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Active Ingredients In Skincare We Are Obsessed With

If you have ever tried to go through the ingredient list of a skincare product, it’s quite possible that you may have felt confused and overwhelmed. Most of these lists are difficult to comprehend for an average consumer so we understand the exasperation. 

One way to combat this is to develop a deeper understanding of ingredients so that you purchase the right product to meet your skin goals. Actives are one such category of ingredients, integral to the product formulation and if you want to be certain that a product works then it is important to understand active ingredients.

What are Active Ingredients?

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In simple terms, an active is an ingredient in a product that is designed to address the skin concern it’s meant to target. An active ingredient is what makes a skincare product effective because it is an ingredient backed by scientific data, known to bring about a specific change in the skin. You will mostly find actives in products that have an intended purpose and there is a wide variety of active ingredients for specific skin concerns like sun damage, acne, fine lines and hyperpigmentation.

This does not mean that the other listed ingredients don’t have a role to play. You might have spotted two categories of ingredients on a skincare label: active and inactive. Inactive ingredients play a key part in delivering the active ingredient to the skin hence, most inactives are water or oil based.

What are Some popular Active Ingredients in Skincare?

1. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Acids from this family are derived from natural sources such as milk and fruit sugars. They are gentle chemical exfoliants that remove dead skin cells so that new skin cells can be generated. AHAs are widely used in anti-ageing products to battle fine lines, uneven skin tone and reduce pigmentation. AHAs also help in addressing acne, brightening skin tone and improve the overall skin texture. Most commonly used AHAs are Lactic Acid (derived from milk) and Glycolic Acid (derived from sugar). Having a smaller molecular size, Glycolic Acid penetrates beyond the top layer of the skin whereas Lactic Acid is a milder and non-irritating exfoliant because of its larger molecular size, making it suitable for sensitive skin. For a cheat sheet on exfoliating acids, click here.

A) Product Type:

Being exfoliating agents, for best results try an AHA based toner or cleanser. We recommend trying Aminu’s Overnight Peel is a high performance overnight formula that reduces pigmentation, improves skin tone and texture. Deconstruct’s Exfoliating Serum is also a great pick with five types of AHAs and BHA to exfoliate all layers of the skin to give an even tone and smooth texture.

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B) Concentration and Frequency:

Look for products with a pH levels of 3.5 to 4 and ensure that the concentration of AHAs is between 5 to 10% , especially if it is your first time using AHAs.

C) When to use:

Incorporate AHAs in your night time routine before applying your serum or moisturiser. Avoid using Retinol based products with it.

2. Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

They are also chemical exfoliants like AHAs but with much deeper penetration which makes them effective in clearing out breakouts and treating blemishes. BHAs are oil soluble which means they penetrate deeper into the pores to remove excess sebum, blackheads and dirt, making it an ideal choice for acne-prone and oily skin. Salicylic Acid is the best known BHA that unclogs pores and keeps the skin clear. For a detailed guide on Salicylic Acid, click here.

A) Product Type:

The best way to enjoy the exfoliating benefits of Salicylic Acid is using it as a leave-on toner. Although, it is also found in serums and cleaners. Dr. Sheth’s Neem & BHA Spot Clarifying Serum is the perfect pick for oily and acne prone skin with Neem and Tea Tree Oil that help prevent breakouts and Salicylic Acid that gently exfoliates the skin while promoting cell renewal.

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B) Concentration and Frequency:

If you are including BHAs in your skincare for the first time, start out with concentrations of 1-2% and begin slowly by using the product once a week and then building up the frequency to two-three times a week.

C) When to use:

Ideally, Salicylic Acid should be used in the PM routine, after cleanser and before moisturiser. If you are using BHAs and Vitamin C products then make it a point to use Vitamin C in your AM routine and BHAs in the PM.

