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Active Ingredients in Skincare: What Are They?

Active Ingredients in Skincare: What Are They?

Look closely at the ingredient list on your skincare products. Active ingredients are sometimes put in bold or italics to indicate that they are there for a reason.

Active ingredients are those found in skincare products that have an intended purpose—ingredients meant to address a specific concern. Examples include retinol, niacinamide, vitamin C, acids (beta-hydroxy, lactic) and other ingredients that are well known to address specific skincare concerns.

When you need a bit of extra help, look for active ingredients that serve your purpose.

Some examples of active ingredients may help you understand what an active ingredient is:

  • If you are looking for a sunscreen that protects the skin from sun damage, you will often find zinc oxide listed as an active ingredient.
  • You may find products that contain ingredients intended to brighten your skin or treat your spots. The ingredients in a dark spot corrector will target spots in several ways. Aging skin can often develop dark spots. If you’re concerned about aging skin, you can try using skincare or beauty products that contain alpha-hydroxy acids, vitamin C, or retinol to help improve your skin tone. If you’d like to treat freckles or sun spots, you can try products that contain mandelic acid, retinol cream, vitamin C serum, and alpha-hydroxy acid aha lotion.
  • The ingredients in acne treatments either encourage exfoliation, treat inflammation, control oil production, or target bacteria on your skin. If you have acne-prone skin, you may want to look for a product that contains salicylic acid to break down the oil on the skin.
  • Look for ingredients like retinol (a key ingredient in many anti-aging products as well) or skincare products with a strong emphasis on natural botanicals to ease inflammation and soothe the skin naturally. Many acne-focused products also contain benzoyl peroxide, which may be powerful when looking to treat acne but could be a trigger for sensitive skin.
Common active ingredients in skincare

Common Active Ingredients

Sun Protection

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are often the active ingredients found in sun protection products. These mineral actives protect the skin from the potentially dangerous side effects of too much UV exposure. In the United States, these active ingredients are regulated by the FDA and subsequently have strict formulations and have to be made at a certain level to actually protect the skin.


You can find at least one powerful antioxidant in everyday skincare products. Common antioxidants include vitamins C and E, astaxanthin, and CoQ10. These antioxidants—vitamins C and E, astaxanthin, and CoQ10—are sometimes used in skincare because they can help with dark circles, wrinkles, inflammation, and other issues of a similar nature.

Salycic acid

This is an active ingredient included in many products aimed at those with the skin type prone to acne. However, you will often find that companies avoid branding silicic acid as a treatment for acne in an effort to avoid making a claim. That being said, you will often find this ingredient in many products that are targeting acne-prone skin and breakouts.

Alpha hydroxy acids

Alpha hydroxy acids are often included in products aimed for exfoliation and are commonly quite useful for removing dead skin cells. One of the most common alpha-hydroxy acids in a product is glycolic acid.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is one of the main ingredients in many acne treatments. Unlike silicic acid, It’s regulated by the FDA for treating acne and is therefore often promoted as an active ingredient to help treat acne. The reason it is an effective ingredient for acne-prone skin is that it is a powerful antibacterial agent.

Azelaic acid

When people have acne, they get red bumps on their skin. Rosacea is similar to acne in that it causes redness in the face. Azelaic acid is an effective treatment for rosacea, but it’s important to use the right concentration and formulation for full effectiveness. Over-the-counter azelaic acid isn’t regulated, but that’s not the case if you get it through a prescription. When you get a prescription, azelaic acid products with an effective level of active ingredients can be prescribed as a topical treatment for rosacea.


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and is often used in many anti-aging products. These products with retinol are designed to support aging skin by speeding up the turnover of skin cells. This cell regeneration is thought to be helping for fine lines and even skin prone to acne.

Pre and ProBiotics

With the right combination of pre-, pro-, and postbiotics, you can make sure that your skin has the right layer of bacteria. Some ingredients can literally seed your skin with specific bacteria (prebiotics), while other ingredients create chemical byproducts that are beneficial for healthy skin (postbiotics).


Hydrators, like hyaluronic acid and ceramides, help the skin with moisture. Hyaluronic acid is a common active ingredient in skin-care products, notably serums, cleansers, moisturizers, and more. Products designed to target fine lines will also often include these hydrators as active ingredients.

The bad news is that when you get older, your body’s stores of hyaluronic acid decline. Here’s the good news. Taking steps to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins (such as air pollution) can help you build up your stores of hyaluronic acid. But aside from reducing exposure to environmental toxins and quitting smoking, you can also use products formulated with hyaluronic acid- think of this as giving your body an extra helping hand.

The bottom line

In skincare, ingredients are typically categorized into four groups: Actives, antioxidants, hydration agents, and emollients. As a general rule of thumb, actives are the most potent ingredients in a product. When you start to take notes about which activities work for you, it will be much easier to choose your perfect skincare products and develop a routine that suits your skin best.

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