Learn to Speak Skincare

Learn to Speak Skincare

The skincare world may as well have its own dialect. So we decided to make a glossary, just for you.

With the help of Dr. Robin Schaffran, our Co-Founder and Chief Dermatologist, we’ve defined and provided context for some of today’s most commonly used skincare terms. As always, email us at hello@balmlabs.com if you need clarification on anything mentioned (or not mentioned!) in this list. We’re all about simplifying as much as possible in a very confusing and buzzword-heavy industry.


Artificial Dyes: Generally unnecessary ingredients used to fill products (in the food industry too!) with color. Synthetic colorants can lead to skin irritation and sensitivity.

Ceramides: Naturally occurring lipids found in the uppermost layers of your skin that play a key role in your skin’s barrier function. They can also be found as an ingredient in moisturizers, serums and toners, helping skin retain moisture.

Emollients: A common ingredient in moisturizers and serums that softens your skin by smoothing and repairing any damage on its surface. Emollients are slightly thicker and richer than humectants (see below) and are ideal for dry or aging skin. Squalane is our chosen emollient ingredient and is present in our Serum Hydrator.

Fragrance: Added to impart a pleasant smell. Although consumers typically do prefer a scent in their personal care products, in some cases — particularly when using skincare products — even naturally derived fragrances (i.e. essential oils) can cause irritation or allergic reactions.

Humectants: Humectants draw water into the skin, either from the environment or the deepest layers of the skin. They are typically fast-absorbing and lightweight, making them a perfect choice for acne-prone or oily skin types. Hyaluronic acid (our favorite hydration superstar) is one such humectant.

Occlusives: A classification of moisturizing agents that form a protective layer on the surface of the skin, sealing in moisture. Occlusives typically come in the form of petroleum jelly (Vaseline), mineral oil, silicone, dimethicone, waxes and lanolin. Be wary of occlusives if you have acne-prone skin. Ensure the ingredients are non-comedogenic so that you don’t end up with clogged pores and breakouts.

Parabens: A group of chemicals used as artificial preservatives to increase the shelf life of a product. Although the data is not clear, recent scientific studies suggest that parabens may play a role in harming fertility and reproductive organs, and increase the risk of cancer. Parabens can also cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. (Yet another reason we exclude them from our formulations!)

PEGs: Also known as polyethylene glycols, these are petroleum-based compounds that are commonly used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents and softeners. They have a penetration enhancing effect, meaning they are vehicles for delivering other ingredients deep into the skin. If you have a compromised skin barrier, PEGs are especially capable of causing damage, as they can contain contaminants and cause hypersensitivity reactions. We do not include any PEGs in our formulations.

Retinoids: A catchall term used to define a topical ingredient derived from vitamin A, including Retinol. When applied as a topical, retinoids prevent the breakdown of collagen and promote cell turnover. Because it makes the skin more prone to sun damage, it’s important to apply sunscreen after application. Retinoids can also be challenging to tolerate for sensitive skin, which is why ClearBalm does not contain any.

Sulfates: Chemicals used as cleansing agents in detergents, shampoos, and personal care products. Sulfates create a lathering effect to remove dirt and oil and are typical culprits for skin irritation, especially for sensitive skin types.

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Skincare terms

Non-Comedogenic: A product that is non-comedogenic will not clog pores. Clogged pores lead to acne.

Broad Spectrum: In sunscreens, broad spectrum denotes a product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. In the world of CBD, broad spectrum is one of the main types of cannabidoil extracts. Broad spectrum CBD contains the same compounds as full spectrum CBD, without the presence of THC.

Chemical Exfoliant: Acids or other ingredients including retinoids that get rid of dead skin cells. AHAs — one of our active ingredients — are some of the gentlest exfoliants.

Comedone: Small bumps (can be white or dark) caused by acne. Open comedones are blackheads and closed comedones are whiteheads. Blackheads are black because the pore is open and the contents inside the pore (oils and dead skin cells) oxidize when exposed to air, causing it to turn black. In other words, it’s not dirt that causes blackheads, just oxidized material.

Collagen: The main protein found in skin, bone and connective tissue. With age, collagen production diminishes and the fibers become damaged, leading to wrinkles and fine lines.

Cystic acne: The most severe form of acne, wherein microcomedones erupt under the surface of the skin, leading to deep inflammation. The resulting big, red and painful swelling is a cystic acne pimple.

Hormonal acne: Otherwise simply known as acne. One reason it may be called hormonal acne is because it is most common in teenagers going through hormonal changes during puberty, even though acne can occur well into adulthood. Hormonal acne can happen at any stage of life as your body and hormones change.

Hyperpigmentation: A condition that makes some areas of the skin darker. When your body produces an excess of melanin due to sun exposure, injury or inflammation of the skin, it can result in dark patches.

Physical exfoliants: Exfoliants that use small particles (like microbeads) or textured surfaces to scrub away dead skin, which can lead to microtears. Our Power Elixir is a chemical exfoliant that promotes cell turnover using gentle acids rather than friction.

Sebum: The natural oil your body produces to coat, moisturize and protect your skin. An overproduction of sebum can lead to clogged pores, resulting in acne. An underproduction of sebum can lead to dry, flaky skin.

Sensitive skin: A general term used to describe skin that has low tolerance to the application of cosmetic products. Sensitive skin types are more prone to inflammatory reactions such as redness and itchiness.

Serum: A light liquid that absorbs easily and quickly into the skin. It differs from a moisturizer in that it is highly concentrated and designed to deliver targeted active ingredients.

SPF: Sun Protection Factor is a measure of how much a sunscreen will protect from UVB rays, the type of radiation that causes sunburns, skin cancer and damaged skin.

UVA Rays: A type of radiation from the sun that penetrates deep into the skin and can cause damage even through windows. By affecting the collagen and elastin in skin, it causes premature skin aging, wrinkles and fine lines.

UVB Rays: A type of radiation responsible for sunburns. These rays do not penetrate as deeply as UVA rays, but can still wreak havoc on the uppermost layers of your skin. This UV ray can also contribute to skin cancer.