Active skincare ingredients are the ingredients in skincare that make a difference to the skin. That’s the simplest answer to the question of “what are active skincare ingredients?”. Personally, we like to flesh it out a bit more… Get it, flesh? Active skincare ingredients are the ingredients that can make a long-term change to the skin, especially when used for a longer period of time. Select vitamins, exfoliating acids, certain hydrators and other elements all count as active skincare ingredients, which is why we’ve included them in each Skingredients product.
From our experience, it’s active skincare ingredients that get results in the skin so they are of particular importance to those who have specific skin concerns or who want to see a positive impact on their skin. Active skincare ingredients carry out the main functions we feel that skincare should: they protect and defend, they treat and they help to boost the skin’s hydration levels.
What ingredients or skincare are not considered active?
Let’s start by saying the phrase “active” is not regulated by anyone. Anyone can call anything an active ingredient. A brand could call water an active ingredient, if they felt so inclined. This is why we feel that it’s important to be upfront when it comes to marketing: the ingredients that we consider active are widely considered or proven to do measurable things for your skin.
“Inactive” ingredients can have an effect too, though. Ingredients like emulsifiers, preservatives, certain penetrant enhancers, botanical extracts and emollients work as a vehicle for your active ingredients or as an accessory to them, so they’re very much needed.
Sometimes, skincare marketing and packaging can be misleading when it comes to actives. Take, for example, vitamin C. Vitamin C is proven to assist with pigmentation, uneven skin tone and/or act as an antioxidant in very specific percentages. However, most brands can consider themselves active even if the vitamin C in a product is negligible.
This is ironic, as we don’t actually list the amounts of vitamin C in Skin Protein. The reason that we don’t is because the percentages of vitamin C found in Skin Protein are paramount to the unique formulation, and because the vitamin A is the primary ingredient in Skin Protein.
Another point: we consider an ingredient to be active if it can penetrate the skin, or it can provide its benefits without having to penetrate the skin. For an active ingredient to penetrate into the epidermis efficiently, it needs to be in a form and formulation that lets it do that. For the most part, this means that the individual molecules have a low enough molecular weight.
Let’s get very, very nerdie: this comes down to the 500 Dalton Rule. In research, 500 daltons is believed to be the largest molecular weight that can effectively penetrate through the skin’s layers. So, a nice rule of thumb to have. However, peptides break the rule, those rebels, whilst still being effective. Many believe this is because peptides work as bossy boots that send signals from above deeper into the skin.
The most important active skincare ingredients in Skingredients
Vitamin A is an A-lister active ingredient in our eyes. Most will have heard of it as retinol, a popular form of vitamin A found in prescription and over-the-counter skincare.
Retinol is fantastic, we would never argue it’s not. In fact, in our Nerd Network consultations, we do recommend retinol to clients. The reason that we have opted to include retinyl palmitate rather than retinol (as in retinol, retinol) is because retinol can be a bit aggressive sometimes.
In its process of speeding up skin cell turnover and prompting the skin to synthesise more collagen – the protein that makes skin plump and juicy, it can irritate some hoomans’ skin, causing redness, flaking, itchiness and even sometimes an impaired barrier function.
We chose to work with retinyl palmitate, the fat form of vitamin A, because it has similar benefits to retinol in that it speeds up skin cell turnover, helps to normalise how the skin operates and assists in boosting the amount of collagen our skin is making. But in general, we find that people don’t have as many issues regarding irritation when it comes to retinyl palmitate compared to retinol.
Why is there any irritation or skin annoyance when you start to use vitamin A? The theory is that most people’s skin doesn’t have enough of it as is, so the skin isn’t really used to it. It is the skin equivalent of learning to ride a bike. Retinyl palmitate is one of those lovely bikes with stabilisers to help you get on the vitamin A ride.
(Pssst… High levels of vitamin A are not recommended for use during pregnancy!)
Vitamin C, as we’ve briefly mentioned above, works to brighten the skin, provide it with antioxidant protection and in some levels, can prompt the skin to make more collagen of its own.
