What do all those unpronounceable words on your product ingredient lists mean?


Once Upon a Time Allure advice columns from our favorite beauty pros. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re bringing back the tradition — but this time the expert is: us (we’ve learned a lot over the years). Send your burning (or itchy, or otherwise inflamed) questions to beautyexpert@allure.comand maybe we’ll answer that in a future story.

“I never buy a beauty product without checking the ingredient list first: I know my glycolic from my salicylic, my glycerin from my squalane. But there are still words I can’t make my head or tail. What unpronounceable superhero ingredients should I be looking for?”

While I see wisdom in Michael Pollan’s advice not to eat anything you can’t pronounce, that rule doesn’t really apply to rating labels on serums and shampoos. (Unless you eat your serums and shampoos, and please don’t.) In beauty formulas, a 25-letter word is often just a chemical name for a highly effective lightener or moisturizer. . And after 12 years at Seduce, a few of them roll off my tongue. But to fully answer your question, I also reached out to some of our favorite cosmetic chemists. Behold, the ultimate unpronounceable glossary.

Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate

This aluminum salt, which has the magic touch to smooth dry legs, “is one of my favorite ingredients for body care because it can take on a lotion, a cream, or even a thick balm filled with oils. and butters from bold to soft and matte without compromising on hydration,” says cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos.


I’m always looking for more glowing skin, and now I know I should be looking for words ending with this suffix, which means negatively charged ion of vitamin C – one of the best lighteners in skincare. skin. “Vitamin Cs are antioxidants, but most break down quickly, like apples turning brown. How effective are they if you don’t stabilize them?” rhetorically asks cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “Ascorbates are stabilized forms of vitamin C. The only other stable one is 3-o-ethyl-ascorbic acid.”


When irritated skin needs attention, it’s good to know about azulenes. “These components of essential oils have been widely studied for their anti-inflammatory properties,” says Dobos, whose favorite is guaiazulene.

Behentrimonium chloride

A quick fix for dry hair and scarf-induced tangles, this “quaternium compound is anti-static, which also aids in detangling and prevents flyaways,” says King. She would like to set the record straight on one thing: “Quaternium compounds are good for detangling, but quaternium-15 is a preservative and a formaldehyde donor. It’s a black sheep of the good quaternary family. .”

Cetyl and stearyl alcohols

“We think of alcohol as the substance we drink, which contains the chemical ethanol. But to a chemist, an alcohol is any substance with a hydroxyl group attached to a carbon atom,” Dobos explains. “They can have very different properties.” This means that not all alcohols dry out. Cetyl and stearyl alcohols, for example, are waxy solids called fatty alcohols, perfect for creating the rich, creamy textures we want in our moisturizers and conditioners. More proof: Glycerin, one of the best moisturizers available, is a polyol, a type of alcohol with multiple hydroxyl groups.


If you love cooking with garlic but hate smelling like a restaurant, you want cyclodextrins. Says Dobos: “They are a class of polysaccharides – chains of sugar molecules – that are particularly useful in dry shampoos for capturing unpleasant odors.”


For less frizz, more shine, “dimethicone is your friend,” says King. “It’s a linear silicone that coats the hair, and it’s not volatile. There are concerns about cyclic silicones having volatility issues that could lead to inhalation which may not be safe. Certainly it There are many so-called silicone alternatives, but none of them work really well.” (Seduce also previously reported that cyclic silicones can build up in the water supply, raising environmental concerns.)

Isoamyl laurate

Factor the presence of this fatty acid into your insurance policy that a moisturizer will do its job beautifully, without feeling heavy or pilling. Says King: “It’s a very good non-greasy emollient that helps smooth the skin and has quick absorption.”

Linum Usitatissimum Seed Oil

The three-syllable term for this ingredient is “flaxseed oil,” and of all the natural oils listed on skincare labels, King particularly likes to see this one: “It contains a high amount of omega fatty acids. -3 to hydrate and calm the skin and it is not too oily like other natural oils.”

Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4 and Palmitoyl Tripeptide-5

Some of the most effective skin care ingredients are peptides – chains of amino acids – and these two main lists for firming and brightening, respectively. A palmitoyl, she adds, is a “peptide that is attached to palmitic acid for better penetration.”

Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate

Whether you want to maintain new highlights or avoid frizz, look for this in a shampoo. It’s a milder surfactant than the sulfates, says Dobos, which means you get all the lather without stripping the color.

Synthetic Fluorphlogopite

These smooth, sheer white flakes are lab-made to look like natural mica and make eyelids, cheeks, and lips look radiant. “Synthetic fluorophlogopite has a better luster than naturally mined mica,” says Dobos, “and has no issues with unsafe and unethical products. [child] work practices associated with [some of the mining of] its natural counterpart.”


If you’re looking for a mascara or eyeliner that won’t smudge, or a lipstick or foundation that won’t fade, then you want to find this resin from silicone on the ingredient lists. “It’s like Saran Wrap, but with a soft, sticky property,” says King. “It forms a permeable film, but has a pleasant and soft touch, and makes makeup long-wearing, water-resistant and transfer-resistant.”

This story originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Allure.

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Rozella J. Cook