A definitive guide to all of the skincare ingredients you need to know about this year

Beauty Editor Kelsey Ferencak quizzes Dr Michele Squire on the ingredients and terms you need to know when it comes to actives and performance-focused skincare.

Skincare can be hard to navigate – especially when it comes to trendy buzzwords and prescriptive lingo. From understanding if prescription skincare is the cure to perfect skin, to figuring out if you’re spending too much money on your routine, Dr Michele Squire, PhD-qualified scientist and founder of Qr8 MediSkin has schooled us on skincare and has become our guru for all things skin. Here, she deciphers the ingredients you need to know.

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A – Azelaic Acid

An antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and depigmenting agent. The anti-inflammatory action, combined with its antibacterial and pore unblocking functions, makes it a great treatment for mild-moderate acne. It’s also beneficial for those suffering from rosacea, and can help reduce pigmentation.

B – Bakuchiol

A much-hyped new ingredient touted as a gentle but equally powerful alternative to over the counter retinol. But don’t be fooled – there are only two (poorly designed) studies supporting its benefits, and a third study highlighting it as a potential contact allergen.

C – Collagen

Known for its hydrating abilities when applied to skin, which is why you will find it in many moisturisers. But if your goal is to rev up your skin’s own collagen-inducing powers as well as improve hydration, aim for a low molecular-weight collagen peptide supplement instead.

Vida Glow Collagen Elixir, $75, at Vida Glow

E – Exfoliants (the chemical kind)

The AHA glycolic acid is well known for its glow-revealing results, but it also increases your chance of sunburn when using it, and isn’t great for sensitive skin. New generation AHAs like the Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHAs, gluconolactone and gluconic acid) and Bionic Acids (BAs, lactobionic acid), are distinguished from other AHAs by their gentleness on skin. They are non-stinging and non-burning when compared to glycolic acid, but still have excellent exfoliation capacity. This makes them perfect for extremely sensitive skin.

Omorovicza Blue Diamond Resurfacing Peel, $320 at Mecca

H – Hydroquinone

The gold-standard for fading pigmentation like melasma and sun spots. It suffers from bad PR (Google it and you’ll find a side effect with the dreadful name of ‘exogenous ochronosis’) but this is extraordinarily rare, and associated with excessive use of high dosages without a doctor’s prescription. Under medical supervision, hydroquinone is a safe and effective pigmentation treatment.

K – Kojic acid

An acid used topically for its pigmentation busting and antioxidant benefits. It can be used as an alternative to hydroquinone treatment in pregnancy (and is especially powerful in combination with other non-hydroquinone depigmenting ingredients).

N – Niacinamide

This current skincare darling has actually been around for decades, and is commonly found in many skincare products. It seems like a miracle-working multi-tasker as it acts in multiple skin pathways to help with oil production, pigment formation and skin barrier health. It performs these functions at only a 2-5% concentration, so if your skin creams already contain it, you don’t need a separate high-dose product like a serum.

Olay Regenerist Advanced Anti-Ageing Micro-Sculpting Face Cream, $28.99 at Chemist Warehouse

P – Petrolatum

AKA petroleum jelly. A cost-effective type of moisturiser called an ‘occlusive’ which minimises water evaporation from the skin. It also fills the gaps between skin cells, as well as stimulating the skin’s own lipid-making machinery, both of which make the skin surface appear smoother and feel softer. Recently popularised on Reddit for use in ‘slugging’ (applying over the top of your night cream to seal it in), it’s equally useful on damp skin if you need a bit of extra moisture (without blocking pores!).

R – Retinoids

AKA Vitamin A/Retinol. An all-round powerhouse to reduce signs of ageing and pigmentation. Chat to a doctor about a prescription version if you’re really serious about improving your skin health, though. There’s little evidence that over-the-counter retinols do much for skin as they need to be converted to the skin-active form (retinoic acid), meaning they are 20 times less powerful than the prescription version which is already in the active form.

AestheticsRx A Serum 1%, $119 at Adore Beauty

S – Salicylic acid

The go-to ingredient for pore de-gunking. This oil-soluble exfoliant can help to clean out oily blockages in pores (thereby minimizing their size), and doesn’t make skin more sun sensitive in the process.

The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution, $9.30 at Adore Beauty

T – Tazarotene

A topical prescription retinoid (vitamin A) designed specifically for treating acne by binding to very specific skin cell receptors. In practical terms, this means that it decreases acne bumps and open comedones (blackheads) at a more rapid rate than other types of retinoids.

U – UV radiation

The culprit responsible for most of the signs of ageing in skin – pigmentation, broken blood vessels and saggy, deeply furrowed skin. Because of our love of sun exposure, Australian women report moderate to severe signs of ageing 10-20 years earlier than those in the USA. SPF should be your main priority.

Ultraceuticals Ultra UV Protective Daily SPF 50 Moisturiser, $83 at Ultraceuticals

W – Water

No, not the kind you drink (because that actually doesn’t do anything for skin hydration). Dry skin is a complex issue, but it ultimately involves the skin losing more water than it should to the atmosphere. The answer? Moisturiser. Good moisturisers contain a mixture of ingredients like humectants designed to hold water in the dry outer skin layer, and occlusives to slow evaporation. Any moisturiser will do this to varying degrees so you don’t need to spend a lot of money – just choose one that makes your skin feel soft and smooth (and doesn’t break the bank).

CeraVe Facial Moisturising Lotion, $17.39 at Chemist Warehouse

Z – Zinc oxide

One of the mineral or physical UV filters used in sunscreens. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t work by physically deflecting the sun’s rays. It actually works in the same way as chemical or organic sunscreen filters – by absorbing UV radiation and converting it to heat in a way that doesn’t harm skin, or worsen pigmentation.

SunButter Sunscreen, $29.95 at Nourished Life

All products featured in this article are selected by our editors, who don’t play favourites. If you buy something, we may get a cut of the sale.