This is an image showing showing the correct way to choose skincare for your skin needs.

The correct and easy way to read skincare labels for next time you shop

What are the active ingredients?

You may have heard a lot of chatter about ‘active’ ingredients. But what are they really?

Well, active ingredients or actives are specific ingredients that address a specific skin concern. This could be about glowy skin, fighting acne or evening out your skin tone, among others. If you buy a cleanser that treats acne, for example, then the active in this cleanser will be the specific ingredient in that cleanser that helps treat acne. According to board-certified dermatologist Emily Newsom, M.D., An active ingredient has been proven in a lab by research to change the skin in some way; it's an ingredient that has data behind it.

What about inactive ingredients though? Well just because an ingredient is not active doesn’t mean it is useless. Sometimes a cleanser or a moisturiser is just that and that’s totally okay. Inactive ingredients are also essential in effectively delivering the active ingredient to your skin.

What are the different types of active ingredients and how do you incorporate them into your skincare routine?

Broadly, the actives address the following issues:

  1. Signs of aging: SPF-boosting ingredients (e.g. Zinc Oxide, Titanium dioxide), Vitamin A/ Retinoids, Vitamin C, Vitamin E
  2. Acne: Vitamin A/retinoids, Salicylic acid, Benzoyl peroxide, Azelaic acid.
  3. Dullness and uneven complexion: Kojic acid, AHAs, BHA, Hydroquinone, Vitamin C.
  4. Rosacea: Aarious antibiotics, Azelaic acid, Sulfur
  5. Eczema: Steroids, Tacrolimus, Pimecrolimus
  6. Dryness: Hyaluronic acid, Vitamin E.

    This is an image showing different active ingredients found in skincare products for anti-ageing.This is an image showing different active ingredients found in skincare products for acne.This is an image showing different active ingredients found in skincare products for dullnessThis is an image showing different active ingredients found in skincare products for Rosacea.This is an image showing different active ingredients found in skincare products for eczemaThis is an image showing different active ingredients found in skincare products for skin dryness



    Let us take a look at some popular actives and how you can incorporate them into your skincare routine.


    Alpha-Hydroxy Acids



    AHAs are acids derived from natural sources such as milk, fruit or sugar. AHAs help in evening out your skin complexion, making your skin smoother, exfoliation, brightening and even treating acne. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are popular AHAs. The former is derived from sugar while the latter is derived from milk.

    Beta-Hydroxy Acids

    While BHAs are naturally found in white willow bark and wintergreen, most formulations use a synthetic BHA. Like AHAs, BHAs are popular exfoliating acids and are primarily used to treat non-inflamed acne and help decongest pores and eliminate blackheads and whiteheads. Salicyclic acid is an extremely popular active used for people with acne-prone skin and is a BHA.

    Hyaluronic Acid

    This may be acid but it does not exfoliate. Hyaluronic acid is a popular ingredient known for its intensely moisturising and plumping effect. A naturally occurring sugar in our skin, hyaluronic acid depletes as we age. Topical application of hyaluronic acid does two things:

    1. Helps retain water, regulates the skin’s moisture levels and keeps the skin hydrated
    2. Builds skin resilience

    Vitamin C

    Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that is great at evening our complexion and brightening the skin. It is also helpful in reducing the signs of aging and helps counteract the effect of free radicals.

    Read more on why Vitamin C is the safest and most effective ingredients for your skin.


    Niacinamide is a vitamin B3 derivative. It is very effective in soothing irritated skin and, like vitamin C, is an antioxidant. Niacinamide is also great for strengthening the skin’s natural barrier.


    Retinol is a man-made vitamin A derivative. Retinols are popularly used in anti-aging products. They’re effective in evening out the skin tone, minimizing damage caused by free radicals, reducing signs of aging, increasing the skin’s ability to retain moisture. Retinols are even known to clear out your pores.

    How much of an active ingredient should you use?

    Well, first of all, you have to keep in mind that size (or rather, amount) isn't everything. Concentration and quantity of an active in the product in question is what is important. The higher the concentration, the stronger the active and the more careful you have to be with it.

    What is purging and how is it related?

