What Men Should Know About Skincare Terminology and Ingredients

Men's Health - What You Need To Know About Skincare Terminology and Ingredients

Men, like women, need to protect their skin from sun-damage, dehydration, and ageing. Interestingly, some men do not want to be seen purchasing skincare products made for them. They would rather use their wives’ or girlfriends’ products.

The question is, can men and women use the same skincare products? While it is possible to share them, there are some differences between men and women’s skin that are worth noting which may influence the kind of products men should look out for:

Skin Care for Men

Men can exfoliate more often than women. With thicker skin, men can use an exfoliant (AHA/BHA or retinoids) or a gentle scrub daily. In contrast, women are often required to ease into their use of exfoliants; they should use either a milder retinoid initially, or do it 2-3x per week until their skin gets accustomed to exfoliation.

Men’s faces often produce more oil and have larger pores, resulting in more acne and comedones. As such, they should opt for thinner facial products (sunscreens and moisturizers) in lotion or gel form. Men should also consider cleansers which contain active ingredients to further reduce sebum, promote exfoliation and control bacteria, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, AHAs and sulphur.

Hyperpigmentation (discoloration of the skin) is less of an issue for men since they do not experience the type of hormonal activity seen in women during their menstrual cycles.

Men’s skin has a higher density of collagen than women’s. As a result, men tend to age  slower than women with proper skin care and regular sun protection.

Men are more likely to work or spend longer portions of the day in the sun. As such, men have a strong need for protection against harmful UV radiation. They should select a broad spectrum sun cream, and apply it regularly.

Frequent shaving results in more sensitive facial skin in men. To protect their skin, men should regularly use a moisturizer to hydrate and replenish their skin. A moisturizer that also offers skin protection from the sun would be optimal.

A major difference between men’s and women’s skin care products is the way they smell. Men’s skin-care products are often fragrance-free, which is especially helpful for men with sensitive skin because fragrances can cause irritation.

Skincare ingredients and labels – how they affect you


Oxybenzone belongs to the family of benzophenone sunscreens. It functions as both a photostabiliser and a sunscreen. Oxybenzone is classified as a “chemical” sunscreen agent. As a sunscreen, oxybenzone absorbs UVB and short UVA rays. As a photostabiliser, it helps preserve the integrity of other cosmetic ingredients, preventing their deterioration under the sun. Besides sunscreen, it can be found in a variety of personal care products such as nail polish, lotions, and lipstick.

Can sunscreens containing oxybenzone cause allergies?

Despite its sun protective abilities, sunscreens containing oxybenzone can occasionally cause contact allergies and photo-allergic contact dermatitis. This means that, when exposed to sunlight, susceptible persons may develop an itchy rash on their exposed skin. Among common sunscreen chemicals, oxybenzone is most likely to be associated with allergic reactions triggered by sun exposure. In a study of 82 patients with photoallergic contact dermatitis, over one quarter showed photoallergic reactions to oxybenzone.

The Environmental Working Group also believe that oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption and, potentially, to cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. However, there are no studies showing a direct relationship between oxybenzone in sunscreen and negative health consequences.

The American Academy of Dermatology’s stand is that oxybenzone is safe. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved oxybenzone in sunscreen for use on children older than 6 months.

Fragrance-free labels

Fragrance is a common irritant, especially to people with sensitive skin. Fragrance allergy is a common cause of skin rashes known as allergic contact dermatitis. In addition, allergic reactions to cosmetic or cleansing products can mostly be traced to its fragrance ingredients. However, finding fragrance free products can be difficult because of a lack of regulations governing industrial manufacturers to label their products.

Products with labels that contain the words “fragrance free” or “unscented” do not guarantee they do not contain fragrance chemicals. They simply imply that they have no perceptible odour. A product labelled “unscented” may contain a masking fragrance.

In addition, consumers are frequently confronted with terms such as “hypoallergenic,” “dermatologist tested,” or “gentle.” Unfortunately, there are no medical, scientific, or regulatory standards for terms like “hypoallergenic” or “dermatologist tested”.

In recent years, industrial manufacturers have even sensationalised terms like “natural” and “organic” to target consumers with sensitive skin. However, common ingredients found in “natural” and “organic” products (orange, lemon, lime, bergamot, menthol, lavender, and eucalyptus) are potential sensitizers. All these common claims are marketing terms; they are not a guarantee that these skin-care products will keep your sensitive skin calm and healthy.

It is best to read the label to look for potential fragrances that may sensitize or irritate your skin. Choosing fragrance-free products is critical to keeping allergy-prone and sensitive skin healthy. If in doubt, one should consult his/her dermatologist for advice.

What are Microbeads?

Microbeads are small plastic particles ranging from 0.5 to 5 mm used in skin care products to help exfoliate dead skin and minimise lines and wrinkles. Microbeads give a gritty quality to cleansers and washes, so they enable exfoliation of the top layer of skin, also known as the stratum corneum, to slough off dirt and grease. This “abrasiveness” helps take off makeup and impurities from the skin.

