What are Active Ingredients in Skincare?

What are Active Ingredients in Skincare?

As a consumer, you are inundated with hundreds of skincare products every time you go to the store. To add to this, most skincare brands will put certain phrases like hydrating, clarifying, or anti-aging on their labels to grab your attention and stand out in the sea of products you are faced with. With such simple labeling, it should be easy to find a product that will address your skin concerns. Unfortunately, that is often times not the case and you may end up choosing to purchase a product that claims to produce a specific result and end up with lackluster results if any at all. So it is no surprise that most of the women we talk to find themselves confused and overwhelmed when looking for premium skincare


One way to combat this misinformation is to develop a deeper understanding of the ingredients in skincare, how they are delineated, and the government regulations that are applicable. In doing so, you become a more informed consumer that is better equipped to cut through the noise of marketing tactics to find the products that will be effective in achieving your skin care goals. 


If you have ever looked at one of the labels on your skincare or cosmetic products, you have probably noticed that the ingredients list is sometimes divided into two categories: active and inactive. This can seem counterintuitive so if you find yourself wondering why any company would waste their time and money on ingredients that don’t actually do anything, you are not alone. In reality, inactive ingredients are typically the delivery method for other elements of the product formula [1]. Usually, these ingredients are water or oil-based. 


So, what are active ingredients in skincare? These are the elements of a product that generally are designed to deliver the benefits that are advertised on its label. Although inactive ingredients listed on the label may provide certain benefits, you can usually expect that active ingredients will do what they say they will. Every single product, including natural formulas, utilize active ingredients although their strengths will vary depending on the type of product you are using. In essence, active ingredients are what make a skincare product effective. And the Food & Drug Administration (FDA requires that these active ingredients be specifically called out on the packaging of a skincare product that would be considered as a drug since the active ingredients are drug ingredients [2]. In addition, the FDA also requires that ingredients be listed in order of prominence within the formula. This is especially helpful when you are looking for specific ingredients whether to use or avoid them. 


Active Ingredients in Cosmetics


We recently sat down with Kate Somerville Skin Expert and celebrity esthetician, Kelly Viavattine, to get her take on some of the most notable and effective active ingredients in skincare. She has helped hundreds of clients reach their skincare goals by utilizing powerful ingredients to address specific concerns. Here she has shared some of her favorites. 


Note: Not all active ingredients need to be specifically identified on packaging labels because not all active ingredients are considered drug ingredients. This is why it is important to read all of the ingredients on the packaging labels so that you can find what you are looking for.


Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

The AHA family of acids are derived from natural sources such as fruit, milk or sugar [3]. Generally speaking, the benefits of AHAs on the skin include exfoliation, brightening, smoothing, anti-aging, and acne prevention. Two of the most commonly used AHAs in skincare, however, are glycolic acid that is derived from sugar and lactic acid which is made from milk. The former is unique in that the molecules of glycolic acid are smaller than those found in other AHAs which allows it to penetrate deeper into the skin providing its benefits more effectively and to more layers of the skin [4]. Lactic acid, on the other hand, offers the same benefits of other AHAs but as a non-friction exfoliant that breaks down and dissolves dead skin cells without causing skin irritation, it is suitable for use on sensitive skin. 

Vitamin C

As an antioxidant, vitamin C is a key ingredient to keep your skin looking bright and youthful. First, it helps protect against harmful free radicals by neutralizing them which, in turn, helps to decrease the visible signs of aging on your face [5] such as fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots from sun damage, and loss of moisture. But the most notable and popularized benefit of vitamin C is its ability to brighten your face and diminish any discoloration. Its antioxidant properties work to even your skin leaving you with a radiant glow. However, vitamin C is a temperamental ingredient and difficult to stabilize for extended shelf life so looking for a product that also includes vitamin E or ascorbic acid can help increase its longevity. Learn more about the benefits of vitamin C and start including this powerful antioxidant in your daily skincare routine. 


Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is a powerful ingredient that has garnered a lot of attention over the past few years thanks to its intense moisturizing properties and anti-aging capabilities [6]. As a naturally occurring sugar found in the body, it is a major component of the skin’s structure. But as we age, naturally produced levels [7] of hyaluronic acid begin to decrease which contributes to a loss of skin tone and volume. But topical application helps to counteract the visible effects of lost hyaluronic acid. First, its capacity to retain water and help regulate your skin’s moisture levels keeps your skin balanced and hydrated. Secondly, hyaluronic acid works to improve skin resilience [8].Together, these two functions combine to restore volume and fullness to the skin reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Considering adding hyaluronic acid to your regimen? Check out our blog article to learn about hyaluronic acid benefits!


