It can seem as though the beauty industry is shouting about a new, often unpronounceable and supposedly miracle ingredient every other week. From Vitamin C to Ceramides, Retinol and Acids, Threebs has done their research on what these active ingredients actually do for your skin.
What are they?
Active ingredients are the ingredients contained within skincare products that actually work to address the skin concern the product is meant to target. They are the ingredients that have supposedly been scientifically proven to actually have the desired effect, meaning the product will do what it says it will. That’s not to say that the other ingredients (the inactives) are useless; they’re often key to helping the active ingredient perform its role. If not then it may be that they are generally moisturizing or cleansing.
Below 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, urea, lactic acid, anthralin, tacrolimus, pimecrolimus.
Eczema: steroids, tacrolimus, pimecrolimus.
Below is a list of some of the active ingredients you may have heard of and what they can do for your skin.
AHAs are relatively gentle chemical exfoliants that exfoliate the skin by gently dissolving the bonds between surface skin cells- not as scary as it sounds as it allows dead skin cells to be removed and new skin cells to be generated. AHAs are often found in anti-aging products as our natural skin cell cycle tends to slow as we age, but they are also useful in addressing acne, reducing pigmentation, brightening skin tone, and giving your skin a smoother and plumper texture. Common AHAs include lactic acid (which is derived from lactose) and glycolic acid (which comes from sugar cane). These two are the most common as they’re the least likely to irritate your skin. Since AHAs don’t penetrate deep below the skin surface (due to the fact that they’re water soluble), they’re ideal for all skin types, even sensitive skin.
BHAs (often known as salicylic acid) – are another form of chemical exfoliants that are perfect for treating blemish-prone skin and blackheads. Just like AHAs, BHAs also help in the removal of dead skin cells but, while AHAs are water soluble, BHAs are oil soluble. This means that BHAs can penetrate below the skin’s surface to clear your pores of excess sebum and dirt to reduce oiliness, while reducing inflammation and fighting bacteria on the skin’s surface. Salicylic acid is best for those with congested pores or oily skin.
Ceramides are lipids (fat molecules) that provide that smooth plumpness we’re always aiming for. They are found in the very uppermost layers of our skin and act as a barrier, protecting our skin from exposure to environmental stressors such as pollution, dry air, and debris. Since ceramide production becomes depleted over time, the skin barrier is weakened, so its important to use skincare products containing ceramides to restore your skin’s hydration and moisture, leaving your skin looking supple. Since ceramides are a natural component of the skin barrier, they’re actually suitable for use on all skin types. No more fine lines- hooray!
The main reason why everyone is talking about hyaluronic acid is because of its incredible ability to hydrate the skin. It absorbs and maintains moisture within our skin, keeping it soft and (hopefully) radiant. Whilst our bodies naturally produce this moisture-binding ingredient, our skin’s natural hyaluronic acid production diminishes as we age, which is why HA is also often found in anti-aging skincare products, for those looking to retain that youthful glow.
Niacinamide is adored largely because of its ability to fight inflammation. It can be used to treat acne, rosacea, and hyperpigmentation as it is particularly good at reducing redness and irritation. Aside from its anti-inflammatory properties, this vitamin B3 derivative also improves our skin’s elasticity, strengthens the outer layers of our skin, and helps to boost levels of fatty acids in our skin, leading to plumper looking skin. The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% High Strength Vitamin and Mineral Blemish Formula is a serum I use to purify my skin whenever I see signs of blemishes coming or discoloration. It is a miracle worker and no surprise that it is a cult beauty favorite.
Peptides link together to form proteins which are the building blocks of our skin. Since they’re small enough to penetrate the skin, peptides signal to the body that it needs to produce more collagen (and we’ve all heard of that). I recommend getting a serum or moisturizer with peptides in and applying it twice daily, under makeup or SPF.
Retinol is a potent derivative of vitamin A and is converted to retinoic acid (the active form of vitamin A that your skin actually needs) after its absorbed into your skin. Topical retinol boosts cell turnover which promotes skin renewal, leaving you with brighter and healthier skin, whilst helping correct skin pigmentation. Retinol is loved for its acne-fighting ability, its anti-ageing properties, and its skin-brightening power. Make sure you start with a product that contains the correct formulation for your skin. If your topical retinol product is too strong for your skin or you use it too often, it can be irritating, especially for sensitive skin and particularly in the sun, so be sure to either use retinol only at night, or layer it with SPF during the day.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that, when applied topically, stimulates collagen and elastin production, leading to younger-looking and firmer-feeling skin. It both protects the skin from environmental aggressors and prevents damage. It is used for skin-brightening, hyperpigmentation-correcting, and skin tone-evening as it helps to reduce scars or spots without changing your normal skin pigmentation. What a hardworking vitamin!
Vitamin E naturally occurs in eight chemical forms. The most commonly listed in skincare products are tocopheryl acetate and tocopherol. It is a potent antioxidant, so can help protect the skin from environmental pollution, and has anti-inflammatory properties which means it is extremely soothing and calming, and can prevent the signs of premature aging. Vitamin E also makes for a great moisturizer since it’s super hydrating, and it has great wound healing properties as it helps to strengthen the skin’s barrier function. Organic Facial Oil, containing Vitamin E, is incredibly nourishing and hydrating. I apply it to my face every morning and night. Best of all, it is vegan, natural, plant-based, and therefore totally suitable for all skin types. I know from experience that it can be difficult to find skincare products that are suitable for use on pregnant women, but this product is one of them.