strength and bounce,” says Nikolic. L-ascorbic acid can be found in products including eye creams, face and body moisturisers, serums and can be used in the day and night alike.


Often referred to as a “multi-tasking ingredient”, helping to combat anti-ageing, and known as vitamin B3 and nicotinic acid (an organic compound and another form of vitamin B3), niacinamide is, according to Nikolic, an effective skin-restoring ingredient that improves the appearance of enlarged pores and uneven skin tone, reduces fine lines and dullness and strengthens a weakened skin barrier.

Niacinamide is a water-soluble vitamin and, when applied topically, is attributed with helping to reduce the impact of environmental damage to the skin thanks to its effect on enhancing skin barrier function. Niacinamide can be found in moisturisers, serums, toners and specialised solutions such as boosters that can be added to other products in a skincare routine.


 According to an article published by HuffPost in 2017, this ingredient, despite having been used for over 50 years, has been surrounded by controversy. Not only did the US Food and Drug Administration ban hydroquinone for a short time, products with this ingredient were also temporarily banned in South Africa when usage of products with high concentrations created a skin disease called ochronosis. 

According to Lapiner, hydroquinone is still the “gold standard” of ingredients when it comes to treating hyperpigmentation – as Medical News Today explains, this condition takes place when the skin produces more melanin, and can result in spots or patches where the skin appears darker. However, she cautions that this ingredient is still banned in many countries and “is rated a 9/10 on the toxicity scale on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database due to concerns that it is carcinogenic”.

If you’re looking to treat concerns of pigmentation or melasma (skin discolouration caused by hormone fluctuations brought on by pregnancy or birth control pills), you might want to opt for safer alternatives such as arbutin, kojic acid (see above) as well as silymarin, azelaic acid and liquorice root extract as these ingredients are organic compounds and extracted from natural substances while hydroquinone is a chemical compound.


Although new components make their way into our beauty creams every season, the best place to start for skin protection and anti-aging is SPF. SPF stands for sun protection factor and, according to Consumer Reports, is the relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet (UV) B rays.

 When it comes to skincare, it is important to use a broad-spectrum SPF as this will protect your skin from both UVB and UVA rays, which are the two types of UV rays that cause damage to the skin. UVB rays cause damage to the superficial layers of the skin and UVA rays penetrate the surface level of the skin, reaching the cells of the skin.

“Your SPF is your first-line. Read your ingredient labels – look for a non-nano zinc oxide based SPF,” says Lapiner.

“Chemical filters in sunscreens are under fire at the moment as they are being investigated as to the degree to which they are absorbed systemically and for their subsequent potential as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.”

Checking ingredients found in your skincare or personal care products can not only help address some of your concerns, but also help you to avoid undesirable side effects. To help you navigate the complex world of beauty jargon, there are some handy apps – Think Dirty, GoodGuide and CosmEthics (a European app that analyses the product upon scanning the bar code) to name a few – that will (most likely) be able to answer your skincare ingredient questions. ML


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