What Is An Active Ingredient In Skincare?


With recent innovations in skincare products has come the popularity of the term active ingredients. Active ingredients are talked about in reference to skin concerns, skin types, and a range of different skincare products.

We've been taking a look at active ingredients recently and we've summarised what they are below. We've also listed some of the most common active ingredients, what they can do for your skin, and which products they should be added to.

To learn more about active ingredients, keep reading now.

What Is An Active Ingredient In Skincare

What Is An Active Ingredient: Skincare

So, what is an active ingredient?

In skincare, an active ingredient refers to the ingredient which is biologically active and works to address the particular skin concern that the product has been created for. The idea is that these ingredients have been specifically chosen because they're known to do whatever it says on the bottle.

Active ingredients range from moisturising oils to alpha-hydroxy acids to benzoyl peroxide and are found in both over-the-counter products and prescription skincare products.

How Many Active Ingredients Should Skincare Have?

Most products usually only have one active ingredient. This is because some active ingredients are not tolerated well together and may interact with the skin. The skin is susceptible to change and if you're using a new active ingredient, allow your skin to get used to it first by building up the amount you use it.

In terms of your skincare routine, it is recommended that you only use two active ingredients at a time to limit the chances of interactions and to allow them to do their job on your skin.

Examples Of Common Active Ingredients

As any skincare enthusiast knows, the list of active ingredients currently on the market is ever-growing and contains a range of ingredients for every skin concern known to man. Below, we've summarized some of the most popular active ingredients to help you better understand what they do and where you will see them in your skincare routine.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is a bit of a star in skincare products. It is known for its hydrating properties, its ability to boost collagen and elastin production, and its suitability for all skin types. Hyaluronic acid comes in the middle of a skincare routine, right after cleansing. It should be the first thing on your face after you've washed it.

Hyaluronic acid is an active ingredient that is sold on its own and as an ingredient in many products. Hyaluronic acid works in most creams, moisturisers, and serums, but can also be found in some cleansers and facial wipes. You can even find hyaluronic acid in hair care now!

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids: lactic acid, malic acid

Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are chemical exfoliants that have flourished since we found out how bad those little plastic beads are for the ocean. Rather than physically scrubbing our faces, we're now applying chemicals to do it for us.

AHAs are a good option for more sensitive skin as they work their magic on the surface of your skin rather than penetrating deeply. AHAs work to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum on the surface of your skin to reduce acne breakouts, make your skin appear brighter, regenerate new skin cells, and even out skin tone.

AHAs include lactic acid (best choice for those new to acid exfoliation), malic acid, and glycolic acid.

What Is An Active Ingredient In Skincare

Beta Hydroxy Acids: Salicylic Acid

Beta-hydroxy acids penetrate deeper than AHAs and are usually used to correct sun damage and treat acne. They delve into the hair follicles on our faces to dry out excess oil, remove dead skin, and unclog the pores.

The most common BHA is salicylic acid.

Note: both AHAs and BHAs increase sun sensitivity of the skin.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a bit of a hero in the world of skincare. Known for its ability to reduce visible signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles, correct uneven skin tone, age spots, and other sun-induced skin conditions, promote collagen production, and prevent sun damage.

Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which is why it can do so much good for your skin. It can be found in vitamin C serum products or as an ingredient in skincare products that are designed to prevent premature ageing.

Try adding vitamin C to your anti-aging products as well as products for glowing skin.


Retinol is an incredibly popular active ingredient in skincare products at the moment.

Retinol is generally used to treat aging skin and acne. Retinol is the strongest retinoid you can get over-the-counter. Retinol is derived from vitamin A and works by penetrating deeply, neutralising free radicals and boosting elastin and collagen production.

Retinol is usually found on its own, but can also be the active ingredient in a range of skincare products too.

Vitamin A

Though retinol is derived from vitamin A, they're not the same thing. Vitamin A is a great choice for products that boost skin health as it is known for firming the skin, boosting collagen production, preventing excess oil production, removing dead skin cells, and minimising fine lines and wrinkles.

It is a good addition to skincare suited to mature skin.

What Is An Active Ingredient In Skincare

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. It can be found in many foods but it is also a great topical treatment for good skin health.

Vitamin E is known to moisturise the skin and is a good option for sensitive skin. It penetrates the skin deeply and helps to preserve lipids. It is also thought to prevent wrinkles and may protect the skin from damage caused by the sun.

It is found as an active ingredient in a huge number of skincare products, including in skincare for sensitive skin and mature skin.


Peptides are great ingredients in skin products that help to improve the skin barrier. The skin barrier is an important part of skincare and products for the repair of this barrier are increasing in popularity at the moment.

Other benefits of peptides in a skincare regime include reducing wrinkles, clearing breakouts, easing inflammation, and boosting the elasticity of the skin.

You'll find peptides in creams, moisturisers, and serums.


Niacinamide is an important ingredient in skincare. It is usually used for skin tone, to minimise redness, blotchiness, and pore appearance, and it can help to protect against damage from the sun as well as hyperpigmentation.

Niancinamide may also help to treat acne, protect against oxidative stress that can lead to premature aging, and help to regulate the amount of oil the sebaceous glands produce.

You will usually find niacinamide in serums, meant for layering after toners and before moisturising.

Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant and a common active ingredient choice in many products that are suited to helping to even out the skin tone, by reducing the look of dark spots. It is also thought to help reduce damage caused by the sun and can protect the skin from the damage that is caused by free radicals.

CoQ10 is also thought to replenish the skin cells, keeping them hydrated and helping to boost the production of collagen, keeping skin firm and plump.

CoQ10 can be found in serums, lotions, moisturizers, creams, and on its own.


Ceramides are naturally occurring fats or lipids that are found naturally on our skin. They are used in many skincare ingredients due to their ability to improve the health of the skin. 

Ceramides improve skin health by working with the skin's barrier to prevent moisture from leaving the skin and protecting your skin from environmental damage.

Ceramides also work to prevent dryness of the skin by locking in moisture, preventing skin irritation, keeping skin soft and supple to prevent aging, and improving the overall health of skin cells.

Ceramides may be a good addition to skincare designed to target skin conditions like atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis, and dry skin.

You could also add ceramides as an active ingredient in creams, moisturisers, and anti-aging products.

Pre and probiotics

Prebiotics are used as ingredients in skincare that help to balance the good and the bad bacteria on your skin's surface. They can also help to treat dryness, redness, and irritation as well as help to keep skin looking young.

Prebiotics are used as a treatment for a number of conditions including acne and eczema and would work in products that are targeted for this treatment.

Probiotics, like prebiotics, can be used to treat conditions like eczema and acne and help to balance the skin's microbiome. You'll find them in targeted treatments for skin conditions as well as treatments for balancing the skin's surface.

What Is An Active Ingredient In Skincare

Final Thoughts

Active ingredients in skincare can include everything from salicylic acid to vitamin C to ceramides and the idea is that they carry out the work described on your product's packaging. Active ingredients tend to be targeted to specific skin concerns, conditions, or types.

If you're looking to add active ingredients to your custom skincare formulas, check out our custom formulations page now.