An Easy Guide to Active Ingredients in Skincare
When it comes to the beauty industry, there’s so many different words and marketing ploys to describe skincare formulations and ingredients that it can next to impossible to interpret a product’s true ingredients and effectiveness. How will the product actually work for your skin? What ingredient will effectively target your skin’s needs? Understanding what active ingredients work best to treat your specific skin conditions can make a big difference in your skincare game. To help you navigate, we have created an easy guide to active ingredients in skincare, covering what they are, why they are important and some examples that will work for your skin concern.
What are Active Ingredients?
Active ingredients are the “performance” ingredients in your skincare products, that have a specific purpose that actively targets particular skin concerns – such as dark pigmentation, acne, dehydration or wrinkles. They have been scientifically proven to make a physical change in the cellular structure change of skin, and give skincare product its effectiveness.
There are a ton of active ingredients out there and it is not uncommon for skincare products to include more than one. For example, a cleanser that is specific to acneic skin might have multiple active ingredients: one that exfoliates, one that is anti-inflammatory, one for oil control and one that is hydrating. We recommend gradually introducing one active ingredient at a time to see how it works and reacts with your skin.
“An active ingredient has been proven in a lab by research to change the skin in some way; it’s an ingredient that has data behind it,” Emily Newsom, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. (1)
Made up of 99.5% water + 20 amino acids, Aloe Vera has many roles in a skincare product. This active ingredient is a small molecule that easily penetrates skin to soothe, hydrate, prevent transepidermal water loss, and improve collagen production and skin elasticity.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
AHAs are water-soluble acids derived from natural sources like sugar cane and fruit, and used to treat many skin concerns, like hyperpigmentation, age spots, acne, dryness, fine lines and wrinkles. They work by exfoliating the top layers of dead skin cells and encouraging cell turnover. The most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Although safe for all skin types, those with sensitive skin or overly dry skin should introduce AHAs into your skincare routine slowly. Always do a patch test! Learn how to do a patch test.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
BHAs are oil-soluable, and being that skin is more oil-loving, BHAs can penetrate more deeply into skin than AHAs. The most common BHA is Salicylic acid, which is an effective acne treatment and also used for anti-aging. BHAs also work by breaking up dead skin cells from the surface to unclog debris.
L-Ascorbic Acid, or Vitamin C, is a highly researched ingredient commonly found naturally in many citrus fruits. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that is the gold standard of anti-aging ingredients, improving skin texture and tone, protects from environmental damage, boosting collagen, brightening complexion and immediate radiance. L-Ascorbic Acid is a highly unstable ingredient and oxidizes quickly, especially when exposed to light, so we recommend leaving your product in the fridge or on a dark shelf.
- Check for added Ferulic Acid, which lowers the ph of vitamin C
- Look for formulations with Vitamin E, which helps stabilize Vitamin C.
- Look for airtight containers and opaque packaging.
Vitamin E has multiple anti-aging powers. This oil-soluble antioxidant is deeply hydrating for skin and helps skin retain moisture. It also works to protect skin from premature aging and maintaining a healthy moisture barrier. Pairing with Vitamin C creates of the most powerful anti-aging combinations in skincare.
Vitamin E has proven antioxidant effects, enhances moisturization and strengthens the skin barrier. Vitamin E helps to counteract the appearance of inflammation linked to oxidative processes through downregulation of its mediators. As one of the most powerful oil-soluble antioxidants and free-radical scavengers available today, Vitamin E plays a crucial role in oxidative regeneration of skin exposed to stressors. (2)
How do you know what active ingredients to look for?
Your skin concerns will decide what skincare actives will work best for you.
Acne: Tea tree, Salicylic Acid, AHAs, Azelaic acid
Sensitivity: Aloe Vera, Vitamin E, Hyaluronic Acid
Inflammation: Azelaic acid, Aloe Vera, Seabuckthorn, Calendula
Rosacea: Aloe Vera, Chamomile, Resveratrol, Seabuckthorn
Hyperpigmentation: Antioxidants, Lactic Acid, Niacinamide, Azelaic acid
Loss of Elasticity/Firmness: DMAE, Peptides, AHAs, Retinol
Scarring: Azelaic acid, Lactic Acid
Hydration: Hyaluronic Acid, Squalene, Glycerin
Brightening – Vitamin C, Lactic Acid, Licorice Root
Collagen Production – Peptides, Aloe Vera, Retinol
Skin Protection – Vitamin E, Vitamin C
Skin Texture – Salicylic Acid, AHAs
Dullness/Exfoliation: Glycolic Acid, Vitamin C, Retinol, Ceramides
Physical Sunscreen: Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide
Active Ingredients on Labels
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all active ingredients be included on all cosmetic labels so make sure you read all skincare product labels to identify what ones are included.
(1) What Exactly Are ‘Actives’ in Skin-Care Products? Confused? You’re not alone. S. Jacoby. Self.
(3) Vitamin E in dermatology. M.A.Keen, I.Hassan. PubMed.