If you’ve spoken to a dermatologist, an esthetician, or possibly even a friend devoted to all things skin-care-related, you may have heard the term “active ingredient” in passing. But really, what is an active ingredient in skincare?
Active ingredients are the ingredients in your skincare regimen that aim to accomplish the result listed on the skincare product. Take your beloved exfoliating skin care mask, for example—the ingredients (like AHAs) that are responsible for removing your old skin cells are considered to be the active ingredients in the mask.
However, one look at the mask’s ingredient list and you might realize how challenging it can be to pronounce each item, let alone know which ones are active or inactive ingredients.
Grab your favorite skin care products, because we’re about to define active ingredients and review some of the common ones you might notice on your own ingredient labels.
Active Skincare Ingredients 101
Picture this: You’re on the lookout for a moisturizing skincare product, such as our Hydrating Refresh Mask, that will offer your dry skin an extra dose of hydration. While carefully scanning the skin care aisle, you find a product that fits the bill, but you’re not sure which of the ingredients on the product label are responsible for giving your skin the moisture it craves.
That’s where the active ingredients come in. They’re the chemical compounds on the ingredient label that do the heavy lifting (aka the ingredients that work to achieve the results listed on the product) —in this case, hydration.
Each active ingredient contains specific chemical properties that have the potential to provide your skin with certain benefits, such as:
- Providing extra protection against the sun
- Offering anti-aging benefits
- Exfoliating the skin
- Reducing inflammation
- Combating dryness
- Treating rosacea
- Lightening hyperpigmentation (dark spots)
When you’re looking at the ingredient label, you’ll likely find that there aren’t separate sections for active ingredients versus inactive ingredients (the elements that help your body break down the active ingredients so they work properly). Rather, each ingredient is listed starting with the one with the highest concentration, followed by the second highest, and so on.
What is an Inactive Ingredient?
Inactive ingredients, as you may have already guessed, are the opposite of active ingredients. This means that they do not specifically target a skincare concern, rather they’re used to break down the active ingredients so they work properly. They can also be used to preserve a skincare product or make it look, feel, or smell a certain way.
Used together these ingredients can provide a more well-rounded and effective skincare routine. On one hand, the active ingredients target specific concerns, while on the other hand, the inactive ingredients help to address more general skin needs. This partnership can help to create a more balanced and healthy complexion.
4 Common Active Ingredients in Skin Care
What are the active ingredients in skin care? Well, there are actually hundreds of active ingredients used in all types of skincare products. From cleansers and toners to moisturizers and masks, each product is tasked with the objective of providing your skin with a specific result.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of four actives that are commonly used in skin care products (although there are certainly many more).
1. Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (AHA)
AHAs are water-soluble acids that are derived from fruits, such as:
- A variety of citrus fruits
They’re used in many skin care products for their exfoliating capabilities. AHAs can help remove the outer layer of dead skin, revealing new skin cells that make your skin feel smoother and more even.
AHAs are an ideal active ingredient in skin care products that intend to improve:
- Dark spots
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- An uneven complexion
2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a fan favorite amongst dermatologists for its potential to provide a myriad of benefits to your skin, including:
- Slowing down the effects of aging (like fine lines and wrinkles)
- Preventing sun damage
- Improving acne
- Reducing dark spots
Vitamin C is an antioxidant derived from citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, raspberries, and other forms of fresh produce. When used as a topical, it may help fight off free radicals like pollution and UV rays.
Free radicals can cause damage to your skin cells in the form of lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation (among other noticeable physical changes). However, with the help of the active ingredient, vitamin C, you may be able to protect your skin against free radicals and improve its overall quality in the process.
It might sound like a mouthful, but that’s only because it's full of potential benefits for your skin.
Simply put, niacinamide is a form of the B-3 vitamin. When used topically, it may help build keratin (a protein) in your skin so that it retains its firm and youthful appearance. It may also keep free radicals at bay by providing your skin with additional moisture.
Recent studies also show that niacinamide may provide your skin with the following benefits:
- Reducing inflammation (like redness and blotches)
- Minimizing the appearance of your pores
- Protecting them against sun exposure
- Lightening dark spots
- Treating severe forms of acne
4. Hyaluronic Acid (HA)
Believe it or not, hyaluronic acid is actually a gooey substance found naturally in your body, especially in your joints, skin, and eyes—yes, your eyes.
But—what’s its purpose?
It keeps your joints and eyes lubricated, and hydrated and maintains your skin’s elasticity.
When used in a serum or cream, it acts as a humectant, the fancy term for a substance that creates a barrier on your skin to hold in moisture. In fact, hyaluronic acid holds up to 1000 times its weight in water on your skin’s surface.
With the ability to keep that much moisture on your skin, it’s easy to see why HA has become the gold standard active ingredient in many of today’s popular moisturizers.
Its magical moisturizing powers may also be able to:
- Increase your skin’s elasticity
- Combat oncoming wrinkles
- Treat redness and eczema
Can You Use Too Many Actives?
Since most actives are good for your skin it can be tempting to simply load up on all of them hoping for a better, faster result. However, using all the actives all the time can cause your skin barrier to take a big hit, thus damaging your skin. It’s important to not overcomplicate your skincare routine.
Rather, find a few actives that work for your skin and give you the results you’re looking for. And if they’re more potent (like an AHA or a retinol) we’d recommend skin cycling to ensure you don’t fatigue your skin barrier.
Enjoy All-Natural Active Ingredients with HPPY
What’s better than actives that can help you achieve happy, healthy skin? How about active ingredients you can easily pronounce on the first try—that also make your skin want to perform an elated victory dance?
At HPPY, we’ve created the ultimate natural face masks using active ingredients made from fresh ingredients like squalane oil and spirulina to add to your natural skincare routine.
- Today. Dermatologists share how to use active ingredients to target skin concerns. https://www.today.com/shop/what-are-active-ingredients-t241864
- Self. What Exactly Are 'Actives' in Skin-Care Products?https://www.self.com/story/what-are-actives-in-skin-care
- WD. Skin Care Basics: Active Ingredients vs. Inactive Ingredients. https://www.westlakedermatology.com/blog/active-ingredients-vs-inactive-ingredients/
- Aquila Style. Papaya & Pineapple AHA Face Mask Recipe. https://aquila-style.com/papaya-pineapple-aha-face-mask-recipe/
- Healthline. AHA vs. BHA: What’s the Difference? https://www.healthline.com/health/aha-vs-bha#key-differences
- Harvard. Why is topical vitamin C important for skin health? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-is-topical-vitamin-c-important-for-skin-health-202111102635
- Harvard. Vitamin C. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-c/
- Healthline. Red Raspberries: Nutrition Facts, Benefits and More. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/raspberry-nutrition
- Healthline. Everything You Should Know About Niacinamide. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/niacinamide#benefits
- Cleveland Clinic. Hyaluronic Acid. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22915-hyaluronic-acid
- Healthline. Why Science Says Hyaluronic Acid Is the Holy Grail to Wrinkle-Free, Youthful Hydration. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/hyaluronic-acid#benefits