If you have even a passing interest in beauty, you’ll have heard the term ‘active ingredient’ used in relation to skincare. And, if your bathroom cabinet contains a hydrating hyaluronic acid serum, anti-acne BHA cleanser, or brightening Vitamin C moisturiser, you might be surprised to discover you're already using ‘actives’ in your regime.
In professional and over-the-counter products alike, active ingredients deliver bang for your skincare buck. But could you explain what actives are – or exactly what it is they do?
In this essential guide to active ingredients, we answer all these questions and more. We’ll start with the basics – “What is an active ingredient in skincare?” – before outlining some commonly used actives, tips for decoding skincare labels, and the reason ‘inactive’ ingredients shouldn't be discounted. Read on!
SO, WHAT IS AN ACTIVE INGREDIENT?
An active ingredient in skincare is an ingredient that helps a product target a particular skin concern – from acne to hyperpigmentation to fine lines and wrinkles. Scientifically proven to benefit the skin, active ingredients help a product perform its advertised function. They’re the ingredients you’ll find in your anti-ageing face creams, acne gels, and hydrating serums.
While included in a range of products, actives are especially common in targeted face serums. This is because a serum’s smaller molecular structure allows deeper penetration – which is ideal if you’re trying to target concerns in the skin.
Active skincare products are those containing one or more actives. Some common skincare actives include refining, resurfacing retinol, hydration-enhancing hyaluronic acid, and exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs).
Now, let’s look at these in detail.
ANTI-AGEING ACTIVE INGREDIENTS
While it’s easy to be sceptical about anti-ageing products, some dermatologist-recommended actives have been proven to accelerate skin renewal, reduce damage caused by free radicals, and smooth the appearance of fine lines.
Vitamin C is a gold-standard anti-ageing active, due largely to its superior antioxidant properties. Helping neutralise free radical damage caused by UV rays and environmental aggressors, it’s an ideal ingredient to add to a morning skincare routine. Try layering a Vitamin C serum under your sunscreen for added environmental protection.
Brightening skin and promoting collagen production, Vitamin C also helps improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles, while evening out skin tone, and imbuing skin with a radiant glow. Pure Vitamin C is the hero ingredient of La Roche-Posay’s Redermic Vitamin C 10 Anti Ageing Moisturiser, which has been shown to improve skin firmness, improve luminosity, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles after just one week.
Almost universally tolerated, hyaluronic acid is an active ingredient that’s ubiquitous in hydrating serums, moisturisers, and eye products. Able to hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, this hard-working humectant attracts moisture to the skin for plump, smooth, radiant looking results.
Powerful alone, hyaluronic acid’s hydrating benefits are even greater when paired with ingredients such as glycerin and Vitamin B5, found in La Roche-Posay's Hyalu B5 Hyaluronic Acid Serum. It also pairs well with more stimulating actives such as retinol as it helps to combat dryness.
Tip: Can’t see hyaluronic acid on your ingredients’ list? Look for sodium hyaluronate. This is the salt form of HA, with a lower molecular weight that enhances absorption.
Retinol is an active ingredient used in many anti-ageing formulas. A Vitamin A derivative, it helps to increase skin cell turnover and is prized for its ability to accelerate skin renewal. It’s included alongside barrier-boosting niacinamide in the La Roche Posay Retinol B3 Anti-Ageing Serum – a formula scientifically proven to reduce the appearance of wrinkles while promoting visibly smoother skin.
ANTI-ACNE ACTIVE INGREDIENTS
Helping to reduce the dead skin cell build-up that can contribute to breakouts, alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) are active ingredients that are often found in acne products.
For smooth, clear, radiant looking skin, many people swear by glycolic acid. The most easily absorbed AHA (due to its molecular size), glycolic acid exfoliates the surface of the skin without the need for scrubbing. As well as being a popular anti-acne active, it can help improve the appearance of wrinkles and signs of sun damage.