3. Hyaluronic Acid

Being a humectant, Hyaluronic acid has intense moisturising and hydrating properties, making it a popular ingredient in anti-ageing products. It is a naturally occurring sugar in the body but as we age, the levels of Hyaluronic Acid begin to decrease but topical application of this acid can restore the skin’s moisture and keep it hydrated. Along with its water retention capabilities, it also improves the skin’s resilience to restore volume and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It is an easy active to incorporate in your routine as it mixes well with other ingredients. Hyaluronic Acid is safe for all skin types but it is especially helpful for dehydrated or dry skin. To read more about Hyaluronic Acid, click here.

A) Product type:

It is a key ingredient in serums and moisturisers. For better penetration into the skin, using a serum with Hyaluronic Acid is more effective. We like House of Beauty’s Hyaluronic Serum which improves skin texture and brightness with intense moisture and balance.

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B) Concentration and Frequency:

Hyaluronic Acid can be used daily, up to two times in a day based on your morning and evening skincare regime. It is most effective in concentrations of 1 to 2%.

C) When to use:

It can be used in both, AM and PM routines. It works well with Vitamin C and Glycolic Acid. There are no known side effects of topical application of Hyaluronic Acid.

4. Vitamin C

This active needs no introduction as it is a staple ingredient in skincare products for radiant, bright and youthful skin. Its antioxidant properties defend the skin from UV rays and pollution. By accelerating the production of Collagen and elastin, it helps the skin to heal itself which is why it is effective in decreasing visible signs of ageing like fine lines, wrinkles and age spots. However, Vitamin C’s most notable benefit is in diminishing discolouration and brightening dull skin. It is a temperamental ingredient which can be difficult to stabilise therefore, Vitamin C derivatives like Ascorbic Acid are used in the products. To dive deeper into the effectiveness of Vitamin C, read our blog.

A) Product Type:

To make the most of the benefits of Vitamin C, use it in the serum form. Vitamin C serums are widely available and easy to use. Our recommendation is Dear Klairs’ Freshly Juiced Vitamin C Serum with it’s safe and non-irritating formula that rejuvenates the skin with the power of Vitamin C.

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B) Concentration and Frequency:

Vitamin C can be used daily. To see results, being consistent with the application of  a Vitamin C serum is important. It is potent in concentrations of 5 to 20%. 

C) When to use:

If you want to use this active, make it a part of your AM routine and always follow it up with SPF. Avoid using AHAs and BHAs in the same routine as Vitamin C. If you are using Vitamin C in the morning then make AHAs/BHAs a part of your evening routine. Always store your Vitamin C products in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight to avoid oxidation.

5. Niacinamide

It is a star ingredient to combat inflammation and soothing irritated skin. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, it works well on skin which is stressed due to acne or rosacea. This Vitamin B3 derivative also strengthens the skin’s barrier and improves its elasticity, leading to plump and supple skin. Being a gentle active, it works with most skin types and is also suitable for sensitive and dry skin. To know more about Niacinamide, click here.

A) Product Type:

It’s best to use Niacinamide in the serum form. Most Niacinamide serums are water-based so apply them before oil-based moisturisers to ensure absorption and effectiveness. You can use it on the entire face but focus on the oilier areas. Our pick is Dr. Sheth’s Centella and Niacinamide Serum which is specially formulated for sensitive Indian skin which controls sebum production and reduces acne scars.

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B) Concentration and Frequency:

You can use a niacinamide based product daily and even twice per day, once in the morning and once at night. Ideal concentration of this active is between 5 to 10%. Infact, 10% is the highest available concentration in most topical Niacinamide products.

C) When to use:

Niacinamide can be used in the morning as well as night. Use it after cleansing and toning, follow it up with moisturising or any other treatment which is a part of your skincare routine.

6. Retinol

Retinol is a powerhouse active with wide ranging capabilities in treating acne, battling signs of ageing and skin brightening. Belonging to the retinoid family, retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A and it is a fairly superior anti-ageing ingredient thanks to its ability to repair skin damage and minimise signs of ageing. Topical application of retinol boosts cell turnover which promotes skin renewal, leaving behind brighter skin and correcting skin pigmentation. For a comprehensive guide on retinol, read our blog.

