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2020’s most Googled skincare ingredients, explained by experts

by Holly O'Neill
14th Oct 2020

Don’t know your niacinamide from your retinol? We asked the experts for more information on the most Googled skincare ingredients

As beauty halls, pharmacies and savvy social media-driven brands become ever more crowded and complex, it is increasingly more difficult to stay on top of new skincare ingredients. If you’re not a skintellectual who knows their niacinamide from their alpha-hydroxy acid, it can be pretty overwhelming trying to figure out what the hell you need to just shift your blackheads.

According to beauty retailer Cult Beauty, being stuck at home has us Googling skincare ingredients more than ever. Cult Beauty have gathered the most Googled skincare ingredients of 2020, so we’ve asked the experts to explain everything to know.

Related: Skincare guru Caroline Hirons on the diet tweaks that will improve your skin

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has been the most Googled ingredient, searched a whopper 1,211,000 times. Vitamin C is one of the most powerful ingredients to protect the skin from ageing and always the second most recommend skincare item by dermatologists, after sunscreen of course. “Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant which neutralizes free radicals,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Nicola Ralph, Institute of Dermatologists, Blackrock Clinic/Mater Private. “Vitamin C aids in your skin’s natural regenerative process and aids skin healing, helping the body to repair damaged skin cells. It helps to offset the daily damage our skin receives due to UV exposure and pollution. It also triggers the production of collagen and elastin, giving the skin a more plump/firm appearance.”

Related: A dermatologist’s guide to what you actually need in your skincare routine


You’re either very familiar with retinol, or you’re vaguely aware that it’s something you’re supposed to be using. “Retinol is the gold standard ingredient when it comes to reversing the signs of ageing,” say registered nurses and co-owners of Renew Aesthetic Clinics, Sinead Gallagher and Jeanette Dunne. “It has the power to increase cell turnover therefore aiding skin renewal so it reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. Retinol targets skin discolouration and breaks up existing pigment and brightens and allows for a more even skin tone. It works to increase cell turnover, stimulate collagen and elastin production, fade hyperpigmentation and helps the skin stay hydrated. As we age our skin cell turnover slows down and by using retinol it encourages a healthy turnover. Retinol can treat and prevent everything from stubborn cystic acne and eczema to sun-induced wrinkles and dark spots.”

Related: meet the new generation of innovative retinol, tackling sensitivity issues

Castor Oil

Castor oil, which comes from castor beans, is renowned for its ability to improve eyebrow growth and is a key ingredient in many great eyebrow serums. Fiona McGowan, brow artist at Eye Design, Blanchardstown, says, “I always recommend a brow serum, like iGlow, to help encourage brow growth –I’ve seen amazing results – but if you are on a budget, then castor oil and daily brow brushing definitely helps get a few new hairs sprouting.”

Related: The greatest brow growth serums for fuller, fluffier eyebrows

Hyaluronic Acid

You’ve likely heard about hyaluronic acid a million times, as it’s lauded for being able to carry 1000 times it’s weight in water as a humectant. What does that mean though? “It means that it has the ability to pull water to an area and thus swell it so that it makes the skin visibly plumper and fuller,” says Jennifer Rock. “It is a known hydrator but beware, you need to be careful of depending on it too much if it is being used alone. Due to its ability to bring moisture to the area, if it is used solo and in a dry climate or atmosphere it can dehydrate the skin as it draws the lack of moisture to the skin. I love to mix it in with another oil-based serum so it locks the nourishment in.”

Related: everything to know about hyaluronic acid


Shabir Daya, co-founder of Victoria Health, says, “squalane is a botanic lipid derived from the hydrogenation of olive oil. People often mistake this for squalene which is a lipid which was historically sourced from shark liver oil although these days it is derived from botanical sources. The main difference between the two is that squalane is more stable to oxidation, unlike squalene. Both squalane and squalene have a long history of use in cosmetic products. It is a superb emollient which provides surface hydration without clogging pores as it is non-greasy.”

Related: everything to know about squalane and the best products to use

Salicylic Acid

“Salicylic acid is a safe, effective ingredient which has been in use in skincare products for over five decades,” says Dr. Eithne Brenner, Medical Director at Faceworks aesthetic and skin clinic in Carlow. “SA products are great for acne-prone and oily skin and they exfoliate and smooth the skin and un-clog pores. It’s three main benefits are to exfoliate the skin, reduce inflammation and speed up skin cell renewal. It unclogs pores, minimises their appearance, cleans the skin, reduces redness and inflammation and speeds up healing of pimples.”

Related: What is salicylic acid and do I need it in my skincare routine?


Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide soothes inflammation and boosts collagen in the skin. It works to treat enlarged pores, uneven skin tone and fine lines while brightening the skin and restoring the skin’s barrier, boosting production of your skin’s essential ceramides and keeping your skin hydrated. It can also help repair damage and pigmentation. At the launch of Charlotte Tilbury’s Magic Serum Crystal Elixir, Dr Anjali Mahto said that niacinamide “is essential for skin health in many ways – it works as an anti-oxidant, but in addition to this it can improve the appearance of pores for a complexion which looks smoother and more even.”

Related: The Ordinary are releasing a €5 niacinamide powder to tackle your skin texture issues


Ceramides says Jennifer Rock, are “key lipids that make up your skin’s protective barrier.” A damaged skincare barrier can cause a host of additional issues, but you can repair it with a dedicated routine. “When you have a weakened skin barrier you have cracks in your skin and you’re much more likely to develop infections from pathogens going into the skin through the cracks,” says dermatologist Dr Joyce Park. “You’re more likely to develop even worse dry skin because you’re unable to keep hydration in. You’re more likely to develop sensitivities to different products and ingredients because more ingredients can penetrate through the skin barrier. You’re more susceptible to ageing because you’re constantly exposed to environmental pollutants such as smoke and UV radiation. I see all of this happening as a result of having an impaired or weakened skin barrier. That’s why it’s so important to have a strong skin barrier so you can keep your skin healthy, glowing and strong.”

Related: how to repair a damaged skin barrier, which could be the root of your skin issues

Lactic Acid

“Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid,” says Jennifer Rock, “a skincare ingredient that works to speed up our skin’s own process of exfoliation. As far as acid exfoliants go, lactic acid is very powerful yet more gentle than glycolic acid, as it has a larger molecule and thus penetrates into the skin in a much more controlled manner. Because of this, lactic acid is more suitable for sensitive or reactive skin types than glycolic acid. Additionally, it’s a humectant meaning that it draws moisture towards it, hydrating the skin and it boosts the production of ceramides.”

Related: What is lactic acid and do I really need it in my skincare routine?

Digital illustration by Laura Kenny. 

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