Original Illustration by Ellie Benuska
Beauty isn’t just a lifestyle—it’s a language. Even those of us who work in the industry don’t speak it with perfect fluency. With so many products, techniques, and slang terms in constant evolution, sometimes we’re tempted to sit down and make actual flashcards to keep it all straight.
But just like the language of ballet or the language of science, it’s important to have a handle on the most important terms before you can perfect your technique. After all, if you don’t even know what a plié is, how are you supposed to do one? The same applies to beauty.
We are the first to admit that learning the language of skincare, makeup, and hair can be intimidating. To help you out, we put together this master list of important beauty terms you might be confused about. Whether you’re unsure of the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen or are simply looking for the technical definition of strobing, we’ve got you. Here are all the answers to your questions in one convenient place.
Keep scrolling for over 30 beauty terms you need to know (and comment down below for definitions you’d like us to add in the future)!
Cult of Tomorrow
babylights: A delicate, low-maintenance highlighting technique mimicking the natural highlights that kids get from the sun in the summer. (Here’s more information on babylights.)
balayage: A bespoke highlighting technique where a colorist freehands the lightening product without the use of foils to create a graduated, sun-kissed effect. (Check out an example of balayage highlights.) Means “sweep” or “paint” in French.
cat eye: An eyeliner style where the liner extends out into a wing at the outer corner of the eye, widening your eyes to give them a slightly feline look. (Here’s an easy cat-eye tutorial.)
chemical exfoliation: The use of chemical ingredients like acids and enzyms to slough off dead skin on the molecular level, as opposed to scrubbing the skin physically and rinsing. Compounds dissolve dead skin and unclog pores, resulting in brighter, clearer, more youthful skin. Often comes in the form of serum, cleanser, or toner. (See editors' favorite chemical exfoliators.)
chemical vs. mineral sunscreen: Mineral sunscreens, aka “physical” sunscreens, contain zinc or titanium oxide to deflect the sun’s rays. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays using a combination of ingredients including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Both are FDA approved, but mineral sunscreen is often used by people concerned with “natural” skincare. (See below for a definition of natural.)
color correction: A makeup concealing technique using the principles of the color wheel to camouflage discoloration in the skin. For example, green products are used to cancel out redness in the skin (from acne or irritation). Orange products are used to cancel blue tones (from dark circles or acne scars). See a simple guide to color-correcting.
contouring: A sculpting makeup technique that uses foundation, concealer, or contour formula one to two shades darker than your skin tone to extenuate the angles of your face. Contour product is typically placed in the hollows of the cheeks, on the sides of your nose, and around the hairline and jawline for a slimming effect. Contrary to popular belief, contouring was not invented by Kim Kardashian West.
cruelty free: When a product is manufactured and developed with methods that do not involve testing and experimentation on animals.
cut crease: An eye makeup technique that places a dark shade of eye shadow into the crease and blends upward, intended to extenuate the crease and bring dimension to the eye. The look is typically finished by applying a contrasting, light-colored shadow all over the lid.
derma-rolling: Otherwise known as micro-needling, a skincare technique that requires the use of a derma-roller, a tool containing hundreds of tiny needles. When the tool is rolled over the face, the needles create micro-injuries that send collagen and elastin production into overdrive, leaving behind tighter, plumper skin. (See a beginner’s guide to derma-rolling.)
dry brushing: A bodycare technique inspired by Ayurvedic tradition, where a soft-bristled brush is used on dry skin to exfoliate, unclog pores, reduce cellulite, and stimulate the lymphatic system with the intent of removing toxins.
essence: The Eastern cousin of Western serums, essences are skincare products intended to deliver hydration, vitamins, minerals, and other benefits to the skin. They typically have a lightweight, liquid texture and are applied after cleansing.
foundation vs. tinted moisturizer vs. BB/CC creams: All makeup products used to provide varying amounts of coverage and skincare benefits when applied. Foundations tend to be higher coverage and come in a variety of shades. BB and CC creams offer less coverage and a lighter texture and have added skincare benefits including SPF, vitamins, and minerals. (Specifically, CC creams are also designed to offer color correction). Tinted moisturizer provides a hit of hydration with minimal coverage.
hyperpigmentation: A darkening of the skin due to the overproduction of pigment cells. Causes can include some type of skin trauma, such as a breakout; hormones; and genetics. The condition is not harmful. (Here are seven easy ways to treat hyperpigmentation.)
microdermabrasion: A form of exfoliation performed by buffing the face with ultra-fine physical exfoliants (usually crystals) to remove the outer layer of dead and clogged skin, revealing the healthy skin beneath.
multimasking: Using different masks on different areas of the skin to address specific concerns. (Learn how to DIY multimasking here).
natural beauty: A label that typically refers to products without synthetic ingredients. However, the FDA does not regulate this label, so it does not guarantee a certain definition.
no-poo: A haircare method that rejects the use of traditional shampoo. Proponents of the method argue that the detergents, sulfates, and chemicals found in shampoo are unhealthy and damaging. The no-poo method says to rinse hair only with water, baking soda, apple cider vinegar solutions, or a cleansing cream.
noncomedogenic: Refers to ingredients that are less likely to clog pores and produce or aggravate acne and blackheads. Ingredients with high comedogenicity ratings are more likely to cause such issues and can lead to acne cosmetica.
physical exfoliation: In contrast to chemical exfoliation, physical exfoliation is a method that involves using a lightly abrasive product (such as coffee, sugar, or a face scrub) to remove dead skin cells.
pineappling: A hairstyle for curly hair that involves tying your ringlets up as close to your hairline as possible. It can be worn as a daytime hairstyle or used as a technique to keep wet hair off your pillow at night, resulting in less frizz.
priming: Applying a pre-makeup product to even out the texture of your skin, give it a uniform base, and create grip so your makeup products don’t crease or run over time. Common places to prime include the face, eyelids, and lips.
serum: A skincare product containing concentrated and powerful ingredients to address specific skin problems including wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, etc. Serum is typically applied after cleansing and before moisturizing. (Read more in our serum guide.)
strobing: Placing highlighter or a light concealer on the high points of your face (i.e., cheekbones, brow bone, bridge of the nose, inner corners of eyes, forehead, and Cupid’s bow) to create a brightened, youthful finish.
squinching: A posing technique that involves squinting and “pinching” the eyes at the same time. The technique adds definition to the face and prevents a “crazy-eyed” look in photos.
tightlining: An easy eyeliner technique that subtly defines your eyes. To achieve, place one finger on your eyelid and then lift it upward to reveal the upper inner rim. Take an eyeliner pencil, usually black, and line that rim of skin underneath your lash line.
toner: Historically used to balance the skin’s pH, toner can now serve a variety of purposes, such as hydrating the skin and prepping it for makeup. It is typically applied right after cleansing.
waterline: The area of your eyelid right above your lower lash line. Lining this area with eyeliner can make your eyes look bigger and brighter.
Is there a beauty term you wish were on this list? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll be sure to add it!