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Sounds good… What is it? Our survey into what jargon consumers really understand

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The UK beauty industry is worth over £17 billion and the average British woman will spend over £70,000 on skincare products in their lifetime.

We thought we’d take a look at some of the common jargon and terminology used in skincare products and whether consumers really understand what they’re buying. 

We carried out a survey asking our customers what they thought some of the terms meant and how they thought some of the ingredients in their favourite products worked.

After seeing the results from the survey, skincare specialist Claire Barrett said:

“The skincare industry offers a huge amount of variety and options so it can be confusing and daunting when looking for products to use. To make it even more difficult to choose the right product, there is a lot of technical terminology being used. Some of it can be difficult to understand and some of which is unregulated making it unclear what it actually means. It is important for consumers to educate themselves to understand the commonly used terminology, as only then will they be able to make the right choices.”


A pie chart showcasing the fact that 90% of consumers don't know enough about active ingredients to make informed decisions

Some of the key points we found in our survey are:

  • 90% of people don’t know what an active ingredient is
  • 34% of people that rated having antioxidants within a product is important didn't know they reduce free radical damage
  • 52% of people that rated 'reduces free radical damage' as important didn't know what a free radical was.
  • 72% of people thought that natural products only contain natural ingredients.
  • 39% of people thought an 'active ingredient' is any ingredient that has a positive effect on the skin
  • 57% of people didn't know what an organic ingredient was.
  • 18% of people thought that a cream labelled as 'anti wrinkle' meant the product claims to reduce the size of wrinkles
  • 33% of people didn't know collagen is found naturally in the skin
The claims which are more likely to trigger a purchase from a consumer when buying skin care products

After seeing some of the things people feel is most important when choosing skin care product, we asked our specialists about some of the common active ingredients and jargon that big companies use on their products to give you a better idea of what they actually do, and if we need to care about the jargon.

Common jargon and terminology

Active ingredients

An active ingredient is one that is deemed to have a pharmacological effect and has been evaluated and approved by the FDA. Just because an ingredient is ‘active’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t have benefits to the skin.

Free radicals

Everything is made up of atoms, and atoms have electrons which like to being in pairs. When they are unpaired they become highly reactive and look to steel an electron from another atom. This unpaired electron is called a free radical.

Free radicals are being produced in our body the whole time, the majority of which are produced by the process of generating energy using oxygen, therefore the body must have defenses to provide these free radicals with electrons so they do not take them from crucial structures inside cells, for example DNA, which would have a detrimental and potentially life threatening effect.


Antioxidants donate electrons to free radicals so they do not take electrons from healthy atoms in healthy cells in the skin, for example.

Here are some important sources of antioxidants and their natural precursors:

  • Fruit and veg containing Vitamins A, C and E
  • Manganese from whole grains, nuts and leafy veg
  • Zinc from oysters
  • Selenium form brazil nut and yellow tuna
  • Copper from dark chocolate and dried apricots

The body does it’s best to counteract the effects of free radicals by having it’s own source of antioxidants, however, a little extra help would never go amiss in the ever more polluted world we live in.

Applying antioxidants directly to the skin in the form of a cream or serum can help defend the skin against environmental damage and subsequent exhilaration of ageing effect.


The word ‘Natural’ in cosmetics is unregulated, so brands can call products natural even if they are not, and for a product to be certified as natural not all of it’s ingredients need to be natural. COSMOS is an organisation which manages the ‘Soil Association Cosmos Natural’ certificate.

  • Under COSMOS an ingredient is natural if:
    • NO animal testing
    • NO genetically modified ingredients
    • NO controversial chemicals
    • NO parabens and phthalates
    • NO synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances

Natural ingredients aren’t always best for your skin. Nature has imperfections which can cause allergies.


The use of ‘Organic’ in cosmetics is also unregulated, so brands can call products organic even if they are not.

  • Under COSMOS an ingredient is organic if:
    • ‘Sustainably sourced organic ingredients’
    • ‘Use of natural colours and fragrances from plants and flowers’
    • ‘Transparent manufacturing processes’
    • ‘Biodegradable ingredients’
    • ‘Minimal packaging’


Parabens are used as a preservative in skincare. They are a chemical compound of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. In 2004 a British scientist Philippa Darbre published a research paper that appeared to find traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples, however there is no hard evidence to show that parabens used in cosmetics is dangerous.

Common ‘active ingredients’ and their benefits


Collagen is protein, which already naturally occurs in our bodies - 30% of protein in our bodies is collagen. It helps hold our cells together and like glue, which the body produces after it breaks down dietary amino acids from protein rich foods. Vitamin C is also required to produce collagen.

  • Benefits to skin
    • Improves elasticity
    • Boosts hydration
    • Reduces wrinkles

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is also naturally present in our bodies and can retain over 1,000 times its weight in water.

  • Benefits to skin
    • Helps improve skin hydration
    • Helps production of collagen
    • Works against free radical damage


Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A. They work by removing old skin cells and therefore increasing the cell turnover rate.

  • Benefits to skin
    • Reduces signs of ageing
    • Helps with breakouts

Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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