Popular Skin Care Ingredients Explained – Cleveland Clinic

Walk into any supermarket or mom-and-pop store and you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of skin care products on the shelves. Whether you’re just starting a skin care regimen for the first time or you’re a longtime user, knowing what the specific ingredients in your most popular products do can be beneficial.

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Popular Skin Care Ingredients

If you’re looking for something to help with a specific skin condition, knowing what’s in your skin care products can be important information. Dermatologist Wilma Bergfeld, MD, walks us through some of the most popular skin care ingredients, what they do and how they work.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

Over-the-counter skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs (glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids), have become increasingly popular in recent years. Creams and lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids can help with fine lines and wrinkles, irregular pigmentation, and age spots. It can also help shrink enlarged pores. Side effects of alpha-hydroxy acids include mild irritation and sensitivity to the sun.

“To avoid burning, you should apply sunscreen in the morning every day,” advises Dr. Bergfeld.

To avoid skin irritation, start with a product with a maximum concentration of 10% to 15% AHA. To allow your skin to get used to it, you should only initially apply the skin care product every other day, gradually progressing to daily application.

Glycolic acid

This AHA helps exfoliate your skin and stimulates the production of collagen (the protein that strengthens connective tissue). Not only does it help unclog pores and smooth fine lines, it can also help hydrate your skin. Creams and lotions with this ingredient often help improve eczema, while cleansers that use this ingredient can help with blackheads.

Lactic acid

This AHA is produced in muscle cells and red blood cells. Like glycolic acid, products with this ingredient such as foot scrubs can help exfoliate, while others can help moisturize your skin.

Beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid)

Salicylic acid removes dead skin and can improve the texture and color of sun-damaged skin. It penetrates the oil-laden openings of the hair follicle and as a result helps with acne as well. There are many skin care products available that contain salicylic acid. Some are available over the counter, while others require a prescription.

“In many cases, salicylic acid can be less irritating than skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids,” explains Dr. Bergfeld. “But they provide a similar improvement in skin texture and color.”


Skin care products containing hydroquinone are often called whitening creams or lightening agents. These skin care products are used to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots (melasma or chloasma) associated with pregnancy or hormone therapy. Over-the-counter skin care products such as AMBI® Fade Cream contain hydroquinone.

“Your doctor may also prescribe a cream with a higher concentration of hydroquinone if your skin doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments,” says Dr. Bergfeld.

Hydroquinone is also sometimes combined with sunscreen products because sun exposure causes hyperpigmentation of the skin. It is best to test products containing hydroquinone on a small area, as some people are allergic to it. If you are allergic to hydroquinone, you may benefit from using products containing kojic acid instead.

Kojic acid

Kojic acid is also a treatment for pigment problems and age spots. Discovered in 1989, kojic acid works similarly to hydroquinone. Kojic acid is extracted from a fungus and studies have shown it to be effective as a lightening agent, slowing down the production of melanin (brown pigment). With long-term use, kojic acid can make your skin more susceptible to sunburn.


Look to retinol to improve acne and acne scarring, spot pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone and color, and your skin’s hydration levels.

Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is found in many over-the-counter “anti-aging” skin care products. Tretinoin, which is the active ingredient in the prescription creams Retin-A® and Renova®, is a stronger version of retinol. If your skin is too sensitive to use Retin-A, over-the-counter retinol is an excellent alternative.

“Vitamin A has a molecular structure that is small enough to penetrate the lower layers of your skin, where it finds and stimulates collagen and elastin, which is a protein that strengthens your skin’s flexibility,” explains Dr. Bergfeld.

L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

This is the only form of vitamin C you should be looking for in your skin care products.

“There are many skin care products on the market today that contain vitamin C derivatives such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl palmitate as an ingredient,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “But L-ascorbic acid is the only useful form of vitamin C in skin care products.”

With age and sun exposure, collagen synthesis in your skin decreases, leading to wrinkles. Vitamin C is the only antioxidant proven to stimulate collagen synthesis, minimizing fine lines, scars and wrinkles. It can also improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin. The initial use of creams containing vitamin C may cause burning or redness, but these side effects usually disappear with continued use.

Hyaluronic acid

Skin care products containing this substance are often used with vitamin C products to aid in effective penetration. Hyaluronic acid (also known as glycosaminoglycan) has been touted for its ability to “reverse” or stop aging. In news reports, you may have heard about hyaluronic acid as the “key to the fountain of youth.” This is because the substance occurs naturally (and in fairly large amounts) in humans and animals and is found in young skin, other tissues and joint fluid.

“Hyaluronic acid is a component of your body’s connective tissue and is known to soften and lubricate those tissues,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “However, as we age, natural forces destroy hyaluronic acid. A poor diet and smoking can also affect the level of hyaluronic acid in your body over time.

Niacinamide (vitamin B3)

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that helps build keratin and keeps your skin firm and healthy. It can help retain moisture and stop skin redness. If you have rosacea, face masks with this ingredient can help reduce redness and swelling.


This silicone-based ingredient is the second most common ingredient in moisturizers. If you’re dealing with dry skin, moisturizers with this ingredient can be helpful, especially in winter. This non-toxic ingredient can help with scarring and makes your skin incredibly soft.

It can also help protect your hair from breakage and create a sleek, smooth feeling in your follicles. That’s why you’ll find this ingredient in hair products that help reduce frizz and split ends. But it’s important to note that it’s heavy and builds up quickly, sometimes preventing water from getting to your roots. If you’re using a product with dimethicone, you’ll want to use a clarifying shampoo once a week to clear out any build-up.

A copper peptide

Copper peptide is often called the most effective product for skin regeneration, although it has only been on the market since 1997. This ingredient promotes the production of collagen and elastin, acts as an antioxidant and promotes the production of glycosaminoglycans such as hyaluronic acid. It also boosts the benefits of your body’s natural tissue-building processes by tightening, smoothing and softening the skin – and it does so in less time than most other anti-aging skin care products.


This natural moisturizing ingredient helps repair dry or chapped skin. You’ll find this in a number of lip balms or face creams. It is a great ingredient for oily skin that can help reduce blackheads, pimples and acne. Because of its ability to lock in moisture, you can benefit from using products with glycerin at the end of the day to keep your skin hydrated at night.

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