Who Really Uses Active Ingredients in Skincare?
Ah, active ingredients - we all think we know what they are, but do we really? After all, truly understanding what active ingredients are on skincare labels would take up the better part of an afternoon, between trying to pronounce them and actually learning what they do - and who has time for that in 2021? Not I, for one.
But active ingredients don’t *have* to be confusing, you know; in fact, you can hack the system with just a short read and you’ll already be on your way to not only using them properly but speaking their language well enough to find the right one for you. Let’s take a stroll down the cosmetics aisle together and cover the basics: pen and notepad ready, please.
What are active ingredients?
In short, active ingredients are the components in your skincare product that make them actually, well, work (1). Depending on the skin issue you’re trying to resolve, there’s probably an active ingredient out there that can help. But how do you know which one works and which will be a flop? That, my friends, is where our list comes in handy.
Before we dive in though, let’s pause and discuss the pitfalls you may face on this journey: you’ve heard the term “too much of a good thing”, correct? Well, let’s just go ahead and apply that here. You can absolutely overdo it on active ingredients, which is why it’s even more important to understand them before trying any out. Overusing the wrong one can send your already ailing skin into a tailspin, and who wants that? You already know where I stand.
And what’s more, you have to consider the difference between prescription strength and over-the-counter. Those already familiar with skincare (and even those who aren’t) understand that prescription strength is the toughest defense against skin issues like dryness, inflammation, or acne.
Over the counter, or OTC, on the other hand, will hold less strength, but can be more beginner-friendly, plus they won’t bust your budget as much as getting a prescription. In this article, we’ll cover the most common active ingredients you’ll find so you can decide which of the two options is best for you to start with (our advice: start slow and go from there.)
Common active ingredients
The good thing about active ingredients? If they’re on the label, they’ve already been tested & approved for their intended purpose. With the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) involved, they require anything that’s been labeled as “active” to be scientifically backed, and we love to see it!
Here’s a few common active ingredients spotted in the wild:
Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
Dealing with wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, or age spots? AHA’s have quickly become a fan favorite of those seeking age-defying effects from their skincare. There are various forms of AHA’s, including glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids, which all help minimize pores and reduce the most common signs of aging.
Be wary, though - overdoing it with these, even if you’re using over-the-counter options, can cause irritation and sun sensitivity. Always apply a good SPF sunscreen after application if you plan on being in the sun.
Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid)
Acne’s power over your complexion weakens at the first sign of this powerful active ingredient. Salicylic acid works by getting deep into your hair follicles and fighting acne at its source, while also improving skin texture by removing dead skin. If you have sensitive skin, this is a great option over potentially irritating AHAs - it’s considered its more gentle cousin and is available in both OTC and prescription forms.
Retinol is another popular pick for those looking to combat acne and achieve a more youthful appearance. Derived from Vitamin A, retinol works by penetrating deep into the layers of skin and working in tandem with your naturally occurring collagen and elastin.
There’s also tretinoin, which is a stronger version of retinol, but it’s not for everyone - those with sensitive skin should be wary of it due to its strength. However, if you’re able to stand it, retinol is a great way to boost your skin’s hydration levels, improve color and texture, and fight against aging & acne.
Vitamin C is an important part of a healthy skincare ritual, but don’t be fooled by deceptive packaging: if it’s not L-ascorbic acid, you probably don’t want it. Why? Science suggests that while Vitamin C is often boasted as a must-have skincare ingredient, L-ascorbic acid is the only form that can actually do the heavy lifting for you. It stimulates collagen growth, minimizes scars and signs of aging, and creates a brighter, more even complexion.
However, be warned: Vitamin C often creates some irritation and redness upon initial application, but you can expect it to go away as you continue to use it (and if it doesn’t, stop use and consult your doctor.)
I’m sure some of you were wondering when this wunderkind would show up. You know how celebs are: always fashionably late. Although it’s way down our list, don’t mistake that fact for its unimportance - hyaluronic acid is considered by many to be a key ingredient to the healthy, happy skin of your dreams.
Naturally occurring in our bodies, hyaluronic acid is abundant in the skin when we’re young. Like most things we take for granted, though, it begins to dissipate as we age, leading to wrinkles & lackluster skin. By reintroducing this cushiony lubricant to its natural habitat, you can recreate the skin of yesteryear and improve overall hydration and firmness. We’re not here to pick favorites, but… Go ahead and put a star next to this one.
Last but certainly not least on our list, copper peptide. It may not get the same recognition as its buddy hyaluronic acid, but it sure accomplishes a lot of the same things with just a smidge less fanfare.
Also containing the ability to regenerate long-lost tissue, copper peptide is considered a speedier option for creating firmer, smoother skin. It’s also been found to remove damaged collagen and elastin by working with your naturally occurring system that creates both. While we were unable to find too many side effects to warn you about (not complaining), you should still be cautious when starting out. You’ll want to ensure your skin loves it as much as science appears to.
Well, there you have it, folks! A quick guide to active ingredients, with a few suggestions on where to start. Peruse the list whenever a new skin issue arises, and start sampling products to see which one works best for you. If you’re still not sure where to start, or if you need some guidance on choosing one that’ll work well with your already sensitive skin, consider booking a doctor’s appointment before you shop. They’ll be able to either prescribe you a product or help you choose an OTC option, to begin with.
Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get active!
Written by Adrianne Neal