Skincare Terminology Explained

Posted in Content Beauty


At Content Skin School, we previously helped decode the ingredients in your make-up bag. Today, we explain the key terms commonly found printed on skincare labels. If the skincare terminology has you all confused, read on our A-Z glossary below.

  • Alcohol-free – the denatured version of which can be drying to the surface of the skin. Products labeled alcohol-free may still contain cetyl alcohol, which is not alcohol in the most common liquid form, but a wax at room temperature.
  • Dermatologically tested – has no legal definition, in fact it doesn’t even specify if the product passed the test, so don’t be fooled. One could assume that it means it has been tested by a dermatologist, but does not explain which tests have been carried out. It’s often assumed it was tested to be ‘allergen’ free, but this is not clear and people often purchase these products assuming they are going to be kinder to skin than the next one on the shelf. In fact, two products could be labelled Dermatologically Tested but have undergone completely different tests.
  • ‘Fragrance-Free’ – this popular term is a good one to look for if you are scent sensitive, but beware if you have acute allergies. It may not be entirely fail safe. Often products are advertised as ‘fragrance-free’, but still have a masking scent added to neutralise any scent the base ingredients may have. This poses problems for those who are acutely sensitive as the product may not strictly be ‘fragrance-free’. But there are a few ranges we have come across that natural beauties find work well. If you want to avoid fragrance and essential oils, try Skin & Tonic Naked Beauty Oil and Rms Beauty Oil.
  • ‘Hypoallergenic’ – is often used by brands hoping to appeal to the allergy prone. However, the term actually has no official medical definition. To date, no public authority offers an official certification, nor are cosmetic companies required to meet any regulations or do any specific testing to validate their claims. Luckily the term has gained common usage by brands that have usually done some additional testing to ensure their formulations, especially fragrances, are low allergen, so these products are still definitely worth a try – just don’t ditch the patch test yet to see if it works for you.
  • No artificial ingredients – this is a very loose term and may not guarantee that a product is suitable for you if you have allergies.  In skincare, you can have whole food state ingredients in their complete form – examples include spices and honey – or you can have ingredients that have started as natural and been processed to take another form: we refer to these as naturally-derived ingredients. Then there are the purely synthetic ingredients, which we would call ‘artificial’.
  • No petrochemicals – It is considered to mean all ingredients that have been derived from petroleum. People may be sensitive to ingredients derived from petrochemicals, so this may be good to look for it you know you have a particular sensitivity.

More reading: Decoding the ingredients in your make-up bag

  • Non-comedogenic – the hair follicle is where pollution and oil can collect and form blackheads and blockages. Non-comedogenic is generally considered to mean a product doesn’t contain ingredients thought to block pores.
  • Paraben-free – commonly understood to exclude all synthetic parabens. Some people may have a topical sensitivity to parabens, while others may want to avoid them for lifestyle considerations. So this is worth looking for on a label.
  • Physiological pH, or ‘pH-balancing’ – The acid mantle of the skin is one of our key protectors from the environment, so upsetting the delicate balance can actually affect the skin’s ability to function and may result in excessive dryness or even eczema. For these products to work and actually be ‘pH-balancing’, you would need to know the pH of your own skin and purchase a product that would balance it back to the normal pH (ie. more acidic if you were alkaline, and more alkaline if you were acidic), so the range would need to cater for skin types with variations in pH levels. We should be looking out for a ‘pH balanced’ product instead – one that would in fact not disrupt the pH of the skin – too alkaline and it dries out the skin.
  • ‘Suitable for sensitive skin’ – This generally means that a product is free from known common allergens. However, this is not full-proof, so tread carefully: we can all have very different sensitivities when it comes to skin. While there are known allergens that may affect the majority of sensitive-skinned people, it shouldn’t be assumed that it will suit everyone. ‘Suitable for sensitive skin’ could also mean it has ingredients added that are known to be soothing and calming, such as chamomile and calendula. It is a good starting place for those who are sensitive, but there is no guarantee as people can be sensitive to anything from rose to preservatives. Before switching skincare, we always recommend doing a patch test at home first.

READ MORE: How To Do a Patch Test at Home