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Cleanser vs. Face Wash vs. Scrubs & More: Beauty Product Lingo Decoded

If you’ve walked down the aisles of your favorite beauty supply store lately – hey, CVS counts too – you’ve surely been pummeled with product after product that promises clearer skin, better coverage, and less greasiness. Things can get confusing as you realize just how many products can be used to wash your face or cover up blemishes. We’ve consulted beauty experts to help collegiettes decode all this beauty lingo nonsense and get to the bottom of what it is that makes products different from one another and what they all actually do and which ones you really need.


Cleanser vs. Face wash vs. Scrub

New Jersey-based dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Baxt points out that “cleansers and face washes are the same thing – each is simply a liquid used to wash the face. Scrubs, on the other hand, have grit to them, often beads or bits of plant matter to try to improve exfoliation.” While cleansers and face washes are meant to remove dirt, scrubs remove a layer of skin from your face. Beauty expert and owner of two top California hair salons Hasblady Guzman says, “I love exfoliants [scrubs], especially Aveda. Put it on a cotton round and use it after you’ve washed your face. It makes your skin look younger.” Though our collegiette skin is not so old, a good exfoliation a couple times a week helps to brighten your complexion. For the rest of the time, rely on cleansers or face washes to just clean your skin.

Neutrogena Visibly Bright Daily Facial Cleanser, $7.49 at Neutrogena.com.

Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser, $5.99 at Drugstore.com.


Exfoliator vs. Glycolic Peel

If a scrub is a grainy formula meant to remove a layer of skin, what, then, is this thing called a glycolic peel? A glycolic peel is one method of exfoliation. Dr. Baxt explains, “Exfoliation is anything that lifts off the top layer of the skin – the stratum corneum. A glycolic peel is one way to do that, but there are other creams and peels that accomplish the exfoliation.” These alternatives use other chemicals or formulas (such as beads) to get rid of that top layer of skin. If you go for this treatment, just make sure you set aside a good chunk of solitary “me” time. At-home options are great for a collegiette’s skin, since peels that you get at a spa can be costly and intense. For our purposes, at-home facial peels will get rid of dead skin cells and have anti-aging benefits. It might be a bit early for collegiettes to think about getting rid of fine lines and wrinkles, but the chemicals found in at-home peels (and peel pads) will leave you with a brighter complexion.

Philosophy The Microdelivery Triple-Acid Brightening Peel, $69 at Sephora.com. 

Eau de Parfum vs. Eau de Toilette

These two perfume terms are confusing, because it seems like they’d probably be interchangeable. Not so, though. Dermatologist Dr. Susan Stuart, founder and medical director of La Jolla Dermatology and Medical Spa in San Diego, explains how they differ: “Eau de parfum contains about 7-15% perfume concentrates. This is the most popular and common form of perfume. It provides a long-lasting fragrance and generally doesn’t cost as much as extract perfume. Eau de toilette has around 1-6% perfume concentrates. This makes for a light scent that doesn’t linger as long as the more intense versions. It was originally intended to be a refreshing body splash to help people wake up in the morning.” So, the difference in concentration means just how strong your scent smells and how long it’ll stick to your skin. A subtle but significant distinction for scent-wearers.


Salicylic Acid vs. Benzoyl Peroxide

Dr. Stuart explains why we need to incorporate both of these ingredients into our skincare regimen. “Acne forms when skin cells inside the hair follicle clump together and plug up the follicle. Salicylic acid helps cell turnover on the surface and slows the shedding of cells inside the follicle, to prevent the clogging that causes a pimple. Salicylic acid also breaks down whiteheads and blackheads. Technically a Beta Hydroxy acid, salicylic acid exfoliates and reduces oiliness, acne and appearance of fine lines.” On the other hand, Dr. Stuart explains, “Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial agent that reduces Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria responsible for breakouts. As an added plus, it also helps ‘dry up’ existing blemishes. You really need both treatments to effectively treat acne as they have different mechanisms of action.” Try some of these products to reduce your acne angst.

Origins Super Spot Remover Acne Treatment Gel, $14.50 at Origins.com.

Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10, $5.29 at Target.com.


Sunscreen vs. Sunblock

In some ways, sunscreen and sunblock are virtually the same thing. But the difference is that sunblock is totally opaque because it “consists largely of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” says Dr. Stuart. “[It] blocks almost all of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays…and does not have to be reapplied every few hours.” Sunscreens tend to be less visible on the skin and can protect against UVA, UVB or both. However, “they do allow some radiation through and need to be reapplied every few hours because their ingredients break down after exposure to sunlight,” she adds. So if you’re not into all that white stuff but you’re very into protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays (which you should be…), just be diligent with reapplying. If you don’t mind looking whiter than the skin underneath your bathing suit, hit up the lifeguards for some of their straight-up zinc oxide.

