What Do All Those Skincare Buzzwords Mean?

Flummoxed by skin care terms? We can help. We'll explain what those buzzwords mean

If you're confused by skin-care terms, read on

The skincare aisle at your local makeup store or pharmacy can be an overwhelming array of colors, "active ingredients," and miracle cures. How do you know what you need for a basic skincare routine? And what do all of those buzzwords even mean?

We've collected some of the most common terms you'll find in skincare. This quick, alphabetical guide gives you everything you need to take on the skincare aisle, and come out a smooth, moisturized, exfoliated winner!

Acne Treatment

These are products that work to reduce acne flareups, prevent future pimples, and keep your skin clear. Typically, acne treatments include an active ingredient like benzoyl peroxide. (Hint: that's a good ingredient to look for if your skincare goals are focused on acne prevention!)

Active Ingredient

Simply put, a product's "active ingredient" is the ingredient that makes it work. For serums, creams, and treatments, this is usually a natural or factory-made chemical compound that achieves a desired result, like acne prevention, wrinkle reduction, or moisturizing.


This term refers to products that reduce the most obvious plights of aging skin, like enlarged pores, wrinkles, dehydration, and discoloration.

Chemical Peel

Unlike a simple exfoliator, blackhead remover, or cleanser, a chemical peel removes dead skin cells and other detritus by actually removing the outer layer of the skin. This chemical process can be done at home with over-the-counter products, but you should always read the manufacturer's instructions before proceeding. If you need a more intensive treatment, many dermatologists offer medical-level chemical peels that are much stronger than the boxed version.


Simply put, a cleanser is what you use to clean your skin! (That's an easy one.)

Eye Cream

Eye creams can run the gamut as far as skincare goals—they can be moisturizers, anti-aging boosters, and balms all in one, but they all share a common feature. They are all designed specifically for the sensitive skin around your eyes, which is why they're usually lighter and contain less chemicals than other products.

Essential Oil

An essential oil is a compound extracted from a plant, like vanilla, orange blossom, or lavender. These oils can be mixed into skincare products or applied on their own to maximize certain purported health benefits, like relaxation, skin clarity, and immune boosting.


Over time, dirt, dead skin cells, and other hangers-on can cling to your skin, clogging your pores and causing your skin to lose its smoothness. Exfoliants remove this buildup, usually through gentle scrubbing or scraping.

Face Mask

The height of relaxation! Face masks come in a wide variety of styles, scents, and intentions, ranging from moisture-boosting to blackhead-removing and everything in between. Some masks can be applied daily or weekly to improve your skin quality, while more intense treatments should only be done every few months.

Lip Balm

Everybody loves Chapstick, right? Whether you carry some in your pocket or only apply during the dreaded winter dry days, lip balm protects the sensitive skin of your lips. It holds in moisture, keeping your lips plump and shiny. Some specialized versions can even be used to treat cold sores and acne!


Moisturizer keeps your skin looking younger, healthier, and smoother by holding in liquid. Depending on your skin type, you may only need a light coat, or you may want a heavy-duty type that packs in moisture. There are four main types of moisturizer:

  • Humectants absorb water, drawing water into the skin cells to keep your skin hydrated.
  • Ceramides are naturally found in the skin, and when they're missing or damaged, they make your skin look dry, red, or raw. Ceramide moisturizers add ceramides back into your skin, restoring its quality.
  • Occlusives are on the heavier side, typically used on the body (rather than the face) to apply tons of moisture and lock it in.
  • Emollients contain ingredients like lanolin, which fill in the space between skin cells where lipids are missing. In simpler words, emollients fill in any areas in your skin where moisture is missing, giving your skin a chance to soak up the hydration and restore its glow.


A "serum" is a catch-all term for skin treatments that fix a variety of issues that come with over-exposure, age, or damage. Serums are packed with antioxidants that restore your skin and boost your immune system at the same time, fixing the problem and making it less likely to happen again.


Sunscreen protects your skin from the sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays. A sunscreen's intensity is measured by "SPF," which stands for "sun protection factor." Basically, this is a measure of how much longer the product makes your skin last in the sun. (For example, SPF 15 gives your skin 15 times its usual protection, while SPF 45 would give it 45 times the protection.)


Used after your daily or nightly cleanser, toner removes excess makeup and other residue to restore your skin's natural pH levels, shrink pores, and otherwise tighten up loose ends. The soaps and makeups we use every day can throw off our skin's natural pH levels, which is why it's important to restore them every so often. This helps your skin stay as healthy as possible!

Resources—Dermstore, Paula's Choice, Healthline, New Beauty