Active Ingredients in Skin Care: How They Work

Active Ingredients in Skin Care: How They Work

Knowing which ingredients are in your products can help you better care for your skin’s unique needs.

When you look at an ingredient list, there are a few different factors that you should take into consideration — especially if you’re new to skin care.

For example, what are the active ingredients in skin care products? What other ingredients might you see on an ingredient list? Being able to differentiate between ingredients and knowing the benefits of each can save you time, money and frustration. 

To help you expand your skin care vocabulary, we're breaking down some of the most common active ingredients you’ll find in products, how they work and what they do for your skin. 

What is an active ingredient?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (the FDA), an active ingredient is a component that provides “pharmacological activity,” or affects the body's structure. Basically, if an ingredient can target a specific concern, it can be considered “active.” 

Active ingredients are also thoroughly tested and approved to ensure they're safe and effective before hitting the market. That doesn’t mean that every “active” ingredient found in skin care products has been FDA tested and approved, though. 

The other way that the term “active” is used in the skin care world is in reference to more cosmetic-based ingredients. These ingredients are still able to serve a specific purpose and make a difference, but they haven’t been scrutinized, tested and approved by the FDA. 

Together, “actives” can provide different benefits in your skin care products. They can protect your skin, soothe it, address breakouts, provide hydration and fade the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Let's talk about some of the most common active ingredients and what they can do for you.

What are common active ingredients in skin care?

Although there are many active ingredients found in different skin care products, you’ll see a handful of them far more frequently than others. We’ll talk about the most common actives and some of the most often seen categories — including what they can do when you incorporate them into your routine.


Antioxidants are substances — either found naturally or made in a lab — that can counteract the impact that dangerous molecules called free radicals can have inside the body. Free radicals are missing one of their crucial electrons, making them imbalanced and unpredictable. They roam around the body and steal electrons from balanced cells, causing a type of cell damage known as oxidative stress. 

Common antioxidants seen in skin care products include:

  • Astaxanthin
  • Copper peptide
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E

Although topical antioxidants are not regulated by the FDA, they can still have plenty of benefits for your skin. For example, astaxanthin and vitamin C can both help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

While it may take time and consistency to see results, antioxidants pack a lot of punch. They can also increase the effectiveness of other skin care products — for example, vitamin C helps provide extra support for sunscreen.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Another popular active ingredient found in skin care products are alpha-hydroxy acids, commonly referred to as AHAs. AHAs are found naturally in things like sugar cane and certain fruits (like citrus fruits, apples, grapes and strawberries). 

Common AHAs found in skin care products include:

  • Citric acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Malic acid

AHAs are common exfoliants, meaning they help the skin shed dead skin cell buildup. The strength of the ingredient determines how potent it can be, but it can also increase the likelihood of irritations. Some of the higher strengths may even require a prescription from your skin care provider. 

However, as a whole, most AHAs are considered to be cosmetic ingredients and are not regulated by the FDA. That also means that the FDA doesn’t monitor their effectiveness, so they may not work exactly the same in every product.

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs)

Beta-hydroxy acids, or BHAs, are another common active ingredient in skin care products. They can be used on their own or combined with AHAs for more impactful results, as both are exfoliants. 

One of the most common BHAs you’ll see on an ingredient list is salicylic acid. When used in a skin care product like our Crystal Clearclarifying pads, salicylic acid can help minimize the appearance of breakouts, clear the skin and smooth its texture while fading the appearance of dark spots. 

BHAs are often easier on the skin than AHAs, but they're just as effective. They're also more efficient at breaking through your natural oils (called sebum) to keep your pores as open and free of debris as possible — another reason why those with breakout-prone skin will love this active ingredient. 

BHAs are also followed and regulated by the FDA. However, there is a natural form of salicylic acid made from willow bark that is not, so make sure you’re reading your ingredient label thoroughly. 

Hydrating agents

Hydration is essential for your skin’s health and wellness, as moisture helps maintain its protective barrier. The skin’s moisture barrier — the stratum corneum — helps to protect the rest of the skin from the effects of environmental stressors.

Without a healthy moisture barrier, the skin becomes vulnerable to toxins, debris, bacteria and other factors. The moisture barrier also works to keep hydration inside the skin, making sure that it stays hydrated and youthful. 

Common hydrating agents include:

  • Ceramides
  • Glycerin
  • Cocoa butter
  • Shea butter
  • Hyaluronic acid (also called sodium hyaluronate)

Most of these ingredients are found in moisturizers and serums, although you may also see them in cleansers. They’re considered to be cosmetic ingredients and are not monitored or regulated by the FDA. 


When it comes to active ingredients in skin care, most people have heard of retinol. Retinol is one of the holy grail skin care ingredients because it comes in a variety of formulations that can make a big difference in your skin’s health and appearance. 

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin AT. This active ingredient can help exfoliate your skin, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, fade the appearance of dark spots and brighten your complexion.

The strength of your retinol product depends on how it works and how it’s classified. Some of the higher strengths of retinol can only be prescribed by professionals and are regulated by the FDA, while the lower formulations are not regulated and can be purchased over the counter. 


Many skin care products have some amount of sun protection in them — even those that aren’t marketed as sunscreens. Although most of the active ingredients in sunblock perform slightly different jobs (that’s why you’ll often see them combined, like in our Sheer Defense SPF), they also work together cohesively to help protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays.

Ingredients that work as sunblocks include:

  • Octinoxate
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

Sunblock ingredients are considered active and are regulated by the FDA. Unless they're present in a product in a certain percentage, they can’t be effective — and you wouldn’t want to use a sunblock that couldn’t actually protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. Sunscreen is the most important step in your skin care routine!

What are inactive ingredients?

In addition to active ingredients (or other ingredients that can impact your skin), many ingredient lists also identify “inactive” ingredients. These ingredients don’t have a direct impact on your skin, but they do play an important role in the product's effectiveness.

For example, inactive ingredients can act as preservatives, keep your products mold and bacteria-free, improve absorption and act as a base for the other active components. In rare cases, people may have an allergy or sensitivity to these ingredients — so always make sure to check the label.

The bottom line...

Active ingredients in skin care don’t have to be confusing or overwhelming. When you know what to look for and which ingredients target your specific skin concerns, you can choose your skin care products with confidence!

If you’re still unsure about what to look for, schedule a skin care consultation with one of our skin care providers — they’ll develop a personalized skin care plan for you and empower you with the knowledge and products to best care for your skin. 


Drugs | FDA Glossary of Terms

Antioxidants: In Depth | NCCIH

Beta Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Hyaluronic acid, a promising skin rejuvenating biomedicine: A review of recent updates and pre-clinical and clinical investigations on cosmetic and nutricosmetic effects | PubMed


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