the science of beauty

If you’ve ever perused a skincare aisle (most of us out there I would assume!), you probably have noticed that there are a handful of “powerhouse” active ingredients that are common in products, regardless of brand. We’re talking about your salicylic acid for oily or acne prone skin, hyaluronic acid for dry skin, retinol for anti-aging and the like. Looking at the ingredients on a product can prove frightening: what is ascorbic acid and why would I want it on my face? Sounds painful!


Even if you recognize what these ingredients are used for in the abstract, it can be daunting and confusing trying to understand how they work and what they actually are.

You are in luck: As a former science nerd, I love researching the science behind skincare. To demystify these chemically-sounding substances, I’ve compiled a short guide of common active ingredients and described what they are, and how they work to keep your skin healthy and beautiful.

  1. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): this is a family of acids often found in certain fruit (papaya and orange, for example) that work as exfoliators to smooth out fine lines and make it easier for the active ingredients in your moisturizer to absorb. Often found in anti-aging products.
  1. Salicylic acid: this is a substance that is derived from the bark of willow trees (Salix alba is the latin name for the white willow tree). It helps treat excess sebum (oil) production by breaking down dead skin cells that can clog your pores. It is commonly used to treat acne-prone and oily skin.
  1. Hyaluronic acid: this is a naturally occurring substance in the body (yup, you are producing it right now!) and diminishes as we age. It’s in joint fluid, connective tissues, and is a major component of the extracellular matrix (the outer layer of cells that keeps everything in place), helping it stay firm while attracting water molecules – hence its superb moisturizing qualities. It is found in products that treat dry or mature skin.
  1. Ascorbic acid: just a fancy name for good ol’ Vitamin C. Ascorbic acid is an antioxidant that helps neutralize skin-damaging free radicals (huh? Translation: it prevents damage from the sun, the top environmental cause of wrinkles). But take note – ascorbic acid is highly unstable, so unless the product contains a “helper” substance, the ascorbic acid will not be stable enough to penetrate the skin, rendering it worthless (many drugstore Vitamin C products do not have helper ingredients). Our friend hyaluronic acid is often used for this purpose – so look for them together.
  1. Retinol: one of the most commonly recognized ingredients in intensive anti-aging products, retinol is derived from Vitamin A and packs a powerful punch. It helps stimulate cell regeneration, and can correct skin discoloration, texture, and fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol should only be used at night, and only in small amounts as it can be irritating when not used correctly, but the benefits are fantastic when it is.
  1. Glycolic acid: part of the alpha hydroxy acid family, this substance is derived from sugar cane and acts as an exfoliant by breaking down dead skin cells, much like salicylic acid. It’s useful to brighten skin tone and heal acne scars.

Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, I hope I’ve hit most of the big ones. Oftentimes we are turned off by complicated science terminology – and I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word “acid,” my mind goes to painful burns or mind-altering drugs – not healthy, glowing skin. But the truth is, there is an abundance of acids that are naturally occurring in our bodies that help keep us in tip top condition. And although many of us wish to have “organic” products, the truth is that you can’t get more organic than using something that our bodies already produce, or that has been synthesized or extracted from something like a fruit or a willow tree.

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