The Glossary: Beauty

With green beauty comes long lists of natural ingredients and extracts that can be confusing. We break these down, de-mystifying the terminology to give you the beginner’s guide to natural shopping.


Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in personal care products, stopping fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing inside the product – especially for those designed to be stored in warm, moist environments such as the bathroom. Their names are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben and you’ll find them listed on thousands of personal care products such as shampoos, mascara, foundations and body lotions.


These are aggressive detergents made of sulfur-containing mineral salts. The  most common are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). Sulfates are surfactants –  molecules that can attract both oil and water: One end of the molecule clings to the oily dirt, while the other clings to water. By doing so, they can lift the grease and grime off of our skin and hair, emulsify it into solution and then rinse everything down the drain.




Microbeads are minuscule pieces of plastic that are found in face washes, toothpaste, body scrubs, abrasive cleaners and other everyday beauty products. After you wash your face or clean your teeth, the micro-beads go down the plughole and pass through water filtration systems because they are so tiny.


Adaptogens are non-toxic plants that are marketed as helping the body fight stress, whether physical, chemical or biological. These herbs and roots have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions, but they’re having a renaissance today. Some, like holy basil, can be eaten as part of a meal, and some are consumed as supplements or brewed into teas. Read up on how to include them in your everyday life, here.


SPF — or Sun Protection Factor — is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer — about five hours.



AHAs are actually molecules found naturally in different fruits like papaya or pumpkin or in other food products like milk which contains lactic acid. Glycolic acid occurs naturally in sugarcane. Mandelic acid is derived from bitter almonds. Unlike the face-washes that contain  micro beads which exfoliates your skin manually with little particles you can feel with your fingers, AHA loosens the “glue” holding dead skin cells together and dissolves them.


BHAs are more commonly known as salicylic acid. The main difference between AHAs and BHAs is oil solubility. AHAs are water soluble only, while BHAs are oil soluble. This means BHAs get down into the pores to cut through the oil that’s clogging them. They also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, so BHAs are perfect for treating acne-prone skin and blackheads. The most common BHA in skincare products is salicylic acid, which occurs naturally in willow bark and sweet birch.


The word hypoallergenic literally means “less allergenic.”  Products labeled hypoallergenic are purportedly less likely to cause an allergic reaction in the person using them.  This is because they are believed to contain fewer allergens, the substances and particles that irritate allergy-sufferers and cause them to have a reaction.


Phthalates (pronounced “thah-lates”) are chemical plasticizers that have been widely used since the 1950s to soften plastics that would otherwise be brittle and crack when bent. Because phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastics they’re added to, they’re continuously released into the air or food or liquid.


Silicones are substances that are being very widely used in cosmetics. That’s because it’s more or less the common basic ingredient that any formulator probably uses in every one of their creams, skin serums, shampoos and hair care products. These substances make the formula much softer, contributing to a better spread.



Retinoids are topical or oral (ex. Roaccutane) products, chemically related to Vitamin A, that help with acne, anti-aging, and hyper-pigmentation. Retinoids aid in the normalization of hyperkeratinization, which means they help your skin slough off (or desquamate) dead skin cells at a more normal rate so the dead skin cells don’t bind together and clog your pores.


Generally nail polish will, at the very least, be 3 Free. This means that the nail polish is free of what is known as the “Toxic Trio”, which are Dibutyl Phthalate, Formaldehyde, and Toluene. These ingredients are commonly used to assist in reducing cracking and improving flexability. Chip free formulas often still contain these ingredients so always read the labels if you are concerned. 5 Free nail polish is the common standard now. While still free of the “Toxic Trio”, it is also free of formaldehyde resin and camphor.


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