Scientists found high concentrations of the tiny exfoliating beads in the state’s lakes and other waters. Researchers warn that the microbeads, which are not biodegradable, are ingested by fish and other animals, potentially ending up in the food chain.

Large companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, L’Oreal, and The Body Shop have already agreed to phase out the plastic beads within the next few years.

Active ingredients list

The active ingredients list is the part of a cosmetic, drug, or pharmaceutical ingredient label that must adhere to specific regulations mandated by the national regulatory body (e.g. HAS or FDA). Active ingredients must be listed first on an ingredient label. The amount and exact function of each active ingredient is controlled and must be approved by the national regulatory body.

Active ingredients are considered to have a pharmacological altering effect on skin, and these effects must be documented by scientific evaluation and approved. Active ingredients include such substances as sunscreen ingredients, skin-lightening agents, and benzoyl peroxide

Sodium hyaluronate/ Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a frequently used ingredient in many personal care and beauty products because of its moisturizing effect on the skin. Sodium Hyaluronate is the naturally derived salt of Hyaluronic Acid which is able to penetrate the skin better.

Hyaluronic acid is naturally occurring in the skin, making it a great natural, non-toxic ingredient for anti-aging skin care. It is an excellent hydrating ingredient because of its ability to attract and retain moisture. When we are young our skin is packed with Sodium Hyaluronate causing us to look young and youthful. As we get older, levels of Sodium Hyaluronate decrease causing our skin to age and sag.

Sodium hyaluronate provides hydration by its ability to absorb water up to 1000 times its weight. Aging skin is plumped and the appearance of wrinkles is greatly diminished while stimulating collagen production.

Hydrogenated lecithin

Lecithin is one of the most important components of cells and plays an important role on its metabolism, especially on its constituency and membrane penetration.  It has also been used as a bio-surfactant in cosmetics for a long time.  Previously, its application to cosmetics was limited because of its oxidation and instability against heat.  However, hydrogenated Lecithin (Lecithin with the addition of hydrogen) has all the good qualities of natural lecithin, yet its stability is greatly improved. Moreover, it can be used in new formulations which lecithin could not be used in the past.

Lecithin helps to hydrate, replenish and repair the skin due to its essential fatty acid content. Lecithin has the ability to penetrate the epidermis and carry substances to the right cell level. It is an important source of choline and inositol, which are vital components of all cell membranes, and play an important role in cell growth and function.

Lecithin is also natural emulsifying agent, and helps to form emulsions by reducing the surface tension of the substances to be emulsified in cosmetic preparations.  It can be formulated with a large variety of active substances and improves product stability.

It is commonly used in sunscreens, creams, lotions, hair care, make up, formation of delivery system and AHA treatment products

What is AHA? Why are they in many skin care products?

AHAs are derived from fruit acids and include glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (sour milk), malic acid (apples), citric acid (citrus fruits), and tartaric acid (wine grapes).

One can find AHAs in many types of skin care products, ranging from face and body creams to sunscreen, acne products, shampoos, cuticle softeners, and lightening agents. Dermatologists also use them for chemical peels in higher concentration.

AHAs work by removing the top layers of dead skin cells. They can also increase the thickness of deeper layers of skin, promoting firmness. They are also great skin hydrators (especially lactic acid).

Because of their mechanism of action, they have many potential skin care benefits, such as:

  • Improvement in skin pigmentation
  • Decreased appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Dry-skin exfoliation
  • Increased sunscreen absorption
  • Improved appearance of sun-damaged skin
  • Reduction in blackheads and acne

AHA skin treatments are most effective when used on a regular basis. People with sensitive skin should watch for irritation, especially if they are using at an unsuitably higher concentration. AHA-treated skin may also be more sensitive to sun damage, and therefore, need to be more vigilant about sun protection.

Difference Between AHA and BHA

Salicylic acid is the only BHA. The main difference between AHAs and salicylic acid is their oil solubility. AHAs are water soluble, while BHA is oil soluble. As such, salicylic acid is able to penetrate into the pore which contains sebum (oil) and exfoliate the dead skin cells that are built up inside the pore. BHA is preferred for oily, acne-prone skin and for treating black- and white-heads and acne, because BHA can get through the oil that’s clogging the pores.

BHA has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial action, hence its greater efficacy in treating acne or in sensitive, reddened skin.

Although BHA appears to be less irritating than AHAs, it can still cause skin irritation. Symptoms of irritation include redness, burning, itching, pain, and possibly scarring.

Why is Denatured Alcohol used in beauty products?

When alcohol is used in products that are not food, beverages or oral drugs, it has to be denatured. This means that a small amount of a denaturant is added to the alcohol to make it taste bad. The alcohols to be concerned about in skincare products are ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol and benzyl alcohol.