Like vitamin A, there are many different versions of vitamin C in skincare, including the OG l-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl palmitate and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. The properties of these forms are same, same but different.
We picked ascorbic acid and ascorbyl palmitate to include in Skin Protein as potent antioxidants that defend the skin from the environmental damage that can cause it to age faster.
Although controversial because they don’t fit the 500 Dalton Rule, we feel that a collagen-boosting peptide is essential for anti-ageing.
Peptides are essentially a chain of amino acids holding hands that shout down towards the dermis to do things, namely to make a bit more collagen.
The peptide you’ll find in Skin Veg and Skin Protein is known as Pro-Coll-One+ (listed in INCIs as hydrolysed soybean fibre). It is a benchmark ingredient in the stimulation of the skin’s own making of Collagen 1, clinically-proven to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and smoothes the surface of the skin.
If you don’t know hyaluronic acid, where have you been?
Hyaluronic acid is a potent hydrating humectant which can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, like one of those crazy ants you see in documentaries. It works like a water magnet to suck moisture towards it and the benefits of this depends on the weight of the hyaluronic acid.
A low molecular weight hyaluronic acid, as found in Skin Veg, reaches deeper into the epidermis, hydrating from below upwards. A high molecular weight hyaluronic acid plumps up the upper layers of the skin.
You usually find low molecular weight hyaluronic acid by the name sodium hyaluronate, the salt form of hyaluronic acid.
Ceramides are a lipid that actually make up 40% of the skin’s barrier, so your skin knows what they are. The reason that they are key for your skin is that they feed your barrier, meaning that your skin will retain hydration optimally. They can also aid in your skin’s healing capabilities, and work well with vitamin E.
Ceramide NP is the specific ceramide found in Skin Good Fats.
Salicylic acid is a BHA or beta hydroxy acid, an oil-soluble exfoliating acid that not only speeds up skin cell turnover for healthier, fresher skin, but dissolves debris within the pore to get to the root of congestion including whiteheads and blackheads.
It is one of the more classically-known active ingredients, as it is also found in medical formulations. In Sally Cleanse, we feature 2% salicylic acid, an incredibly efficient and powerful amount, and the most you can include in a cosmetic product in the EU.
As hoomans, we’re full of lactic acid naturally, in our muscles, brain cells and red blood cells.
As an AHA, or alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid works to convince the skin to speed up skin cell turnover and exfoliate itself. It has a larger molecular weight than it’s cousin, glycolic acid, which means that it is less likely to cause irritation whilst still being effective – winner, winner, balanced skin dinner. It still has a small enough molecular weight to penetrate into the skin, obviously!
Lactic acid not only exfoliates but assists in cutting down on TEWL (transepidermal water loss), which is when our skin accidentally lets go of its own hydration. Lactic acid is fabulous for dullness, dryness, dehydration, the signs of ageing and general skin health.
It features in A-HA Cleanse in a very mild amount of 2.5%. This makes A-HA Cleanse ideal for those who are new to chemical exfoliation, find that larger amounts can irritate their skin or have slightly more reactive skin.
Vitamin B3 is a water-soluble vitamin that is skin-restoring and helps skin to retain hydration. It is particularly useful when it comes to large pores and uneven skin tone, has brightening capabilities and is a potent antioxidant. It’s a feckin’ rock star.
In our formulations, we use niacinamide for its antioxidant capabilities. It’s in Skin Shield SPF 50 PA+++ to protect you from pollution!
PHA or polyhydroxy acid is a form of active skincare ingredient that is relatively newer to the game. It’s a second-generation AHA that have an even larger molecular size than lactic acid, making them ideal for incredibly sensitive skin.
They speed up skin cell turnover, help to build up the skin’s barrier and don’t cause the skin to become more light sensitive, as other exfoliating acids can.
Want to find out more about all of the active (and inactive) ingredients in Skingredients? Check out our glossary here.