A) Product Type:

Retinol is most commonly used in the serum or cream form

B) Concentration and Frequency:

Concentrations as low as 0.01% have been proven to be effective for daily use. If you are using a Retinol product for the first time, don’t go beyond 0.03% at first. Once your skin is accustomed to retinol, you can slowly increase the percentage. If you are new to retinol, use it once a week and build up to 2-3 times a week based on your skin’s response.

C) When to use:

Retinol should only be used in your night routine as the final step after moisturiser. If Retinol is a part of your daily skincare routine, be diligent with using a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher as retinol makes your skin sensitive to UV rays. Avoid using AHA or BHA based products on days when you are using Retinol.

How to Choose the Right Active?

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1. Understand your Skin

Before settling on an active ingredient, it is important to identify your skin type and understand your specific skin concerns. If you are not sure about your skin type, take this skin test to find out.

2. Layering Actives

If you are using multiple actives in your routine then a thumb rule to follow is using Vitamin based actives in the day and AHAs / BHAs at night. Always make sure that you apply water soluble ingredients before the oil soluble ones. Lastly, it's important to check the pH level of the products as the most acidic product needs to be applied first. Read more about layering products in our blog.

3. Concentration

The concentration of active ingredients determines its effectiveness so using the right concentration is essential if you want to address a specific concern. With actives, always start slow with concentrations recommended by dermatologists and product labels. Once your skin gets used to it, you can increase the concentration gradually.

4. Inactive Ingredients

While active ingredients deliver results in managing skin concerns, pay attention to the inactive ingredients mentioned on the product to make sure you are not allergic or sensitive to any of them. 

5. Patch Test

It’s a good habit to do a patch test before introducing any new ingredient or product in your skincare routine to rule out any allergic reactions. To know more about how to conduct a patch test, click here.

6. SPF

Active ingredients make your skin sensitive to sunlight so if you have decided to incorporate them in your skincare, always remember to apply sunscreen before stepping out. Our favourite is Dr. Sheth’s Mineral Sunscreen which is specially formulated for Indian skin and offers a broad spectrum protection against UV rays, pollution and blue light damage.

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Watch out for Purging

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Skin purging can be one of the fallouts of using an active ingredient. It is quite common to have a reaction to a new product with an active ingredient. During a purge, the clogged pores beneath the surface of the skin are pushed out which causes the skin to flare up, resulting in breakouts. The good news is that breakouts during a purge don’t last beyond 4-6 weeks (when your skin adjusts to the new active ingredient) and it leaves behind clearer skin. To read more about skin purging, click here.

Myths About Active Ingredients

Myth 1: For best results, it is important to use products with multiple active ingredients

Too many actives can confuse the skin so it is better to focus on one skin concern at a time and let the active do its job.

Myth 2: The longer you use a product with an active, the better it is for your skin

Some actives are generally beneficial for the skin so they can definitely be a permanent feature in your skincare but actives that are meant to address specific skin concerns should be eventually phased out once they have done their work. Once you have achieved the desired results, you can switch products to address other skin concerns or bring the active back if the issue resurfaces. 

Myth 3: Most actives are synthetically derived hence, not good for the skin

The effectiveness of each ingredient depends on its composition and based on the results of tests carried out in labs, which prove the actual efficacy of each active ingredient. Safe and well formulated ingredients will always be effective whether they are natural or synthetic. 

Myth 4: Actives are mandatory in skincare 

If you are not dealing with a specific skin issue then it is completely okay to skip active ingredients in your routine. You can include actives in your skincare to address a skin concern but you don’t need to include actives if your current skincare routine is working for you. Using multiple actives in a routine does not necessarily translate to higher efficacy.

Sometimes, decoding skincare ingredients can feel like a chemistry lesson, leaving you perplexed with more questions than answers. But understanding actives can come in extremely handy especially if you are looking for a solution to a specific skin issue. Actives do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to resolving specific skin problems so knowing your actives will help you place them better in your skincare routine.

-Srishti Mehra

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