Denatured alcohol is used in many product types including makeup, lotions, fragrance, shaving, oral care, skin care and hair care products. Alcohol is used in products to dissolve substances. Alcohol is used in many sun screen filters as a solvent. Alcohol is anti-bacterial and therefore lengthens the shelf life of a product. It also prevents foaming, dilutes the product and has a degreasing effect. In toners it makes skin feel fresh and clean.

However, denatured alcohol dehydrates and irritates the skin. It is also capable of generating free radical damage and disrupting skin’s protective barrier. Especially when alcohol is at the top of an ingredient list of a skin care product, it can be very drying and irritating to all skin types.

There’s a class of ingredients known as fatty alcohols, which are often confused with the bad alcohols, such as denatured alcohol. Fatty alcohols include cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. They are used as emollients and thickeners in skin-care products. Unlike denatured alcohol, they are not irritating, and can be beneficial for dry skin.

Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide is a physical sun protector, which means it sits on the surface if the skin (as opposed to sunscreens which must be absorbed into the skin to be effective via a chemical reaction with the UV rays). Zinc oxide protects effectively against the full spectrum of UVA and UVB rays. In contrast, sunscreens frequently have limited protection against UVA.

As a physical sun protector, it works somewhat like a mirror on our skin reflecting harmful ultraviolet rays away. Because of this mechanism of action, it works immediately upon application on our skin. In contrast, sunscreens, which must be absorbed into the skin, needs to be applied at least 15-30 minutes before one goes into the sun.

Because it does not cause a chemical reaction on our skin, zinc oxide is very safe in people with sensitive skin. In contrast, sunscreens can occasionally cause skin sensitivity.

However, inexpensive versions of zinc oxide sun blocks can leave a gooey white film on your face. Fortunately, newer micronised zinc oxide sun blocks newer zinc oxide sunscreens contain particles so small that they are transparent. These sunblocks are called micronised and do a great job at protecting against UV radiation.

Zinc oxide is also known for its healing and antibacterial properties. It has been used in some skin care products to treat eczema, rosacea and acne.

What is Retinol? How does Retinol treat skin problems?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative (retinoid) that is found in many skin care products. Retinols are much weaker than Retin-A creams (tretinoin). Whereas retinols can be found in many over-the-counter products, Retin-A needs to be prescribed by your doctor.

Retinoids are the most proven, effective, and powerful options for treating skin problems ranging from acne to signs of aging. They work by accelerating surface skin cells turnover, causing them to exfoliate. They reduce the breakdown of collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin and promote the growth of healthy cells. As such, the benefits of retinoids are manifold: they minimise the appearance of wrinkles, bolster skin’s thickness and elasticity, slow the breakdown of collagen (plumping up the skin), and lighten brown spots caused by sun exposure.

Retinaldehyde, another form of retinoid that can found in many OTC skin care products, is also an effective skin rejuvenation agent.

Side effects include dryness, redness, irritation, skin peeling and increased sensitivity to the sun. However, these are more common in prescription retinoids which are more potent.


Used in cosmetics as a pH balancer. Like all amines, it has the potential for creating nitrosamines. There is controversy as to whether this poses a real problem for skin, given the low concentrations used in cosmetics and the theory that nitrosamines cannot penetrate skin.

Triethanolamine has two main uses in skin care products. Firstly, it is used as an emulsifier, i.e. it helps water-soluble and oil-soluble ingredients to blend together. It is also used as a pH balancer in cosmetics and personal care products.

As an amine, it has the potential of creating nitrosamines which are carcinogenic. However, the concentrations used in personal care products are so small; there is a controversy about whether this poses a serious risk to human health.

Triethanolamine is considered safe to use in products that come in contact with the skin for a brief time and are rinsed off afterwards. It can be used in products designed for prolonged contact with the skin, but the concentration of TEA shouldn’t exceed 5%. In addition, TEA is a mild skin and eye irritant.


In skin care products, cholesterol functions as a skin conditioner, thickening agent, stabiliser and water binding agent.

Because the skin’s natural lipid barrier comprises of cholesterol, cholesterol helps maintain proper functioning in the outermost layer of skin (epidermis) by retaining moisture levels and regulating cell activity. It works to strengthen the outer structure of the skin and protect it from dehydration. It also keeps the water and oil parts of an emulsion from separating.

Because of its multi-function, cholesterol is found in a wide range of personal care products such as facial moisturiser, anti-aging treatment, sunscreen, lipstick, eye cream, foundation, cleanser and hair dye.


Arginine is used as an anti-oxidant in anti-aging face and body products. With regards to skin care, this ingredient mainly functions as an antioxidant that helps build collagen production. It’s mainly used in anti-aging face & body products such as lotions, night creams and serums.

Manufacturers of arginine creams are also promoting it as a treatment for hair loss. The theory behind using topical arginine for hair loss is that its by-product causes improved blood flow in hair-bearing areas (e.g. scalp), thereby stimulating hair growth.

It is noteworthy that scientific evidence supporting its use in anti-aging and hair loss is limited.