Active Ingredients

Active Ingredients in Skincare

Skincare is no longer ‘Cleanse, tone and Moisturize’. It’s now all about active skincare ingredients.

If you want to be ‘in with the cool kids’ then you need to know what ‘actives’ are and how to use them in your skincare routine.

What are skin care active ingredients?

An ‘active’ is an ingredient in a product that targets a ‘concern’ or issue.

You definitely want actives ingredients in your skincare products.

To be considered active an ingredient has to be able to penetrate the skin to hydrate, repair, rejuvenate or form a protective barrier on the skin.

Most skincare products contain ‘non-active’ ingredients such as water, emulsifiers and fragrance.

The non-active ingredients are put into the products to bulk them out, stabilise them, and make the product ‘cosmetically elegant’.

When a product claims to ‘treat acne’, for example, it means it contains an ingredient like benzoyl peroxide that is proven to treat acne.

Another example is  Alpha Hydroxy Acids aka AHA’s these exfoliate your skin. Good exfoliation improves skin tone and texture. These are added to cleansers, toners and masks to loosen dead skin cells and buff your skin smoother. Think of these as gentle liquid exfoliators.

Vitamin C is not just found in your morning OJ but also added to skincare products.

It is a potent antioxidant, brightens skin, reduces pigmentation and makes your sunscreen more potent when you put it underneath it.

But it is notoriously unstable, and that is a problem it makes some vitamin C very irritating to the skin.

Just because a product tells you it contains vitamin C that doesn’t mean that vitamin C is active.

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic has patents and science behind its production. It is beloved by dermatologists, beauty editors and skincare nerds the world over.

The price tag seems outrageous but due to its potency you use a tiny amount and it should last you 6 – 9 months.

SkinCeuticals have found a way to stabilise the active form of Vitamin C L Ascorbic Acid. This can be irritating to your skin so go with caution if you are not used to using powerful antioxidants.

I love this product and have yet to find a dupe that delivers as well as C E Ferulic.  For this reason, I highly recommend it. It comes in number 2 on my top 5 skincare products.

Retinol is another ‘active’ ingredient and it a master at lightening hyperpigmentation and boosting cell turnover.

Retinol can be irritating to the skin so start slowly and consider using a retinoid.

Hyaluronic Acid is used to moisturise the skin. We make hyaluronic acid in our skin but sadly it’s production slows down as we age.

Just because a product contains hyaluronic acid doesn’t mean you will gain its benefits.

You need a product that doesn’t contain ‘micronized hyaluronic acid’, it won’t pass through the skin barrier to where you need it.

The Ordinary hyaluronic acid 2 b5 – is one of the best on the market and ridiculously affordable.

What other ingredients are considered ‘actives’?

Niacinamide is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It’s great for the treatment of acne, rosacea and hyperpigmentation.

One of the keys to healthy skin is having a healthy skin barrier.

Ceramides are an oily wax that is found naturally in your skin. when you have enough of them they form a barrier keeping the bad stuff out, like pollution and bacteria and keep the good stuff in like water and hyaluronic acid.

According to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski ‘, They’re not only critical for helping skin retain waster but they also help repair the skin’s natural barrier and regulate cells”.

Ceramide production lessens with age so having ceramides in your moisturizer helps your skin form more of its own ceramides on its own.

Peptides are an amino acid that is found naturally in the skin. They help regulate hormonal activity in the skin and stimulate wound healing.

There is scientific evidence that peptides relax wrinkles and increase collagen production.

When it comes to actives in your skincare, you might find the same active ingredient in a drug store product, a mid-range option a luxury product and a prescription-only cream.

Retinol is a great example of this: You can buy low-cost retinol from:

The Inkey List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum for under $10.

Mid-range OleHenriksen Goodnight Glow for around $58.

Mid/luxury range  Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum fo $89.

Luxury range Alpha-H Beauty Sleep Power Peel for around $100.

Then there is tretinoin, Retin A which is a prescription-only topical cream.

These products all contain the ‘active’ ingredient retinol in differing strengths and formulations. They each have there raving fans and 5-star reviews.

How you choose which active ingredients you need and how you will use them is based on three things.

  1. What is your skin concern/s
  2. What is your desired come/s
  3. What is your budget

For example, if your skin concern is hyperpigmentation and your desired outcome is lightening dark spots and preventing fine lines and you have a budget of $20.

Then you would be best to go for the Inkey List retinol.

This is because retinol has proven science behind its ability to treat hyperpigmentation, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, among many other things and it comes in well under $20.

So why would you buy one of the more expensive brands?


Well, marketing and brand loyalty plays a big role in why as consumers we buy more expensive brands.

Some brands do have better science and patents behind their products like the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, but The Ordinary also has great science backing the making of their products.

When it comes to buying actives, get educated on what it is you want to address with your skin, read the labels on products and start with the most affordable one.

If you don’t like The Inkey List or The Ordinary then give it to your friend and try another product.

I would never recommend buying the most expensive product thinking price will dictate performance.

This is very often not the case.

The Bottom Line.

With active ingredients, it’s the chemical formulation that will dictate how the product works and as a consumer reading labels and researching ingredients can save you a lot of money and irritated skin.