Beauty Jargon Explained By Experts

The beauty world can be a bit of a minefield. New products are launched daily and along with them comes a whole new vocabulary. Words like hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic, natural and organic are some of the most frequently used terms to describe the ingredients in our products. But do we know what they actually mean?

Dr. Anita Sturnham, the founder of Nuriss Skincare and Wellness Centre put it this way: "You wouldn't eat a plate of food without checking what was on your plate, so you should have that same mentality with your skincare."

Read on for a no-nonsense breakdown of some of the most common beauty jargon out there...


Hypoallergenic is a broad term which means a product is less likely to cause an allergic reaction. But it's in no way a guarantee.

Murad Training and Education Director, Tracey Wilmot explains: "Simple fact is, allergies and irritations are a complex response which is unfortunate but can be anything from natural or synthetic ingredients, preservatives, fragrances and a multitude of other reasons according to our unique and individual makeup and lifestyle. No company can claim that a product will not cause a reaction and there are no allergy-proof products."

There is also no industry or legal standard governing the use of the term hypoallergenic, so if you see a product labelled this way, take it as a guide, not a guarantee.


You've probably seen this term on products for blemishes, acne and oily skin.

Wilmot explains its origins: "Comedo/comedones is the word for blackheads, so non-comedogenic means that the formula is designed not to clog pores, but it does not guarantee the product won't cause breakouts."

However, there are no guidelines in place for regulating a product's claim to be non-comedogenic. If blackheads and blocked pores are a concern for you, make sure you are cleansing thoroughly day and night. Avoid heavy long-wear foundations if possible and look for gels or water-based skincare rather than rich, oily creams.

Clinical trials

Founder of the Pfeffer Sal clinic, Andrea Pfeffer clarifies what is required of a clinical trial: "It's a research study conducted in order to see if a product is safe and effective under strict scientific standards."

Pfeffer details just how meticulously participants are monitored during a trial: "The product will be tested rigorously under exact industry standards to prove that it performs as it promises to. Be that reducing the appearance of fine lines, or boosting hydration, these trials are where that data is received and recorded. These trials are done to prove the results of the products. They're focused on data, efficacy and safety."

It is then the responsibility of the Advertising Sales Authority to determine if the results from a clinical trial can be used to market a product.

consumer trials

Ever seen a brand make a claim like: "94% of women said their skin looked healthier after using [insert product name]"? Well, that probably means the brand has carried a consumer trial.

How do clinical and consumer trials differ? Pfeffer explains: "Consumer trials are the introduction of a product to a chosen group of consumers and are a way for them to try a new product before they decide to purchase it. It also allows the business to gauge the potential success of products before committing to a full launch. They are not done for data and proof but more for spreading the word about the new product." A consumer trial isn't based on the scientific evidence of results but rather on the response from potential customers.

The pool of people tested varies, too. "Some companies test nationwide or just a selected group of 50, making it hard to determine the scope of skin conditions who will try the product," adds Pfeffer.

Pfeffer sums it up by saying: "The easiest way to remember this is that clinical trials are fact. Consumer trials are opinion."


Over the past decade, we've seen a rise in demand for natural beauty. In 2016 alone, The Soil Association reported a 13% rise in certified natural products in the UK.

Dr. Sturnham defines the term: "A product is considered 'natural' when it contains ingredients that are sourced from nature, rather than created synthetically in a lab." However it's a notoriously grey area of the industry, as there's no single governing body.

For a product to be advertised as natural, a brand needs to provide evidence that just 5% of its ingredients are natural. This doesn't account for the rest of the formulation and as Sturnham explains, it often tells us very little about the ingredients we're buying into: "Generally, if a product lasts more than three weeks after the date of opening, it is unlikely to be 100% natural, as it will require chemical preservatives to maintain its stability."


With no regulatory body to govern the use of terms like organic and natural, Dr. Sturnham details how confusing such words can be to consumers: "This category of skincare is poorly monitored and even products which are labelled as such, are often only containing a small percentage of organic ingredients. We are not advised if pesticides or herbicides are used in the cultivation process, if the ingredients are sourced from the environment or cultivated in a lab and if the ingredient is a synthetic version of the natural ingredient." The only form of governance in place is the COSMOS standard.

