Scanning the ingredient list of your favourite skincare products can be an intimidating process — decoding chemical names and percentages isn't exactly easy. But amidst all the text, there is one key signifier as to whether a product will help your skin: which skincare actives it contains.
Skincare products are made up of both active and base ingredients — base ingredients can assist the work active ingredients do and support the stabilisation of the formula so you can get the most out of the active ingredients. 'Actives' are the agents that are activated to target various skin issues after application. Vitamins A, B, C, AHAs, and BHAs are the most common ones that appear in a variety of popular skincare products.
These are the most common types of topical actives you'll come across that address specific skin issues:
- Signs of aging: SPF-boosting ingredients (e.g. zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, oxybenzone), vitamin A/retinoids, vitamin C, vitamin E.
- Dryness: hyaluronic acid, vitamin E.
- Pigmentation issues: kojic acid, AHAs, BHA, hydroquinone, vitamin C.
- Acne: vitamin A/retinoids, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid.
- Rosacea: various antibiotics, azelaic acid, sulfur.
- Psoriasis: steroids, vitamin A/retinoids, vitamin D, salicylic acid, lactic acid.
AHAs are primarily used to exfoliate your skin. Exfoliation refers to a process where the skin cells on the surface shed off. This helps remove dead skin cells but also makes way for new skin cell generation.
As you age, your natural skin cell cycle slows down, which can make dead skin cells build up. When you have too many dead skin cells, they can accumulate and make your complexion look dull.
Out of all the AHAs available, glycolic and lactic acids are the most promising and well researched. These two AHAs are also less likely to cause irritation.
As a vitamin A derivative and over-the-counter options, retinol can safely treat skin conditions like acne, uneven skin tone and texture, photo damage (like hyperpigmentation), fine lines and wrinkles.
When trying a Vitamin A product, try a product with the lowest possible concentration of retinol (0.025 percent) or an encapsulated retinol which are generally more tolerable for the skin. For extra caution, you can apply a layer of moisturiser before your Vitamin A product; this provides a barrier between the ingredients and the skin without reducing the retinoids’ strength, and helps the product sink in slowly, decreasing the chance of irritation occurring.
Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B3. It is an active ingredient in many skincare products because of its ability to improve the appearance of the skin. This active works to strengthen skin by boosting keratin production - keeping skin firm and bouncy - which can help improve acne and eczema conditions due to its anti-inflammatory properties; it can also improve hyperpigmentation and protect against environmental stressors.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient required for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, including the skin, but we cannot produce it on our own and hence apply it topically.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, helping your skin to fight free radical damage from sunlight and pollution. Vitamin C also helps to boost collagen production, keeping skin firmer and healthier. On top of that, it works on the melanin production pathway in the skin, meaning vitamin C can help to give you a more even skin tone with less pigmentation.
How many active ingredients should you use at once?
Products that are formulated with multiple active ingredients are usually formulated to be tolerated well by the skin. However, it’s possible to overdo it by combining too many single active products at a time. Doing so can actually be counterintuitive as using multiple actives at the same time can cancel out their benefits and potentially cause irritation.
A good rule is a maximum of two products with active ingredients at a time, so four products with active ingredients a day.