Within the family of retinoids, retinol is a man-made derivative of vitamin A and when placed on the surface of the skin, it is converted into retinoic acid. It is a key ingredient in many skincare products because of the significant benefits it has on skin including minimizing the appearance of skin damage caused by free-radicals and minimizing the visible signs of aging. Retinol helps to combat the natural loss of facial fullness [9] by increasing the skin’s ability to retain moisture. And by increasing your skin’s hydration it will appear fuller and smoother. With consistent and extended use, retinol can even help to soften age spots and even your skin tone as it sloughs away layers of dead skin and unclogs pores. Learn more about retinol and its benefits.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a part of the beta hydroxy acid (BHA) family and a popular ingredient in many over-the-counter acne products and treatments. It is primarily used to treat non-inflamed breakouts and blackheads by breaking up dead skin cells and removing them from the surface of the skin. It also helps to reduce the presence of excess oil on your skin and can penetrate deeper into the pores to clear it of any otherwise clogging debris. Though it is naturally occurring in white willow bark and wintergreen, most of the salicylic acid used today is synthetic. Check out our salicylic acid benefits article to learn more. 


A critical part of the skin’s natural barrier which helps to protect against a variety of environmental stressors while retaining moisture [10], ceramides are lipids naturally found in your skin. If there is an imbalance in the ceramide ratio of your skin, its protective barrier will become compromised and ineffective leading to dryness, itching, and inflammation. Unfortunately, your natural levels of ceramides can be easily decreased when exposed to hot water, soaps, certain chemicals, and other environmental factors. So utilizing products which feature ceramides can help to rebuild this barrier and prevent further damage. 


Niacinamide is a derivative of vitamin B3 and is very effective at soothing irritated skin. Thanks to its soothing and antioxidant properties, applying niacinamide to your skin can help minimize the redness and irritation associated with certain skin conditions. It also boosts your skin’s ability to retain moisture while increasing the effectiveness of ceramides [11] and rebuilding the skin’s natural protective barrier. 

Vitamin E

Found naturally on human skin, vitamin E levels are often depleted due to sun exposure and other environmental irritants. However, it has antioxidant properties that can help protect against and limit the damage of harmful free radicals [12]. It can also be used to stabilize otherwise volatile or temperamental ingredients such as vitamin C. 

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is an extremely effective ingredient for treating acne as it kills bacteria within your pores. Due to the fact that bacteria cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment, it is reduced when benzoyl peroxide introduces oxygen to the pores [13]. Fewer bacteria (and clearer pores) means fewer breakouts. However, benzoyl peroxide can wreak havoc on the balance of your skin and result in over-drying. 


Another effective ingredient for acne treatment is sulfur. Sulfur works by drying out the top layer of skin and easily peeling it away from the surface of your face [14]. Doing so helps to keep pores unclogged and promotes the growth of new layers of skin. It also has antibacterial properties which can help combat lingering bacteria on the skin. 

Choosing the Right Ingredients

Despite how many ingredients are described above, this list only scratches the surface of what is available across the skincare industry. So, it is important to be careful when selecting the products and ingredients you use as each one has different uses and side effects. Start by identifying your skin type. This will help you determine the most appropriate and effective ingredients for your skin and goals. As you begin to select and introduce new ingredients to your skin, you will want to do so slowly and individually so you can monitor your skin’s reaction for adverse effects.

While you may respond well to two ingredients separately, layering them on your skin essentially combines the ingredients which could produce undesirable side effects. 

The strength and type of product you are using will also impact your skin’s ability to withstand an ingredient’s application. Many active ingredients come in both prescription and over-the-counter strengths, but don’t let this fool you into thinking the products you have access to without a doctor’s prescription can’t cause a reaction. In fact, over-the-counter products can vary widely in their strengths as well with ranges between 1% and 12% or more depending on the ingredient. Fortunately, the FDA requires active ingredients designated as drug ingredients to be explicitly listed separately on product packaging and these labels are sometimes required to include the strength of these ingredients.


With that said, read your labels carefully if you want to find the right skincare products for your skin! 


  1. https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/are-those-inactive-ingredients-in-my-medicine-really-inactive/
  2. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/labeling/regulations/ucm126438.htm#Declaration
  3. https://cosmeticsinfo.org/alpha-hydroxy-acids
  4. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Glycolic-acid
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579659/ 
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583892/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583886/
  8. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1524-4725.2008.34176.x
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/ 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12553851
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17147561
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7633944
  13. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Benzoyl-peroxide
  14. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/sulfur-for-acne

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