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Two Dermatologists Explain What the Active Ingredients in Your Skincare *Actually* Are

Photo by Olena Malik/Getty Images

When it comes to finding the right skincare products to address your skin concerns or skin type, even the most skincare-savvy shoppers can find a walk down the beauty aisle overstimulating. While tons of skincare brands make it easy for us to address our general needs with labels like “anti-aging, fine-line fighting, brightening, and hydrating,” we know that the actual skincare ingredients in our skincare routine are key to addressing our actual needs and seeing positive results. 

If you’ve ever noticed that the ingredient list on most of your products are separated into categories like “active ingredients” and “inactive ingredients,” it turns out there’s a reason for it that can help you narrow down the right formulations. Being the Ipster you are, we know you love a good deep dive into an ingredient list, so we’re flipping to the back of the bottle with two board-certified dermatologists for an in-depth look into what active ingredients are, how they differ from inactive ingredients, and what we need to look for in an ingredient list.

About the Experts: 
Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist in NYC.
Jessie Cheung, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Illinois and NYC.

What Are Active Ingredients?

Just like their name suggests, active ingredients take action. They’re the ingredients that we want in our skincare products (whether over-the-counter or more high-end) to help achieve our happy, healthy-looking skin goals. While beauty labels may host a long list of active ingredients, not all of them are one-size-fits-all. “Active ingredients refer to any ingredient that has a specific effect to target or treat a concern,” says dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD. So whether you’re looking to fight breakouts, boost collagen production and elasticity, reduce hyperpigmentation, strengthen your skin barrier, fight fine lines and wrinkles, or more (we’ve certainly got more than one goal), there are active ingredients that can specifically help. 

If you’re staring at a laundry list of them on your skincare products, it turns out that quantity doesn’t win over quality. “It's important to understand that a formulation with multiple active ingredients may not be better than a single active ingredient product—not all actives play well together, and lower concentrations may not be efficacious. On the flip side, a combination of certain actives can have synergistic benefits, while a high concentration of a single active may be more irritating,” says dermatologist Jessie Cheung, MD, FAAD.

Active vs. Inactive Ingredients

What’s the difference between active ingredients and inactive ingredients?

The main difference is in the roles that they play in our products. Moving down the label list, you’ll probably come across a list of “inactive ingredients.” We like to think of these as Beyoncé’s backup dancers. They support the stars of the show and make sure our products function and feel the way we want them to. “Inactive ingredients are not specifically targeting a skincare concern but rather are present in a product to help with the formulation of the product, including helping the product feel good on the skin and make sure the product can last,” says Dr. Garshick. We can find them in everything from our cleansers to retinols, sunscreens, serums, and so on. They help emulsify, color, lather, thicken, fragrance, bind products, act as emollients, preservatives, exfoliating agents, and more in the form of ingredients like squalene, glycerin, malic acid, panthenol, green tea, shea butter, and vitamin E, to name a few. 

On the flip side, Dr. Cheung adds, “An active ingredient will target a specific concern to have an effect on the skin, as opposed to an inactive, which is added to the formulation to stabilize, preserve, or deliver the active ingredients, or to improve the scent, appearance, texture, or performance of the product. It helps to recognize the more common active ingredients that target your skin concerns.”

How to Know the Active Ingredients in Your Skincare

How do we know which active ingredients to look for in our skincare?

“One of the easiest ways to determine active ingredients in your skincare products is to look at the product label, as it will indicate what ingredients are active and what is inactive. If it is not obvious, often it is the first few ingredients that are listed that are considered active,” Dr. Garshick recommends. Next, think about what your skincare goals are and look for active ingredients that specifically target them. “Some common active ingredients include ingredients like retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, other exfoliating acids like glycolic acid, lactic acid or mandelic acid, antioxidants like vitamin C, moisturizing ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide, and of course sunscreen ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” Dr. Garshick adds. To add to that list we also commonly find alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, and peptides to be popular in formulations.

