Cosmetic Ingredients Glossary

Written by Leanna Serras


Acetone – a strong solvent most often found in nail polish remover

Acetyl Glucosamine – a type of amino acid sugar which has great water binding properties for skin and is effective for healing wounds when used in large concentrations

Acetyl Hexapeptide 3 – a synthetic peptide that is used in a range of cosmetic products, in particular those that claim to have a muscle relaxing effect

Active Ingredient – ingredients in a product that are considered to have an altering effect on the skin, these ingredients must be listed on the product label and are subject to approval by the FDA

Agar – an extract that is used as a thickening agent and comes from seaweed

AHA – alpha hydroxy acids, these can come from natural sources but almost 100% of alpha hydroxy acids in cosmetics are synthetic

Alkyloamides – ingredients that are primarily used to cause the foaming of shampoo and soap, they are represented on ingredient lists are DEA, TEA, and MEA


Balsam Peru – a fatty resin that can cause skin irritation and dermatitis when applied topically

Batyl Alcohol – an ingredient derived from glycerin that is used as a skin conditioning agent

Bentonite – a clay that is often used as an absorbent in cosmetics, bentonite can also be used to dry out oily skin

Benzalkonium Chloride – an antimicrobial that is used as a preservative in skin care products

Benzocaine – a common topical anesthetic

BHA – butilated hydroxyanisole, a very potent synthetic antioxidant


Calamine – a zinc carbonate used to reduce skin itching

Calcium Ascorbate – one of the various forms of vitamin C

Capsicum – a group of plants consisting primarily of peppers that are used to relieve muscle aches but are also known to cause allergic reactions

Carnitine – a naturally occuring amino acid

Carvone – an essential oil used for flavoring and fragrance in cosmetics


Decyl Glucoside – a mild detergent cleansing agent

Dextrin – a carbohydrate that is classified as a polysaccharide and is used an adhesive when combined with water

DHEA – a naturally occurring prohormone that will convert to male hormones when in the body, DHEA is a controversial ingredient

Dibutyl Phthalate – a common ingredient found in most synthetic fragrances and nail polishes

Diethanolamine – a colorless liquid solvent used as a lathering agent in skin and hair products


Ectoin – a cosmetic stabilizer and skin conditioning agent

Elastin – a component in skin flexibility, elastins derived from plant and animal sources are often found in cosmetics

Emollient – a wax like lubricating agent that have a softening effect on the skin

Ensulizole – a sunscreen agent that has been established by the FDA as the name to be used on sunscreen ingredient labels

Ester C – the trade name for a combination of vitamin C that mainly contains ascorbic acid


Ferulic Acid – a plant based antioxidant that has been shown to have sun protective benefits to skin

Folic Acid – part of the B Vitamin complex that works as an antioxidant when taken orally

Formaldehyde Releasing Preservative – a very common type of preservative found in many cosmetics


Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) – a fatty acid used in cosmetics that acts as an antioxidant and emollient

Gelatin – a protein derived from either plants or animals that acts as a thickening agent in cosmetics

Glycerin – an ingredient present in all natural fats, it can also be produced synthetically and acts as a humectant to prevent skin dryness

Glyceryl Ester – a large group of ingredients composed of oils and fats, primarily used as lubricants and emollients in cosmetics


Hemp Seed Oil – oil from the hemp plant often used in cosmetics as an emollient

Hexyl Laurate – a mixture of lauric acid and hexyl alcohol that is used as a skin conditioning agent

Hydrocortisone – an ingredient used in various products, hydrocortisone has anti inflammatory properties for skin

Hypoallergenic – a term used to imply that a product is non allergic but the term is not regulated by the FDA


Idebenone – a synthetic antioxidant

Isotretinoin – an anti acne drug derived from Vitamin A


Kinetin – a natural skin care ingredient that is said to reduce the signs of aging


Lactic Acid – an alpha hydroxy used in cosmetics can be natural but is normally synthetic

Lanolin – a very thick emollient derived from the glands of sheep

Limonene – a chemical constituent of fragrant natural ingredients

Liposomes – an ingredient used in cosmetics that helps to deliver other ingredients to the skin


Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate – a form of vitamin C that is effective as a skin antioxidant

Mallow – a thickening agent used in cosmetics that have a soothing effect on the skin

Menthyl Lactate – a derivative of menthol used as a fragrance and cooling agent in cosmetics

Mineral Oil – a clear odorless oil derived from petroleum


Neroli Oil – a fragrant plant oil that is often irritating to skin

Niacinamide – another name for niacin or vitamin B3

Nitrogen – used in cosmetics as a propellant


Octocrylene – a sunscreen agent that protects from UVB rays

Oleic Acid – a fatty acid used as a fattening agent and surfactant


Pantothenic Acid – another name for B5, said to be effective on acne

Parabens – a group of various preservatives widely used in cosmetics

Paraffin – a petroleum based substance used as a thickener in various cosmetics

Phenoxyethanol – a common preservative used in cosmetics that is considered less irritating than others

Phosphoric Acid – an ingredient used as a pH adjuster in skin care products and cosmetics

Plasticizing Agents – ingredients commonly used in face masks that place a thin layer of plastic over the skin

Polyquaterniums – a group of ingredients that are commonly used in hair care products due to their antistatic properties

Preservatives – substances used in cosmetics that help prevent microbial and bacterial contamination of products

Propylene Glycol – a humectant used in cosmetics


Quercetin – a flavanoid pigment known to have antioxidant and anti inflammatory properties


Reducing Agent – a substance that has the ability to to break down the disulfide bonds of hair and is often used in hair straightening or hair waiving products

Resveratrol – a potent antioxidant that is abundant in red grapes and therefore red wine

Retinol – the name for an entire Vitamin A molecule


Salicylic Acid – a beta hydroxy acid that is contained in many acne products

Saponin – a group of naturally occurring carbohydrates found in plants that have potential as pharmaceutical agents

Silicone – a substance that is used extensively for wound healing and to help improve the appearance of scars

Slip Agent – a term used to describe various ingredients that are used to help other ingredients spread over and penetrate the skin

Sodium Benzoate – salt of benzoic acid that is used as a preservative


Tallow – a substance which is extracted from the fatty deposits of animals and is normally used to make scented soap and candles

Tannic Acid – a potent antioxidant that is thought to have some anti-carcinogenic properties

Thickening Agent – any substance that can be added to a cosmetic product as a lubricant, there are thousands of different thickening agents


Water Binding Agent – a wide range of ingredients that are added to cosmetic products to help the skin retain water or moisture


Xantham Gum – a commonly used thickening agent