Renowned for its pore-purging properties, salicylic acid is a BHA that’s commonly used in anti-acne skincare, such as the La Roche Posay Effaclar Anti-Acne Salicylic Acid Serum. Like glycolic acid, it has a keratolytic (or peeling) action. However, unlike glycolic acid, salicylic acid is oil-soluble. This makes it ideal for oily skin types as it’s able to penetrate pores to help remove dirt, excess oil, and debris. It’s therefore the go-to active for tackling blackheads and breakouts.
A lesser-known exfoliating acid, beta-lipohydroxy acid (LHA) is a salicylic acid derivative that gently dislodges dead skin cells without irritating sensitive skin. It features alongside salicylic and glycolic acids in the Effaclar Salicylic Acid Serum.
SOOTHING ACTIVE INGREDIENTS
While active ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid are very stimulating, others help soothe the skin and strengthen its natural barrier function. These soothing actives are often beneficial for dry, sensitive skin prone to redness.
NIACINAMIDE (VITAMIN B3)
Niacinamide is a great all-rounder, helping to balance oil production and minimise the appearance of pores, as well as strengthen the skin barrier and decrease water loss. With anti-inflammatory properties, it’s also considered one of the best ingredients for soothing skin, especially when experiencing redness and irritation. Due to this versatility, niacinamide is included in various La Roche-Posay products for sensitive and acne-prone skin.
VITAMIN B5, or panthenol, is a hydrating ingredient found in the La Roche-Posay Cicaplast and Hyalu B5 ranges. Helping the skin attract and retain moisture, it has known soothing and anti-redness properties.
It’s therefore at the heart of our Cicaplast Baume B5 – a multi-repair balm designed to hydrate and soothe extra-dry, rough areas on the face and body. With 5% panthenol, the rich, nourishing cream can also be used to care for skin after minor aesthetic skin procedures such as laser or peels.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN SELECTING AN ACTIVE SKINCARE PRODUCT?
Not all skincare products will specify the percentage of the active or actives included in the formulas. Simply put, this is not required for cosmetic formulations in Australia. Even looking at the order the ingredients are listed in the ingredient list is not the answer either as certain actives only need to be in low concentrations to be effective, so our advice, check out the scientific test results for the formula. These will speak volumes in illustrating the results you can expect to see.
Also, the optimum percentage of an active ingredient depends on its intended purpose, its absorption, and how well it will be tolerated by the skin. Different percentages are used to achieve different results, for example, a mild micro-exfoliation versus an intensive skin peeling. And different forms of retinoids and Vitamin C are not absorbed in the same way by the skin.
This means a lower percentage of a readily absorbed, biologically active form of Vitamin C such as L-ascorbic acid might be preferable to a higher percentage of another Vitamin C derivative.
The pH and stability of a formula also come into play and for any active, there’s also a maximum concentration after which no further benefit will be gained. With Vitamin C, this is usually considered to be 20%. Exceeding this concentration has been shown to have the potential for irritation, with no greater result.
The takeaway? When it comes to active ingredient concentrations, more isn’t always more.
ARE INACTIVE INGREDIENTS A WASTE OF TIME?
So, if active ingredients are those that help a product to brighten, tighten and refine, are inactive ingredients just filler? Absolutely not! Not all skincare products need to be active to provide effective care for your skin.
Cleansers are a good example. A standard cleanser doesn’t need active ingredients to gently remove impurities and makeup. However, an anti-acne cleanser specifically designed to reduce breakouts will benefit from an active ingredient such as salicylic acid to target clogged pores. Make sense?
Many products will include a mix of active and inactive ingredients, and these inactive ingredients play an important supporting role.
A FINAL WORD ON ACTIVES
Active ingredients are loved for a reason. However, they do need to be treated with respect. The over-use or inappropriate use of actives like acids and retinol, particularly at high concentrations, is a common cause of sensitised skin. And the first thing you’ll need to do if skin becomes sensitised? Pare back your skincare routine and replace your active products with gentle, minimalist formulas until a calmer complexion is restored.
Want more? Our article How to Layer Serums and Ingredients provides a detailed guide to layering skincare, including the active ingredients that do and don’t mix.
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