There is a lot of technical language used in the medical world. This can be useful to healthcare professionals, but for patients it is often confusing. We’ve compiled a list of common dermatology ‘jargon’ words or phrases and what they mean.

An abscess is a build-up of pus in one place that can develop in any part of the body. Abscesses are most commonly caused by bacterial infection and appear on the skin as a large, protruding lump under the skin that is filled with pus.

Relating to the abdomen. The abdomen is the part of the body that spans from the pelvis to the chest. The abdomen holds many important organs including stomach, liver, intestines, pancreas, kidneys and gall bladder.

An abnormality is a deviation from the norm. It is used when something is either rare or unusual compared to what is standard.

Removal or excision of skin tissue. For example, surgery or laser treatment can be ablative.

Relating to ultra-violet light. Often used when talking about sun related skin issues.

When something comes on quickly, only lasts for a short duration and often in terms of illness means in need of urgent care.

Allergens are substances that, while typically harmless, can trigger a response from the immune system that causes a specific reaction, this is called an allergic reaction.

Alopecia is a general term for hair loss. Alopecia can be caused by many different factors and can happen at any age.

Anaesthetic means of relating to a loss of sensation. Anaesthetic drugs block nerve signals from accessing your brain which may induce a response e.g. pain or pleasure.

Antibiotics are drugs that are used to prevent or get rid of certain bacteria and bacterial infection, they prevent bacteria from reproducing and spreading. Antibiotics can’t be used for all types of bacteria.

Antihistamines are drugs that relieve or prevent the allergic response in people. There are many types of antihistamines for certain allergies and severities, mostly available over-the-counter however some may need to be prescribed.

An antiseptic is a substance that reduces the chance of infection and disease by killing all the microorganisms the antiseptic substance touches.

Atopic diseases are allergic diseases that are often linked, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), hayfever and asthma.

A condition or symptom that is not usual and is different to the norm, e.g. not typical. 

We all have an immune system.  It is the body’s natural defence system and normally acts to protect the body.  It makes the antibodies that are needed to fight infection and disease.  Normally these antibodies do not attack our own bodies.  However, in autoimmune disease, the immune system makes a mistake and fights our own body instead.  The antibodies that attack parts of our own body are called ‘autoantibodies’.  

Microorganisms that can be found on everything. Bacteria are not always harmful and can even be beneficial but also can be the cause of illness and infection.

This is a registry of information to compare the safety of different biologic treatments (see ‘biological drugs’, below) for psoriasis and to see how well they work.  More info can be found on this site in the Research section.

Something that is not harmful or severe and does not spread. Often used in the context of lesions or tumours.

‘Biologics’ or ‘biologicals’ are a group of modern powerful drugs.  Unlike other drugs which can usually be made from chemicals in a test tube, biologics are complex molecules made by living cells (human, plant, animal or micro-organism). Biological drugs are administered via injection. More info on different biologics can be found in the A-Z list of skin conditions on this site.

A skin or tissue sample taken for examination under a microscope in the laboratory by a pathologist.

A biosimilar drug is a biological medicine (complex molecules derived from living cells) that is developed to be highly similar and clinically equivalent to an existing biological drug.  The biological drug is called the ‘reference medicine’ or ‘originator medicine’ and the biosimilar is created to be similar, but not identical, in terms of quality, molecular structure and biological activity.     

A Boil is a large build up of pus under the skin around a hair follicle, causing a large round lump on the skin.

Botox is a trademarked brand name for a type of cosmetic treatment. Botulinum Toxin A is a toxin that can be injected in small doses as treatment for muscle conditions and injury or in cosmetic use for reducing wrinkles.

Something that persists for a very long time and reoccurs or actually never stops.

A term for a healthcare provider with medical training which qualifies them to diagnose and treat patients.

Relating to something done in a medical setting.

Comedones are marks on the skin from the build-up of oil and dead skin cells in the hair follicle, and can come either as open comedones, called ‘blackheads’ or closed comedones, called ‘whiteheads’.

Also known as contact eczema. This is a condition where contact with a particular substance, or allergen, causes inflammation on the specific part of the skin where contact happened. This is a type of allergic reaction.

Something that can spread from one person to another.

A consultant is the term used to refer to a fully qualified specialist doctor, these doctors are experts in their field. For example, a consultant dermatologist.

This is a procedure that uses coldness as a treatment. Cryotherapy destroys certain tissues by using freezing and thawing.

Troublesome or suspicious skin growths can be removed by a special procedure known as curettage and cauterisation. A local anaesthetic injection will be given beforehand to numb the skin and the growth is then scraped away (curettage) and then the skin surface is sealed by heat (cautery). The cautery helps to stop the skin bleeding and also destroys any abnormal cells which may still be present. The skin sample is then examined under a microscope in the laboratory. 

