Ever tried to read the ingredients list on your favorite skin-care product? Yeah, it’s work to even pronounce them and, unless you have a chemistry degree, difficult to decipher, too.
“While certain ingredients can certainly be trendy, most are based on some scientific principle or analogy,” says Jennifer Herrmann, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills, California. Sometimes, though, there isn’t a wide body of rigorous research to support these theories or how they might translate to healthier, more beautiful skin.
That said, some of these weird-sounding ingredients do pack real perks for your complexion.
Here are eight to have on your radar, and whether to consider adding them to your skin-care routine — or skip them altogether.
1. Consider Red Algae to Guard Skin Against Potential Blue Light Damage
This species of algae is red due to a pigment called phycoerythrin. According to the University of California in Berkeley, phycoerythrin “reflects red light and absorbs blue light.” That’s a good thing, as a study published in July 2017 in Free Radical Biology & Medicine suggests that blue light emitted from electronics can contribute to premature skin aging. “Red algae has intense antioxidant components, which fight harm caused by free radicals,” says Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. Free radicals cause aging by degrading collagen and elastin and contributing to hyperpigmentation.
You can sometimes find red algae in sunscreens, as well as makeup that contains an SPF. A preliminary lab study published in December 2015 in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology found that red algae extract (along with other vitamins) can help boost the effectiveness of sunscreens in combating UV damage.
2. Consider Yeast to Firm and Tighten Aging Skin
Don’t think yeast is only good for cinnamon rolls and making sourdough. “Yeast contains a peptide, which can increase the expression of what’s known as sirtuin,” says Robert Anolik, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City. Sirtuin is in a class of proteins that are “associated with a number of metabolic pathways that influence aging and longevity,” he says. Sirtuin can influence cells that produce collagen and elastin, the components of skin’s structure that keep it taut and springy. Therefore, using a yeast-containing, skin-brightening serum or essence may help reduce the appearance of signs of aging like fine lines and discoloration, though more research is needed, says Dr. Anolik.
3. Consider Snail Mucin to Rev Collagen Production and Boost Skin Hydration
In lay terms, this is the goop that comes out of a snail. (Yes, really!) Yet it’s more than that. “This is a substance that a snail excretes when under stress,” says Dr. Solomon. Because of that, mucin contains components that help repair or protect the animal from injury, she says. You might find it in eye and facial creams and serums, as it’s often used to improve hydration, boost skin’s glow, and stimulate collagen production. It is a common ingredient in Korean skin-care products specifically, as illustrated by the bevy of products on the website Soko Glam, and followers of this trend anecdotally attest to its results. Research is limited but suggests there may be something to this ingredient. For example, a small double-blind, randomized study of 25 people found that using a product containing snail secretions for three months improved the appearance of crow’s-feet and fine lines.
4. Consider Cactus to Soothe and Shield the Skin Against UV Rays and to Hydrate
It may be prickly to the touch, but this desert plant has the potential to help quench your skin. “There is a reason why cactus flowers are able to stay alive in the desert — they’re full of water that’s able to sustain them during dry spells,” says Solomon. What’s more, it’s chockablock with vitamins, antioxidants, and electrolytes, she says. Translating to your complexion, that may help skin stay hydrated and protect it from sun damage, which is why you may find it in facial creams as a moisturizer or skin soother. However, while the vitamins and antioxidants may enhance protection from and repair of UV damage, it is not a replacement for sunscreen.
5. Consider Plant-Derived Squalane as a Natural Skin Moisturizer
Squalane is a derivative of squalene, which can be harvested from shark liver oil and used in skin-care and cosmetics, according to Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization. Luckily, squalane is increasingly becoming a plant-derived ingredient included in products for its moisturizing potential. And for good reason. “Squalene is a product naturally produced by our sebaceous (oil) glands that helps hydrate and moisturize the skin,” says Dr. Herrmann. It does this by coating the skin to lock in moisture, she says. Right now, benefits are anecdotal in the face of minimal research, adds Herrmann: “There is surprisingly little rigorous data on this ingredient.” Whether you want to try it is up to you.
6. Skip Sea Kelp and Seaweed to Combat Pollutants
These sea vegetables are another type of algae that’s formulated into serums (to sop up pollutants from the skin that can contribute to aging), night cream (to smooth and soften skin), and eye cream (to moisturize). These plants may “help inhibit enzymes that break down collagen or hyaluronic acid, both essential for keeping the skin young. It also has antioxidant properties,” says Herrmann. The downside is that seaweed, sea kelp, or wakame (all names it goes by on labels) may or may not actually enter the skin barrier, where it can make a difference, she adds.
7. Skip Bio-Placenta to Rid Wrinkles
No, this is not human placenta. As one brand that formulates bio-placenta serum explains, these are “molecularly identical to the life-giving growth factors found in the human placenta.” Other companies use plant-derived bio-placenta. These are similar to stem cell creams, says Solomon, and the idea is that these ingredients can facilitate collagen production to smooth skin and eliminate lines and wrinkles. That said, experts aren’t convinced of their efficacy. “Placenta and stem cell creams have not been substantially tested, and no one has even looked at what’s in them very scientifically,” she says. What’s more, “usually only live stem cells have the ability to repair other cells, and it’s debatable whether or not these cells in the placenta are actually still live,” adds Solomon.
8. Skip Kale to Help Protect and Brighten Skin
You’ve probably eaten a lot of kale salads in your day, but seeing it in antioxidant serums, detox masks, and cleansing micellar water may be jarring. In theory, it sounds like it makes sense to include antioxidant-packed superfoods in skin care. In fact, this isn’t the only antioxidant powerhouse to make its way into products, since an array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs now regularly appear as ingredients. While kale is rich in vitamins and antioxidants, “the problem is that the skin is a great barrier. It won’t allow ground-up kale to easily penetrate,” says Herrmann. What’s more, kale may contain vitamin C, but this ingredient has its challenges. “To make vitamin C effective, it usually needs to be altered so that it can effectively cross the skin and act more deeply in its dermal layer,” she says. Challenge is, there is no way to know how the kale has been manipulated to gauge its efficacy in a topical product. What’s more, when it comes to vitamin C, the way it’s packaged makes a big difference in whether or not it stays stable (and thus effective).