Dr. Sturnham advises: "Look for the COSMOS standard on your skincare and cosmetics if you are looking for natural or organic. For brands that are registered, they will ensure that at least 95% of processed agro-ingredients in a product are organic and that where an organic version of an ingredient is available it must be used. It also states that at least 20% of the total product must be organic and no more than 5% of the product can be synthetic." However, the COSMOS standard is voluntary and brands are under no obligation to register with them.

Animal Testing

Animal testing was initially a part of the testing process for individual ingredients or a whole product to ensure it was safe for human use, but is no longer necessary.

Pamela Marshall, a clinical aesthetician and cofounder of Mortar & Milk, details where the industry stands in 2017: "Companies will test on human volunteers or they will access the large database of ingredients safety data made by toxicologists that personally sign off on the safety of an ingredient. At this point, any product that is sold in the EU is legally bound to not test on animals."

Outside the EU, laws are different. "China still practises animal testing, and if a brand is sold there, you can be sure that its ingredients will be tested on animals. China has a big financial lure for larger brands, and you'll find many of them there," says Marshall.

The best guide at the moment is the Leaping Bunny symbol, which signifies that a product hasn't been tested on animals.

Absorbs immediately

A fast-absorbing product is one which "the user believes that upon application, the product appears to penetrate the skin and disappears from the skin surface," says Dr. Sturnham. But what makes a product fast-absorbing? She explains the process: "If we look at product formulation, they are typically oil- or water-based. Oil-based formulas tend to absorb quicker as they are lipophilic, meaning that they can bind to the epidermal lipids structures and easily pass through them."

Dr. Sturnham continues: "For a product to penetrate the skin barrier it must contain a ‘delivery system’ (we call these the skin’s postmen) which will deliver the active ingredients (parcels) to the deeper skin layers (the address)."


Alcohol in skincare falls into one of three categories – simple, fatty or aromatic.

Fatty alcohol, such as cetyl alcohol or caprylic alcohol, works to prevent skin's moisture loss and acts as a thickening agent, whereas aromatic alcohol, typically known as benzyl alcohol, is used in very small doses in fragrance as a solvent.

Simple alcohol is where the problems lie. Used under names such as isopropyl alcohol and denatured alcohol (alcohol denat), Dr. Mirela Mitan, CEO and founder of MMXV INFINITUDE, details the adverse effects it can have: "If used in a high concentration, the alcohol may weaken the skin barrier function and increase skin dryness."

If dry skin is a concern, look for products free from simple alcohol.

Silky smooth

While we love the silky feeling that comes with our mattifying products, what it is that actually creates that smooth texture? Dr. Mitan describes a silky smooth formula as "a soft, easy-to-apply product which usually forms a very thin layer on your skin and simultaneously helps the skin to improve hydration."

Good for oilier skins, its texture is prevalent in mattifying products such as primers, foundations and moisturisers. One of the most common ingredients that delivers smooth texture is silicone, a substance derived from silica.

Active Ingredients

Succinctly summed up by Marshall, an active ingredient is one that is "biologically active – able to biologically affect the skin. Usually, they are near the top of the ingredients list and will often have a percentage listed on the packaging. For example, 10% glycolic acid. AHAs, PHAs, retinol, vitamin C are all active ingredients."

The efficacy of an active ingredient is greatly dependent on the pH levels in the acids, as Marshall clarifies. "The lower the pH, the more 'active' a product will be, but that can also mean that it can be more irritating to some skins."

A top tip – don't mistake a high percentage in ingredients like glycolic acid for a sign of increased effectiveness. Marshall says: "Percentages are a misnomer. A serum which claims to be 50% glycolic acid is far less effective than a serum that has 10% glycolic acid, simply due to the pH levels."

Essential Oils

"Essential oils are simply distilled oils derived from a plant that have the 'essence' of that plant. They have been used for healing for thousands of years and are currently being used in many skincare products for their healing capacity," Marshall explains. They're common ingredients prevalent in natural skincare brands – frequently used examples include lavender oil, ylang ylang and rosehip oil.

But where there's an essential oil, there's a carrier oil working alongside it, which determines how it penetrates the skin. "Not all essential oils are created equal. Their carrier oil is very important to their absorption, so if the carrier oil is too heavy, the essential oil will not penetrate properly."

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