A cyst is a fluid filled lump that may appear just under the skin. 

Depigmentation is loss of pigment (melanin) in the skin, this causes the affected area to be lighter than the surrounding skin. It can be caused by injury or by a skin condition, such as vitiligo.

The skin is made up of multiple layers, the dermis is the second layer, below the epidermis. This contains nerve endings, capillaries, hair follicles, and sweat glands.

Enzymes are molecules (usually proteins) that speed up the rate of virtually all of the chemical reactions that take place within cells.

Moisturisers applied to the skin are often referred to as ‘emollients’.

Epidermal means relating to the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin.

The skin is made up of multiple layers, the outermost of which is called the epidermis.

Epilation is a form of hair removal where the hair is removed by the roots, rather than cut.

Redness of the skin, caused by increased blood flow to the site, often seen with infection, inflammation, or injury. 

Excision is the removal of the whole of a suspicious area of skin, plus a small additional margin of normal skin from around it. The skin sample is then examined under a microscope in the laboratory. It takes time for the sample to be processed and analysed by a pathologist (specialist doctor) so you will not get the result on the day. The excision may leave a scar.

Fillers are substances injected into the skin and are used to ‘fill out’ wrinkles and lines and to add plumpness and volume to sagging or hollow areas. 

A flare-up is period where a condition gets worse. In skin conditions this is often caused by something called a ‘trigger’, these vary from person-to-person but include things like stress, spicy food, or alcohol.

Hair follicles are the tiny structures in which hairs are formed, and in which you find the root of the hair.

The term follow is often used in research to mean monitor. For example “patients were followed for six months” means that the patient group being studied was monitored for six months.

Follow-up appointments sometimes take place after the initial consultation, this might be to monitor treatment progress or to remove stitches. There are many reasons why a follow-up appointment might be necessary.

Gastroenterologists are specialists that have been trained in the management of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and liver.

A gene is often referred to as a unit of heredity. Made up of DNA, genes are passed from parents to children and determine our physical characteristics and those of the cells within our bodies.

Genetics is the study of genes, and therefore the passing on of our characteristics through the generations.

If something is hereditary it is passed on from parents to children through their DNA.

There are a wide range of hormones with different jobs, but essentially they are chemicals that act as regulators. Once they are produced they are transported around the body where they stimulate certain cells into action.

The immune system is a complex system of interactions and communication between all parts of the body. It is the body’s natural defence system and normally acts to protect the body. It makes the antibodies that are needed to fight infection and disease.

Sometimes it is necessary to dampen the way in which the immune system works; this group of medications are known as immunosuppressants. In skin disease the two main reasons for taking an immunosuppressant are either to regulate autoimmune disease, where the immune system makes a mistake and fights our own body, or to control diseases where the immune system is overactive and enables a skin condition to persist or worsen.

Inflammation is redness, swelling, heat, pain or discomfort in a localised area. Inflammation is a common symptom of skin issues or conditions.

When a wound heals, it leaves a scar. A keloid (also called a keloid scar) is the name given to a scar that overgrows and becomes larger than the original wound.

Laser and light therapies are treatments which use different types of focused light to treat conditions or remove imperfections. These treatments are used for a vast range of skin issues, including wrinkles, pigmentation, acne, hair removal and scarring.

Laser resurfacing is an intense light-based treatment which uses lasers to remove layers of skin to reduce imperfections such as scarring or wrinkling, amongst other things.

A skin lesion is a general term for an abnormal growth or bump which differs from your normal skin. This includes things like spots, moles, patches of psoriasis or skin cancers.

In the context of a tumour, malignant means that a tumour is cancerous.

The pigment that gives your skin its normal colour is called melanin and is made by cells known as melanocytes.

Metastasis is a term used to describe when cancer spreads from its original site to other parts of the body.

Mohs micrographic surgery is a specialised surgical method for removing certain types of skin cancer. During the procedure, the skin cancer is removed a thin layer at a time with a small margin of healthy skin surrounding it. Each layer is immediately checked under the microscope after removal and the process continues until no sign of the skin cancer remains. This minimises the amount of healthy skin removed unnecessarily.

A naevus is another word for a mole.

Non-comedogenic is a label commonly used on cosmetics to indicate that the product has been designed to not block pores. This means that they are less likely to cause blackheads or whiteheads.

Over-the-counter is a term used to refer to treatments which are available without a prescription.

A papule is a type of spot. A papule occurs when a follicle wall tears, white blood cells rush in to fight the bacteria, causing inflammation. The white blood cells then cluster and form a pocket of pus within the affected hair follicle.

