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Ingredients explained

Also-called: Aqua;Water | What-it-does: solvent

Good old water, aka H2O. The most common skincare ingredient of all. You can usually find it right in the very first spot of the ingredient list, meaning it’s the biggest thing out of all the stuff that makes up the product. 

It’s mainly a solvent for ingredients that do not like to dissolve in oils but rather in water. 

Once inside the skin, it hydrates, but not from the outside - putting pure water on the skin (hello long baths!) is drying. 

One more thing: the water used in cosmetics is purified and deionized (it means that almost all of the mineral ions inside it is removed). Like this, the products can stay more stable over time. 

Glycerin - superstar
Also-called: Glycerol | What-it-does: skin-identical ingredient, moisturizer/humectant | Irritancy: 0 | Comedogenicity: 0
  • A natural moisturizer that’s also in our skin
  • A super common, safe, effective and cheap molecule used for more than 50 years
  • Not only a simple moisturizer but knows much more: keeps the skin lipids between our skin cells in a healthy (liquid crystal) state, protects against irritation, helps to restore barrier
  • Effective from as low as 3% with even more benefits at higher concentrations up to 20-40% (around 10% is a good usability-effectiveness sweet spot)
  • High-glycerin moisturizers are awesome for treating severely dry skin
Read all the geeky details about Glycerin here >>

What-it-does: moisturizer/humectant, solvent, viscosity controlling | Irritancy: 0 | Comedogenicity: 0
  • It's a helper ingredient that improves the freeze-thaw stability of products
  • It's also a solvent, humectant and to some extent a penetration enhancer
  • It has a bad reputation among natural cosmetics advocates but cosmetic scientists and toxicology experts do not agree (read more in the geeky details section)
Read all the geeky details about Propylene Glycol here >>

Caffeine - goodie
What-it-does: antioxidant, perfuming

Hello, our favorite molecule that helps us wake up in the morning and then keeps us going through the day. As a super well-known stimulant from coffee, tea and plenty of other soft drinks, Caffeine needs no introduction. So we will skip right to the part where we talk about what the hell it does in so-so many cosmetic products.

Looking at the research, we were surprised to find how versatile Caffeine is. It is a small, water-loving molecule with pretty good skin penetration abilties. Once in the skin, it has nice antioxidant properties, meaning that it reduces the formation of evil free radicals and it might even be useful in preventing UV-induced skin cancers. 

A well-known thing about Caffeine is that it improves the microcirculation of the blood vessels. Though conventional wisdom and anecdotal evidence says that this property is helpful for dark under-eye circles and puffy eyes, we have to mention that the double-blind research we have found about a 3% caffeine gel concluded that "the overall efficacy of the selected caffeine gel in reducing puffy eyes was not significantly different from that of its gel base."  But you know, the proof is in the pudding.

Another thing Caffeine is used for in body care products is its anti-cellulite effects. In theory, it can speed up the lipolysis process (the "fat burning"  by our cells) and stimulate the draining lymph system that might lead to the improvement of cellulite. But here again, the evidence that it actually makes a measurable, let alone visible,  improvement on actual human beings is limited (we could find only some animal skin studies or caffeine being combined with other actives). 

Last, but not least, we have to write about caffeine and hair growth. The theory is that it can inhibit the activity of the 5-α-reductase enzyme that plays an important role in hair loss and allows a renewed growth phase of the hair. We have found some recent and promising research to back this up. A 2017 study compared a 0.2% caffeine liquid with a 5% Minoxidil  (an FDA approved active to treat baldness) solution and found that  "a caffeine-based topical liquid should be considered as not inferior to minoxidil 5% solution in men with androgenetic alopecia", or English translation means that the caffeine liquid was pretty much as good as the FDA-approved Minoxidil stuff. Not bad!

Overall, we think that caffeine is a very versatile and biologically active ingredient. Even though some of its effects are more hyped up than backed up, it is still a nice to have on many ingredient lists. 

What-it-does: emollient

An emollient ester with a rich and creamy but non-greasy skin feel. It makes skin supple and protects dry skin. 

Also-called: Zemea | What-it-does: solvent, moisturizer/humectant

Propanediol is a natural alternative for the often used and often bad-mouthed propylene glycol. It's produced sustainably from corn sugar and it's Ecocert approved. 

It's quite a multi-tasker: can be used to improve skin moisturization, as a solvent, to boost preservative efficacy or to influence the sensory properties of the end formula. 

