What are Active Skincare Ingredients?
Learning the lingo is important when making conscious beauty buys. With skin care especially, there are so many sciency words to learn, but there’s one in particular that everyone should know: “active ingredients”. It’s a big buzzword you often hear — let’s unpack what it means. If you’ve ever read an article or product label and wondered, “what are active skincare ingredients?”, get ready for some light education. Don’t worry, we’ll keep the technical stuff simple.
What are active ingredients?
Just like the word implies, “active” refers to ingredients that are alive (biologically). They can be organic, like lemon extract and sea buckthorn, or chemical like a vitamin or acid. Think of this concept as you would with a probiotic supplement. Similar to how probiotics are living things that keep our gut healthy, active skincare ingredients are living particles that keep our skin healthy.
Why we need active ingredients
In skin care, active ingredients are more potent. They target specific skin concerns — unlike your “standard moisturizer” which provides an open-ended umbrella of skin solutions. Nevertheless, that standard moisturizer still has its place in your skin care routine. We’ll address that matter shortly. But first, let’s review the difference between two types of active skincare ingredients: synthetic and natural.
Synthetic vs natural active ingredients
We’ll begin by clearing up a common misunderstanding: natural actives aren’t “better” than synthetic ones. The reason we need synthetic actives in skin care is because in most cases, they're more powerful than their natural form.
It’s a similar idea with natural versus man-made dyes. Beet juice will leave a nice sangria colored stain, but the man-made version of that same purple-red hue will always stay brighter longer. It’s a similar logic behind why we should never assume natural actives are better than synthetic ones.
According to WebMD, “The hyaluronic acid that is used as medicine is extracted from rooster combs or made by bacteria in the laboratory.”
Why we need synthetic actives in skin care
There’s a special reason why a cosmetic chemist will use synthetic actives in skin care.
For example, one of the most common synthetic actives is ascorbic acid — a type of vitamin C. In its original form, it’s taken from sources such as citrus fruits, tomatoes and green vegetables. But the chemist who’s building a formula won’t always use those veggie or fruit extracts; maybe the recipe calls for ingredients that are much stronger. In this case, the chemist will take the most valuable, vitamin-rich particles from these natural sources.
Next, through the lab process, these extracts will be converted into synthetic active ingredients. Here’s a common example: hyaluronic acid is a substance that’s naturally present in the human body. According to WebMD, “The hyaluronic acid that is used as medicine is extracted from rooster combs or made by bacteria in the laboratory.” This process of converting organic material to synthetic active ingredients is a vital part of developing great formulas that actually work.
What about non-active ingredients?
Opposite from active ingredients, we have non-actives — think of them as a silent partner in any formula. They usually don’t have a strong impact on your skin, so their job is to help the active ingredients work safely. So essentially, non-actives have two main jobs: to dilute the active ingredients and to control their delivery.
Now, let’s revert back to our earlier talk about the importance of using a “standard moisturizer”. That’s where non-active ingredients shine best. When your focus is simply to protect and hydrate your skin, a formula with plenty of inactive ingredients is great as a delicate daily treatment. This approach is especially useful for people with sensitive or reactive skin who can’t handle intensive products with too many active ingredients.
Active ingredients in skin care
Skincare products with the highest concentrations of active ingredients are spot treatments, serums and masks. Although there are a few exceptions, normally these three product categories deliver a more robust dose of actives to your skin.
Whether you’re looking to build a new skincare routine or replace your go-to product, you should learn about which active ingredients are best for your long-term treatment.
Best active ingredients in skin care
All active ingredients play a role in treating your skin. While some are more focused on lightening and brightening, others might be better suited for fading fine lines.
Yet, keep in mind, there will often be an overlap of benefits between different actives. For this reason, you’ll need to learn about which active ingredients are best for your individual needs. To help you along, we compiled a list of the best active ingredients in anti-aging skin care.
This chemical is the closest we can get to Botox without actually taking the plunge (with the exceptions of lasers). Retinol is a synthetic type of vitamin A, and is among the best active ingredients for improving skin tone, texture and firmness.
“It works to increase the speed of cell renewal in the epidermis, which causes the skin to produce newer and healthier cells,” says LA-based dermatologist Dr. Jason Emer. As the younger skin cells surface, you’ll notice a brighter complexion, faded age spots and a softer texture.
Great for acne, salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant. It helps dissolve dead skin particles to purify your pores and prevent breakouts. You’ll usually find it as the key ingredient in your standard spot treatment — often in combination with benzoyl peroxide, the bacteria-eating ingredient.
Although some skin types can handle using salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide together, never apply them with a retinol product. This combo is way too harsh on the skin and you’ll risk chemical burns.
Ever heard of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)? Well glycolic acid is a type of AHA made from sugar cane. It’s a common active ingredient in skincare products designed to lighten skin and reduce pigmentation (dark spots). Simply put, it combines the rejuvenating powers of retinol with the illuminating qualities of vitamin C.
Somewhat newer on the scene, this protein is one of the most unique active ingredients in anti-aging skin care. It’s extracted from the agave plant, which is bio identical to the human placenta — but it’s 100% plant-based.
Just like the human placenta, this vegan version is densely packed with nutrients to nourish living cells. According to the National Enquirer, “Simon [as in Simon Cowell] loves it because it does the trick without him having to go under the knife." Other fresh-faced celebs like Madonna and Eva Longoria have reported using placental based products like the Instant Live Mask in their skin care routine.
Hands down — vitamin C tops our list of best active ingredients in skin care. It comes in many forms, most commonly ascorbic acid. While vitamin C can help protect your skin against the aging effects of UV radiation and pigmentation, it’s also known to brighten your complexion.
When vitamin C is formulated with other active ingredients in a strategic way, you get a process called synergy. It’s when chemical actives become more powerful when combined, exceeding the powers of their individual effects. When looking for a vitamin C serum, do your research to ensure the formula is backed by synergy science.
No matter which active skincare ingredients you’re using, talk to your dermatologist before trying a new routine. It’s always helpful to have a trained professional scan the ingredient list to confirm it’s a match for your skin type. And finally, understand that your dermatologist might recommend other actives which could work better for your individual treatment plan.
If you have questions about active ingredients or anti-aging skincare, write your inquiry in the comment section below.
About The Author: Rachel Esco is an educator and consultant in advanced cosmetics who empowers consumers to make informed choices about skin care. With a profound interest in beauty and biochemistry, her articles explore the latest breakthroughs in epigenetics and anti-aging technologies. Rachel is also a passionate advocate for the Beauty Conscious Movement, promoting the use of environmentally safe materials to create a zero waste culture.