A pathologist is a doctor who specialises in medical diagnosis by looking at the cells with a microscope. When skin tissue is sampled (biopsied) or removed (excised) it is the pathologist who will analyse the tissue. The removed skin will be processed and sliced into thin sections and placed onto glass slides. Pathologists then look for certain cell types and patterns in these cells which can support, refute or confirm a suspected diagnosis.

Photosensitivity is a type of sensitivity caused by sunlight. The skin becomes firm, raised and itchy on the areas of the skin surface which are exposed to the sun.

Phototherapy is a form of treatment where fluorescent light bulbs are used to treat skin conditions.

A prescription is authorisation from a medical professional for a patient to be issued a medical treatment.

Primary care is usually the first point of access for most people into the NHS, most commonly a GP’s surgery. This treatment takes place outside of a hospital setting and is the first step in getting referred to a specialist, if appropriate.

A pustule is a type of spot. They normally form from a papule, a type of inflammed spot, as pus rises to the surface of the inflammation. Pustules are often, mistakenly, referred to as whiteheads.

Radiotherapy is a treatment, usually for cancer, which uses radiation (x-rays for example).

A referral means being directed from one healthcare provider to another. Usually from a GP to a specialist, in the case of a skin condition this would most likely be a consultant dermatologist.

Remission is a term used to describe the temporary period where an illness has become less severe, often to the point of causing no issues to the individual.

Retinoids are a type of drug which are closely related to Vitamin A, and work by slowing down cell growth in the skin.

The scalp is the skin on top of the head (not the face), where hair typically grows.

The sebaceous glands are glands found in the skin. These glands produce oil (sebum) to lubricate the skin and hair. Excess sebum production can play a part in the development of acne.

Secondary care is the term used to refer to specialist treatment in a hospital setting.

Skin camouflage is best described as the application of highly pigmented creams, that are designed to effectively mask skin discolouration and/or scarring. Skin camouflage products are matched to natural skin colour and are significantly different from ordinary cosmetics.

Steroids are naturally occurring chemicals, produced mainly by the adrenal glands in the abdomen. There are different types of steroids used as medicines, and the type most commonly used to treat skin problems is known as a corticosteroid. Corticosteroids treat skin conditions by suppressing inflammation and reducing the amount of collagen in the skin. Corticosteroids that are applied to the skin in the form of creams, ointments, lotions, mousses, shampoos gels or tapes are known as topical corticosteroids (TCS).

Sun damage is a general term for damage caused by ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. This includes sun burn, skin ageing, and skin cancer, amongst other things.

Sunburn occurs when ultraviolet radiation causes inflammation and redness in the skin.

Syndrome is a word used when a condition is characterised by a set of common symptoms which consistently occur together.

Medications which work throughout the whole body are called systemic medications. They are usually taken by mouth (oral route) or by injections. These drugs often need careful monitoring, usually through regular blood tests.

Some medications prescribed for skin conditions can cause serious harm or damage to an unborn baby This is called teratogenicity.

Medications which are applied to the skin or mucosal surfaces (e.g. eyes and mouth) are known as topical drugs. They are available in a variety of bases, ranging from liquid solutions to thick ointments. Some products are wash-off and others are designed to leave on the skin. Topical moisturisers are often referred to as ‘emollients’.

A mass in the body caused by the abnormal growth of cells. A tumour can either be benign or malignant.

An ulcer is an open sore or wound in the skin.

Triage is used to manage groups of patients. Patients are assessed and graded based on the urgency of their condition, this helps decide the order of treatment.

Tertiary care is the term used to refer to treatment by very specialised units. For example a stroke recovery, neurosurgery, or cancer unit.

An unlicensed drug is one that has not been awarded a Market Authorisation from the UK Medicines Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). A drug may be licensed in other countries, but not in the UK. Drug licenses in the UK are awarded following a rigorous process of evaluation by the MHRA following an application by a pharmaceutical company. When a drug does not have a license (unlicensed / off licence) this does not necessarily mean that it is not a useful treatment, rather, that there is insufficient information to satisfy the regulators (MHRA). In the absence of a license, the drug may still be prescribed in the UK, provided there is funding available locally to pay for it. Your dermatologist is licensed by the GMC to prescribe ‘unlicensed’ medicine if it is felt to be beneficial for a particular condition and licensed medications are not an option or have not worked.

Ultraviolet radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation, falling between visible light and x-rays on the electromagnetic spectrum. UV rays can cause skin damage, including skin ageing and skin cancer. When we use sun protection (such as sunscreen), it is this radiation that we are protecting ourselves against. UV radiation is emitted by the sun in three forms: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC does not penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, so we only really need to protect against UVA and UVB. UV radiation is also emitted from other sources, including sunbeds

The “vulva” is the term used to describe the visible (external) part of the female genitalia.

Warts are localised thickenings of the skin caused by infection in the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) with a virus called the ‘human papilloma virus’ (HPV).