Tips About Using Skincare With Active Ingredients

How to make active ingredients work for your skin

Don’t do too much

While skincare trends like 10-step routines or the “moisture sandwich” may look tempting, it’s super important to take it easy and be picky when layering actives, especially if you’ve got sensitive skin. “It is best to only incorporate one new active ingredient at a time, as the use of multiple new ingredients can be irritating on the skin or lead to a reaction. It is best to avoid mixing certain active ingredients such as exfoliating acids and retinoids,” As always, it's also best to consult your dermatologist on how to start using active ingredients and deal with side effects like dryness or irritation.

Split up your routine

When it comes to using actives, it's important to know which ones can be mixed and which should be used separately. Let’s take acne treatments for example. “For acne, some key actives include retinoids like adapalene, or prescription options like tretinoin or tazarotene, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid. Since retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid all have different mechanisms of action and target different types of acne, they may all be incorporated into an anti-acne skincare routine but may be best if used at different times. For example, a benzoyl peroxide wash in the morning and a retinoid at night,” recommends Dr. Garshick. This is key to helping your skin adjust while minimizing irritation.

Target-treat your skin

Since we know it’s helpful to know which actives work best for your needs, let's break it down by some common skin concerns.

  • Acne: "Acne-prone skin will benefit from active antibacterials including benzoyl peroxide and sulfur, active chemical exfoliators, probiotics, and retinol actives,” advises Dr. Cheung. If you’re looking to add it to your routine, we’re fans of how fast DR. LIN Acne Spot Corrector cleared up some of our breakouts.

  • Hyperpigmentation: “For hyperpigmentation, some key ingredients include retinoids, azelaic acid, hydroquinone, vitamin C, kojic acid, licorice root extract, cysteamine, glycolic acid and more. While some of these actives can be combined together in a routine to target dark spots, it is always best to incorporate one new active at a time to minimize the potential for irritation” Dr. Garshick says. We love FIRST AID BEAUTY Facial Radiance Niacinamide Dark Spot Serum for being gentle but effective on areas with uneven skin tone and pigmentation. “Dull skin will benefit from active chemical exfoliators such as AHAs and BHAs, and active brighteners such as niacinamide and vitamin C,” Dr. Cheung also says.

  • Sun protection: We know that SPF is the most essential step of any skincare routine. But it turns out the actives in our sunscreens matter. ““For optimal sun protection, it is best to use a sunscreen that contains SPF 30 or higher and is broad-spectrum. The active ingredient may be a chemical or mineral filter like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” according to Dr. Garshick. “Sun-protection actives include chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone and avobenzone,” adds Dr. Cheung. INNISFREE Daily UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 36 is made with avobenzone, is super lightweight, helps fight free radicals with green tea, and won’t leave a white cast.

  • Anti-aging: “When it comes to an anti-aging skincare routine, it is important to protect the skin in the morning with antioxidants like vitamin C and sunscreen, and repair at night with ingredients like retinoids and peptides. Moisturizing the skin is always an important part of an anti-aging skincare routine, so it’s best to look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides,” Dr. Garshick tells us. If you’re seeing signs of aging around the eyes, YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE Dream Eye Cream uses both vegan hyaluronic acid and ceramides to help smooth the look of fine lines, and help hydrate and plump while you sleep.

Don’t assume cost matters

Actives, whether in a luxe, pricey product or one sold OTC, are what they are. There are plenty of affordable products on the market that contain the same active ingredients as their high-end competitors. True, they may not feel as luxurious as a splurge buy, but they’ll help target the same skin concerns.

Want more skincare curated just for you and your skin needs? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started with your own IPSY beauty subscription. Already an IPSY member? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and TikTok @IPSY.

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About the author
Runa Rhattacharya
Runa Bhattacharya
Runa is an NYC-based writer and Registered Nurse with over 8 years of experience covering beauty and wellness. She’s worked for publications like SELF, Cosmopolitan, and more. She’s passionate about beauty, science, and two careers that she loves!
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Article Last Updated April 11, 2024 12:00 AM