If you’ve ever glanced at the ingredient list of a skincare product, you may have noticed two parts: “ingredients” and “active ingredients.” In most cases, the regular ingredients list is much longer than the active ingredients list. Plus — unlike the active ingredients list — it may be full of names you may not recognize.
If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between active and non-active ingredients, Nourishing Biologicals will break everything down for you. Read on to discover some of the most common active ingredients, what they do, and which ones are most common in skincare products.
What Are “Active” Ingredients?
When you look at the back of a skincare product’s packaging, you’ll usually see a list of active ingredients. Active ingredients in sunblock may often include zinc oxide or iron oxide.
For example, the active ingredients listed on a sunblock should help protect you from the sun.
The active ingredients on a label are not simply what a manufacturer claims. Instead, they are ingredients with a large evidence base to back them up.
Usually, an active ingredient has been shown by clinical trials to change the function or appearance of the skin in a significant way. Like medicine, these products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that manufacturers have plenty of data to support the ingredient’s effectiveness.
The other ingredients on the label won’t necessarily accomplish that purpose, but they might be just as crucial for the formulation of that product. For example, shea butter found in sunblock may be easy to apply to the skin while providing intense moisture.
It might seem like inactive ingredients aren’t as “strong” as active ones. However, some inactive ingredients can irritate the skin and should be considered just as much as active ingredients.
What Do Active Ingredients Address?
Every skincare concern has a variety of active ingredients that aim to address it. Below, we’ve rounded up common skincare concerns, in addition to what active ingredients skin experts recommend you use to help treat them:
- Dryness: Hyaluronic acid
- Hyperpigmentation: Vitamin C
- Fine lines and Wrinkles: Retinol
- Dullness: Glycolic acid
Common Active Ingredients in Skincare
There are hundreds of active skincare ingredients – some you might repeatedly see — and for a good reason. These ingredients have been shown to produce clinically significant results for the skin concerns they aim to address.
Check out these common active ingredients in skincare that can help benefit your skin.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that is considered the golden standard in anti-aging products. People swear by retinol for keeping wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin at bay. Various studies demonstrate that just several months of retinol use can help boost collagen production and improve visible signs of aging.
And that’s not all. Retinol can also be used to improve acne breakouts, hyperpigmentation, stretch marks, and loss of firmness. Not surprisingly, you can find retinol in anything from face serums to eye creams to body lotions.
Of course, something to keep in mind is that retinol can be incredibly irritating — especially if you’re just beginning your skincare regimen. In general, you should begin with the lowest concentration of retinol, which is 0.01%.
As your tolerance to the ingredient builds up, you can start to increase the concentration for better results.
As impressive as retinol is, there’s no denying that it can be a bit too harsh for some people — especially those with sensitive skin. Luckily, a plant-based alternative, known as bakuchiol, can be used instead.
Bakuchiol is derived from the leaves of the Psoralea corylifolia plant — which is native to India and Sri Lanka. This plant derivative has little to no resemblance to retinol. However, the results it produces are virtually the same.
According to one clinical trial, participants who used bakuchiol for three months helped improve fine lines, wrinkles, uneven pigmentation, firmness, and elasticity. In addition, the participants in the study did not experience any of the negative side effects that may come with using retinol.
This might also be good news for those planning to spend the day out in the sun. Using harsh ingredients like retinol and getting UV exposure may increase sun damage. However, increased sun sensitivity has not been observed with bakuchiol.
3. Hyaluronic Acid
Our body naturally produces hyaluronic acid, making it a perfect moisturizer for increasing our skin’s hydration. Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan found in the dermis. It is also a sugar molecule, which means that it attracts water.
When applied to the skin, it can “pull in” water from the air around you, taking skin from dull and dry to plump and dewy.
To reap its full benefits, you might want a product that’s at least 1% hyaluronic acid. However, since it’s safe for all skin types, you can use a much higher concentration of this ingredient for more dramatic results.
You can find hyaluronic acid in many different skincare products, such as our Miracular Face Serum, Men's Moisture Defense, Men's Face Serum, and NB Scar Logic.
Niacinamide is a derivative of vitamin B3. Depending on its concentration, applying it to the skin can help get rid of harmful bacteria, brighten the skin, and even provide extra sun protection. This makes it a favorite active ingredient for those suffering from hyperpigmentation left behind by acne or sun damage.
When choosing topical niacinamide, look for a formula with a concentration that’s at least 2% to experience its full benefits.
5. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects the skin from damaging free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness and aging. When the free radicals enter the body, they steal electrons from healthy cells, causing cellular damage.
On the skin level, this damage may look like premature wrinkles, dark spots, and sagging skin. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons. This means that healthy cells in your skin are spared and don’t develop signs of skin damage.
So, if you’re exposed to the sun or outside pollution, you should apply antioxidants to the skin before stepping outside. That’s where vitamin C comes in.
Vitamin C is one of the most popular antioxidants making its way into mainstream skincare. It’s been found to prevent premature skin aging, increase protection against skin cancer, improve skin pigmentation, and preserve collagen.
You should start with at least a 10% vitamin C concentration and build your way up once your skin is used to it. It’s best to use vitamin C as a serum and top it off with sunscreen before going outside.
6. Glycolic Acid
Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), which is derived from naturally occurring ingredients like pineapple and sugarcane. Its small molecular size means that it can penetrate deep into the skin and create changes in the structural levels.
Studies show that glycolic acid can help ramp up collagen production, a protein that gives skin a smooth, plump, and firm appearance. While it’s commonly applied as a chemical peel — with concentrations as high as 70% — at-home products shouldn’t exceed ten percent.
You can find glycolic acid in serums, cleansers, and body lotions. As with retinol, it’s important to practice sun protection to help avoid skin damage.
7. Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs)
AHAs, like glycolic acid, can be irritating for people with sensitive skin. Plus, they’re also a big no-no if sun exposure is involved, as they can significantly increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays.
Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) can be a welcome alternative for those concerned about AHAs' potential side effects. Due to their large molecular size and benefits, these are considered a “new generation” of AHAs.
PHAs can be used to improve skin tone and texture while gently exfoliating dead skin cells. Some PHAs, like gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid, can help hydrate skin and help reduce the signs of aging. Because these are gentle acids, up to ten percent concentrations are generally well-tolerated.
Active ingredients are those that do what a skincare product says it does. Skin concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation, and aging can be addressed with popular active ingredients. Some active ingredients require a doctor’s prescription. However, others can be bought over-the-counter, with results that are just as impressive.
Nourishing Biologicals use various active ingredients that have been clinically proven to improve skin health and appearance. Discover our line of products today for your most radiant self.
Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol) | Dermatology
Bakuchiol: a retinol-like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti-aging effects | NIH
Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications | PMC
Increased in vivo collagen synthesis and in vitro cell proliferative effect of glycolic acid | NCBI
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