How-To: Deciphering Your Skincare Ingredients List

It’s no secret that skincare isn’t one-size-fits-all; what works for some won’t work for others, which I’m sure we’ve all figured out after following recommendations from our friends and favourite celebrities. It was only after following Sarah Cheung (@Sacheu) that I became interested in what exactly that paragraph of scientific jargon on the back of my skincare products actually meant.


Now, this might be common knowledge - or maybe you’re like me and have never even considered it, but the ingredients list is ordered from the highest to lowest concentration of each ingredient.

For instance, if a product is water based, water (aqua) will be the main ingredient used and the first ingredient listed. This may not be revolutionary, but it’s become a useful indication on whether a product is using an ingredient effectively or not. If a product advertises having a particular ingredient but it’s listed at the end, it will only contain a small concentration and probably won’t provide your skin with the results you’re after.

Next to look out for – product expiry! I think we’re all guilty of holding onto an expired product for too long, however, your skin is also your body’s largest organ, so you’ll also want to avoid using expired products. Skincare products often have a little symbol of a little tub that will generally have either a “6M” or “12M” written inside. This is an indication of how many months you have to use the product after opening it. Some products will have their best before date clearly printed beside the batch number, which is generally located at the bottom of the product’s packaging.

For those who are interested, look out for the bunny symbol representing whether or not the product is cruelty free. However, if you’re also after vegan or plant-based products, you’ll also need to look out for the “certified vegan” logo.

Now, what key ingredients should you be looking out for? I’m sure you’ve heard all about ingredients like AHAs vs. BHAs, vitamin C, Retinol…etc. But what do they actually do?

Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

AHAs are water-soluble chemical exfoliant and derived from sugarcane, fruits and other plants. They shed the dead skin cells which are sitting at the surface of the skin so that the new skin cells below are revealed. After people discovered physical exfoliants could potentially cause micro-tears in the skin (thanks to Kylie Skin’s walnut scrub controversy), many have switched to chemical exfoliants. AHAs include:

  • Glycolic acid – due to its small molecule size, it is the strongest AHA, however, that also means it can be more irritating, particularly to those who have sensitive skin.

  • Lactic acid – derived from milk instead, it is gentler for the skin in comparison to glycolic acid, making it more suitable for those susceptible to skin irritation.


Beta-Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

In comparison, BHAs are oil-soluble, and rather than shed the layer of dead skin cells at the surface of your skin, they delve deep into the pores in order to remove dead skin cells, as well as sebum. BHAs are therefore better for acne-prone skin as they help cleanse the pores, preventing them from clogging and forming acne. BHAs include:

  • Salicylic acid – similarly to glycolic acid, this is the strongest BHA, however its molecule size is larger, making it gentler than glycolic acid.

  • Betaine salicylate – Similarly to lactic acid to glycolic, betaine salicylate is the gentler alternative to salicylic acid as it is composed of salicylic acid and betaine rather than just salicylic.


Ceramides are lipids (which are a form of fatty acids) that promote cellular functions, and make up approximately fifty percent of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). Ceramides create a moisture barrier for your skin and prevent dryness and irritation. However, they are lost over time, so applying it to your skin can minimise the effects of aging, as well as soothe skin irritation. This means they’re great for eczema or psoriasis as people with these conditions have less ceramides in their skin.


Collagen is a protein that is crucial to maintaining the structure of your body from your skin, bones, teeth and muscles. Collagen in your skin declines with age, so collagen products are great for strengthening the elasticity and structure of your skin. Although it is worth mentioning that thanks to Dr Karl, the use of collagen as supplements to boost your collagen levels has been debunked.

Hyaluronic Acid (HA)

Hyaluronic Acid is a glycosaminoglycan; basically, carbohydrates, which are naturally found in the body’s connective tissue. It acts as a humectant in that it draws moisture into the skin and can hold up to 1000 times its own weight in water, so it’s safe to say it’s fantastic for giving your skin that dewy glow.



Retinol is a collective term for retinoids which increase collagen production and the rate of cell regeneration. It’s known for its anti-aging properties as it minimises fine lines, decreases the visible size of pores and improves your overall skin texture. As it’s a harsher ingredient, I would take caution when using it on dry or sensitive skin as it may cause irritation, and it’s best to begin usage in your late 20s.

Vitamin C

An antioxidant that aids the skin’s process of regeneration and repair of damaged skin cells. Vitamin C is therefore great for brightening the skin and reducing the appearance of dark spots or pigmentation.

I think it’s time for me to go through my skincare products and replace what has expired, and in the wise words of Coco Chanel: “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty”.