A multi-functional, silky feeling helper ingredient that can do quite many things. It's used as an emulsion stabilizer, solvent and a broad spectrum antimicrobial. According to manufacturer info, it's also a moisturizer and helps to make the product feel great on the skin. It works synergistically with preservatives and helps to improve water-resistance of sunscreens. 

What-it-does: solvent

A really multi-functional helper ingredient that can do several things in a skincare product: it can bring a soft and pleasant feel to the formula, it can act as a humectant and emollient, it can be a solvent for some other ingredients (for example it can help to stabilize perfumes in watery products) and it can also help to disperse pigments more evenly in makeup products. And that is still not all: it can also boost the antimicrobial activity of preservatives

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

It’s a handy multi-tasking ingredient that gives the skin a nice, soft feel. At the same time, it also boosts the effectiveness of other preservatives, such as the nowadays super commonly used phenoxyethanol

The blend of these two (caprylyl glycol + phenoxyethanol) is called Optiphen, which not only helps to keep your cosmetics free from nasty things for a long time but also gives a good feel to the finished product. It's a popular duo.

Though its long name does not reveal it, this polymer molecule (big molecule from repeated subunits or monomers) is a relative to the super common, water-loving thickener, Carbomer. Both of them are big molecules that contain acrylic acid units, but Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer also contains some other monomers that are hydrophobic, i.e. water-hating. 

This means that our molecule is part water- and part oil-loving, so it not only works as a thickener but also as an emulsion stabilizer. It is very common in gel-type formulas that also contain an oil-phase as well as in cleansers as it also works with most cleansing agents (unlike a lot of other thickeners). 

What-it-does: emollient, soothing

We don't have description for this ingredient yet.

What-it-does: buffering

Citric acid comes from citrus fruits and is an AHA. If these magic three letters don’t tell you anything, click here and read our detailed description on glycolic acid, the most famous AHA. 

So citric acid is an exfoliant, that can - just like other AHAs - gently lift off the dead skin cells of your skin and make it more smooth and fresh. 

There is also some research showing that citric acid with regular use (think three months and 20% concentration) can help sun-damaged skin, increase skin thickness and some nice hydrating things called glycosaminoglycans in the skin. 

But according to a comparative study done in 1995, citric acid has less skin improving magic properties than glycolic or lactic acid. Probably that’s why citric acid is usually not used as an exfoliant but more as a helper ingredient in small amounts to adjust the pH of a formulation. 

What-it-does: skin-identical ingredient, moisturizer/humectant | Irritancy: 0 | Comedogenicity: 0

It’s the - sodium form - cousin of the famous NMFhyaluronic acid (HA). If HA does not tell you anything we have a super detailed, geeky explanation about it here.  The TL; DR version of HA is that it's a huge polymer (big molecule from repeated subunits) found in the skin that acts as a sponge helping the skin to hold onto water, being plump and elastic. HA is famous for its crazy water holding capacity as it can bind up to 1000 times its own weight in water.

As far as skincare goes, sodium hyaluronate and hyaluronic acid are pretty much the same and the two names are used interchangeably. As cosmetic chemist kindofstephen writes on reddit  "sodium hyaluronate disassociates into hyaluronic acid molecule and a sodium atom in solution". 

In spite of this, if you search for "hyaluronic acid vs sodium hyaluronate" you will find on multiple places that sodium hyaluronate is smaller and can penetrate the skin better. Chemically, this is definitely not true, as the two forms are almost the same, both are polymers and the subunits can be repeated in both forms as much as you like. (We also checked Prospector for sodium hyaluronate versions actually used in cosmetic products and found that the most common molecular weight was 1.5-1.8 million Da that absolutely counts as high molecular weight).

What seems to be a true difference, though, is that the salt form is more stable, easier to formulate and cheaper so it pops up more often on the ingredient lists. 

If you wanna become a real HA-and-the-skin expert you can read way more about the topic at hyaluronic acid (including penetration-questions, differences between high and low molecular weight versions and a bunch of references to scientific literature).

What-it-does: solvent, emulsifying, perfuming, surfactant/cleansing | Irritancy: 0-1 | Comedogenicity: 0-2

Similar to other glycols, it's a helper ingredient used as a solvent, or to thin out thick formulas and make them more nicely spreadable. 