Primer vs. Foundation vs. Concealer

Which comes first? Then what? Makeup application can be troubling, but Style Director of People.com and beauty pro Andrea Lavinthal explains, “Primer preps your skin for makeup by creating a smooth canvas. Concealer is used to cover up any flaws such as acne and under eye circles, whereas foundation is typically used to even out the complexion.” All of these products are necessary in achieving a flawless face, but the proper order of application is: primer, foundation, concealer. Each of these products has their own very important function when it comes to making your complexion look flawless and healthy. So, if you’re aiming for a perfectly finished makeup look, prime, even out with foundation and then conceal problem areas – yes, use them all, in that order.

Tarte Clean Slate Poreless 12-Hour Perfecting Primer, $30 at ULTA.com.

MAC Pro Longwear SPF 10 Foundation, $31 at MACcosmetics.com.

Revlon PhotoReady Concealer Makeup, $9.99 at Drugstore.com.


Tinted Moisturizer vs. BB Cream

According to makeup artist Kristen Arnett, there’s very little difference between tinted moisturizers and “Beauty Balm” creams. Where tinted moisturizer is simply a moisturizing makeup product that gives the skin a touch of color, BB creams claim to take coverage and moisture to the next level. The “Westernized” BB creams (the product originally launched in Korea) “are touted as the ultimate, multi-function product to replace every other skin care item in the cabinet doing everything that a serum, moisturizer, primer, foundation and sunblock would do if worn separately,” she writes in an article. But, Arnett believes that they don’t live up to such expectations and are simply “glorified tinted moisturizers that cost a lot more.” She encourages trying BB creams, however, to see if these kinds of products do, in fact, work for you. Just know that you’re probably not missing out on a lot if you prefer your favorite tinted moisturizer instead.

Stila Sheer Color Tinted Moisturizer, $34 at ULTA.com. 

Urban Decay Naked Skin Beauty Balm, $34 at Sephora.com.


Luminizer vs. Powder

Arnett says, “Luminizer and powder can be one in the same if the powder has luminizing (light reflecting) qualities. Unless the powder says that it’s luminizing, then it’s probably taking away shine rather than adding it on.” Typically, luminizer is used to add shimmer to your complexion, whereas powder is used to take it away by absorbing the oil that accumulates on the skin’s surface. To decide which product you need, decide on the finish you’d like your skin to have: matte (powder) or shimmery (luminizer)


Lipstick vs. Tinted Lip Balm

We’re seeing tints, balms, tinted gloss, tinted balms and tons of other crazy lip products pop up all over the place, but what’s the difference between all of them, really? Guzman says, “Lipstick has more coverage and glides. Tinted lip balm is thick and sticky. The vibrancy of the color is less. Sometimes they’re made with petro chemicals that dry your lips, so look for a natural product.” If you want a bold pop of color on your lips, go for a pigmented lipstick. But if you’re just looking for a touch of color and moisture, a tinted balm will do the trick.

Cover Girl Lip Perfection Lipstick, $5.94 at Target.com. 

Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm, $7 at BurtsBees.com.

Tanning Mist vs. Gradual Tanning Lotion

Getting a tan these days is no easy task. We’re told to stay out of the sun (and, obviously, the beds…), but use tanning products that make our skin orange-y or sticky. Lavinthal points out, “Tanning mist is an aerosol version of sunless tanner. Gradual tanning lotion is typically equal parts sunless tanner and moisturizer. You apply it daily until you reach your desired shade of bronze.” These methods will give you a glow without soaking up rays or highly pigmented self-tanner. The real difference lies in the way they’re applied. With a lotion, it’ll take more time to accumulate a tan but with a mist, it’s sprayed right onto your body for a flawless finish.


Hair Mask Treatment vs. Leave-In Conditioner

While both of these products will add life to your locks, a hair mask tends to be heavier than a leave-in conditioner. “A hair mask treatment is an intensive conditioner that you apply to wet hair in the shower and rinse out after a specified period of time,” Lavinthal explains. “A leave-in conditioner is applied to damp, clean hair to add softness, shine and heat protection.” So with these hair products, the difference lies in the intensity to which they condition your hair. A mask treatment can be used every week or so, whereas leave-in conditioner can be used more regularly, and as a protectant from the elements.


So now that you know which products do what and why you need both, all, one or none, it’s time to rehab those bathroom drawers that are overflowing. Replace items that aren’t useful to you with ones that’ll make a difference in your beauty routine and go grab the must-haves you’re missing to get the most out of your beauty boudoir.

Lauren Kaplan is a senior majoring in English and Dance at Emory University. She is originally from New Jersey, and has loved living in Atlanta for the past three years. Lauren thinks most fondly of her two favorite places - her childhood camp, Camp Wayne for Girls, and Margate on the Jersey shore - from which she has derived a love of friends, family, and the beach.
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