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What Do Actives in Skincare Do?

Wait, is your moisturizer doing burpees when you’re not around? Not quite. Actives in skincare don’t refer to ingredients that stay on the move. Rather, skincare actives are the active ingredients that change your skin on a cellular level. 

Inactive ingredients can be just as important, but they do things like deliver the active ingredients to your skin or make the product smell good. 

Words like anti-aging get thrown around a lot. But not all products have the same amount of active agents and each active ingredient has its own pros and cons. How can you make sure your lotion’s active ingredient turns back the clock? Let’s dive in. 

What is an active ingredient?

As we mentioned, active ingredients are the stuff that make your skincare products do what they promise to do. Whether it’s smoothing wrinkles or erasing dark circles — the active ingredients are  the chemicals and proteins that get to work on your skin cells.

To put it more formally, active ingredients have been identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as performing a specific function for your skin. For instance, if your product is an acne-fighting cleanser, the active ingredient is the part of the face wash that actually treats the acne. In this case, the active is probably a formula like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. 

Not all skincare products contain the same amount of every active ingredient. Imagine your new face lotion promises to fill in wrinkles but only has 2% of the active ingredient that smoothes skin. Depending on the strength of the chemical, that may not be enough to see real results. Most products you can get from a dermatologist will have a higher percentage of the active ingredient than anything you can buy at the drugstore. 

Common categories of active ingredients

Some active ingredients are aimed at reducing acne, others will smooth out skin, and yet other skincare faves can correct discoloration. Here are some of the most common categories of skincare products based on their active ingredients. 

Retinoids: Retinoids may show up in products listed as retinol, retinal aldehyde, and retinyl esters. They’re derived from vitamin A. You’ll most often see this category of active ingredients advertised as reducing fine lines and wrinkles and evening out skin texture. Retinoids should typically be used mild versions at first because they can lead to skin irritation. 

Alpha-hydroxy acids: Also called AHAs, this type of active is aimed at fixing age spots and reducing fine lines. You might also see them promoted to reduce the size of pores. Like retinoids, this type of ingredient can be a bit hard on sensitive skin. 

Peptides: Peptides are small chains of amino acids that promote collagen growth. This active ingredient can also thicken the skin. One of the most common peptides as an active ingredient is copper peptide. You’ll see copper peptide on products that promote collagen and elastic production, remove damaged collagen and elastin, and firm the skin. 

Antioxidants: You will often see antioxidants in anti-aging products, so this is one active ingredient you’re probably familiar with. They protect your skin from things like environmental irritants (hello pollution) and free radicals (molecules gone rogue that can damage your cells). Some common examples of antioxidant agents in skincare include vitamin C, avocado oil, ferulic acid, and green tea. 

Growth factors: Active ingredients that fall into this category are proteins that come from stem cells. Most notable, products that feature growth factors will hydrate your skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. They can also improve the overall texture of your skin. One popular growth factor in kinetin. 

Corticosteroids: Steroids aren’t just for bulking up. Corticosteroids are a type of topical steroid medicine that reduce inflammation. They may be applied as a cream, gels, lotions, and more. Hydrocortisone is one common over the counter corticosteroid that can treat things like eczema. 

How to tell if an active will work for you

There isn’t one sure-fire way to make sure an active ingredient will do what it promises, but there are some ways to pick the right products for you. 

1. Consider your skin type. Some active ingredients tend to dry out skin, which can irritate already dry skin. That’s why it’s important to factor in your skin type when selecting products. For dry skin, for instance, you’ll want an active ingredient that hydrates. Ask your skincare professional as they have one on one time with your skin and can customize to your needs.

2. Pay attention to concentrations. When you pick up a product, read the ingredients on the back. As a general rule, the ingredients are listed by volume. The ingredients used most in the product are at the top. If active ingredients are near the middle of the list, the product may not yield the results you want. 

3. Look for lots of fillers. If the product has a high volume of things like synthetic fragrances, artificial dyes, parabens, or phthalates, you may want to imagine a little red flag. These ingredients in large amounts are a sign that a product is packed with a lot of “filler,” or inactive ingredients, that won’t do you a lot of good. 

What to ask your dermatologist 

No matter how much you read about skincare online, sometimes the back of a new lotion or cleanser product still reads like Greek. We get it. Luckily your skincare doctor can decipher any product for you. A dermatologist can also let you know if an over-the-counter product will suffice, or if you are a better fit for prescription products that only a doctor can offer. 

If you’re considering a new skincare regimen and have a product in hand, here are some things to ask your dermatologist to make sure it’s a good fit for you:

  • Will this active ingredient irritate my skin?
  • What is the concentration of the active ingredients?
  • Is it possible to be allergic to this?
  • How many active ingredients does this have?

It’s also worth noting that any time you experience red skin, broken skin, painful skin, or other noticeable issues after you start using a new active ingredient — it’s time to call your doc. You may be allergic to an active ingredient, or you may need to start at a smaller dose and work your way up to a stronger formula. This is especially true when it comes to retinols. 


Skincare actives (otherwise known as active ingredients) are made to change your skin on a cellular level. They can do everything from make your skin softer to reduce fine lines and treat acne. The concentrations of many active ingredients are lower over the counter than they can be found in doctor prescribed skincare products. 


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