Hexylene Glycol is also part a preservative blend named Lexgard® HPO, where it helps the effectiveness of current IT-preservative, phenoxyethanol

It's one of the most commonly used thickeners and emulsion stabilizers. If the product is too runny, a little xanthan gum will make it more gel-like. Used alone, it can make the formula sticky and it is a good team player so it is usually combined with other thickeners and so-called rheology modifiers (helper ingredients that adjust the flow and thus the feel of the formula). The typical use level of Xantha Gum is below 1%, it is usually in the 0.1-0.5% range. 

Btw, Xanthan gum is all natural, a chain of sugar molecules (polysaccharide) produced from individual sugar molecules (glucose and sucrose) via fermentation. It’s approved by Ecocert and also used in the food industry (E415). 

Also-called: Syn-Ake | What-it-does: cell-communicating ingredient

This awfully long named ingredient is, in fact, a pretty small molecule. It's a tripeptide (a three amino acid peptide)  with molecular weight less than 500 Da, meaning that it's small enough to penetrate nicely and easily into the skin.

It belongs to the "Botox in a jar" type of peptides (similar to Argireline or Leuphasyl) targeting wrinkles caused by facial movements, like laughter lines or crow’s feet. According to the manufacturer's in-vivo (made on real people) studies, 4% Syn-Ake used for 28 days resulted in 21% smoother and 15-20% less wrinkled skin with max values up to 52%. The smoothing effect was measurable on 80% of the volunteers, while the wrinkle reduction effect was evident on 73%.

You may also want to take a look at...

what‑it‑does solvent
Normal (well kind of - it's purified and deionized) water. Usually the main solvent in cosmetic products. [more]
what‑it‑does skin-identical ingredient | moisturizer/humectant
irritancy, com. 0, 0
A real oldie but a goodie. Great natural moisturizer and skin-identical ingredient that plays an important role in skin hydration and general skin health. [more]
what‑it‑does moisturizer/humectant | solvent | viscosity controlling
irritancy, com. 0, 0
A common glycol that improves the freeze-thaw stability of products. It's also a solvent, humectant and to some extent a penetration enhancer. [more]
what‑it‑does antioxidant | perfuming
The well-known stimulant from coffee. It has nice antioxidant properties and can improve the microcirculation. Might be helpful for dark circles, puffy eyes, as well as cellulite and hair loss. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient
An emollient ester with a rich and creamy but non-greasy skin feel. [more]
what‑it‑does solvent | moisturizer/humectant
A natural corn sugar derived glycol. It can be used to improve skin moisturization, as a solvent, to boost preservative efficacy or to influence the sensory properties of the end formula. [more]
what‑it‑does solvent | moisturizer/humectant
A multi-functional, silky feeling helper ingredient that can do quite many things. It's used as an emulsion stabilizer, solvent, and a broad spectrum antimicrobial. [more]
what‑it‑does solvent
A multi-functional helper ingredient that acts as a humectant and emollient. It's also a solvent and can boost the effectiveness of preservatives. [more]
what‑it‑does viscosity controlling
what‑it‑does moisturizer/humectant | emollient
A handy multi-tasking ingredient that gives the skin a nice, soft feel and also boosts the effectiveness of other preservatives. [more]
what‑it‑does viscosity controlling
A common helper ingredient that stabilizes emulsions and helps to thicken up products. [more]
what‑it‑does emollient | soothing
what‑it‑does buffering
An AHA that comes from citrus fruits. It is usually used as a helper ingredient to adjust the pH of the formula. [more]
what‑it‑does skin-identical ingredient | moisturizer/humectant
irritancy, com. 0, 0
It's the salt form of famous humectant and natural moisturizing factor, hyaluronic acid. It can bind huge amounts of water and it's pretty much the current IT-moisturizer. [more]
what‑it‑does solvent | emulsifying | perfuming | surfactant/cleansing
irritancy, com. 0-1, 0-2
Similar to other glycols, it's a helper ingredient used as a solvent, or to thin out thick formulas and make them more nicely spreadable.  Hexylene Glycol is also part a preservative blend named Lexgard® [more]
what‑it‑does viscosity controlling
A super commonly used thickener and emulsion stabilizer. [more]
what‑it‑does cell-communicating ingredient
A three amino-acid, small peptide that belongs to the "botox in a jar" type of peptides. It can smooth wrinkles caused by facial movements, like laughter lines or crow’s feet. [more]