    With active ingredients, you need to introduce them slowly to your skin. This is because actives can speed up the regeneration rate of your skin cells. This means a small pimple could become a larger one much quickly. This is known as purging and happens often when you’re introducing active ingredients into your routine.

    How often must you use an active ingredient?

    Always remember, in 2-3 weeks your skin will balance itself and adjust to the active ingredient. The key is to listen to your skin and not irritate it.

    With any strong active such as an AHA, a BHA, a retinol or a vitamin C, start with once or twice a week. Gradually, as your skin begins to adjust to the product, you can increase the rate at which you use the product. If you continue to experience purging, consult a dermatologist.

    What is the correct way to read ingredient labels?

    Now, all this talk about active ingredients and concentration brings up an important topic – reading the ingredients label. With a lot of misinformation, wrong information, dubious information and blatant greenwashing doing the rounds, it is important to know and understand how and why a product performs on your skin the way it does.

    So here’s a breakdown of ingredient labels to help you understand your products.

    This is an image showing the different parts in skincare labels we should know and check for every product we buy




    We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – with actives, the amount isn’t everything! Certain active ingredients only need to be present at 0.5 to one percent in order to be the most effective, so a little goes a long way! And because so little of the active is needed, it goes at the end of the list.

    This doesn’t mean the product is not effective! 

    Understanding Some Terminology

    We often come across terms in the product description and labels that are pretty confusing. So, let’s take a look at some terms you need to know!

    What is the difference between Natural, Organic and Clean ingredients?

    Ingredient labels aside, a lot of the words on a product’s packaging are confusing and at times take advantage of assumptions you may make. While natural, organic and clean may mean the same, they’re all very different.

    Natural refers to the use of natural ingredients but this term is highly subjective. What does natural really mean? Does it mean no manufacturing process was involved? Does it mean no synthetic ingredients have been added? The point is, you can’t really tell because there is no clear definition of what a natural product is! According to board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, if a product is labeled ‘natural’ it will generally mean that at least some natural ingredients have been used in the formula, but a product can be labeled as natural and contain up to 30% synthetic ingredients,” she adds. “If you are looking for a product that is completely natural, make sure it’s labeled 100% natural.”

    Organic refers to the ingredients used. In the case of organic, you have certifications such as ECOCERT COSMOS to put in some degree of validation. If a product is a certified organic by ECOCERT then you can be assured that you are getting what you are being told.

    Clean is synonyms with non- toxic products. Generally, clean refers to products made without controversial ingredients such as parabens and phthalates. The idea is that clean products will not harm or irritate your skin. This does not mean that the product is natural or organic though. It also does not guarantee that the product is cruelty-free!

    Understanding ingredient labels and product callouts is really important because some brands often indulge in greenwashing. They will use terms such as ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ to entice customers. Reading the ingredient label may often tell a completely different tale!

    What is ‘Hypoallergenic’?

    If you have sensitive skin, look for products that have ‘hypoallergenic’ written. Such products are less likely to irritate your skin or cause any inflammation. The term ‘hypoallergenic’ is not regulated by the FDA or any other organisation so it is always a good idea to do a patch test before applying any product to your face.

    What is ‘Fragrance-free’?

    For people with sensitive skin that reacts to fragrances, it is super important to choose products that are fragrance-free. Always check the list of ingredient for to make sure there are no added-fragrances in your product.

    What is ‘Non-comedogenic’?

    Non-comedogenic essentially means that the product in question will not clog your pores. If you have oily skin and struggle with acne, it is best to opt for such products. Products that contain ingredients that can clog your pores increase your chances of acne.

    What does the ‘PAO’ symbol mean?

    PAO means ‘period after opening’. It is characterised by an open lid of a small tub with a number followed by the letter ‘M’. The number represents a product’s expiration date once opened for the first time. 6M, for example, would mean the product is considered to be expired after a period of 6 months.

    This is a representation of the skincare product to be effective from the period of opening of POA


    At the end of the day, when shopping for a skincare product, remember to glance through a few essential aspects and decode the label in the right manner. Always look at the active ingredients, understand the terminology mentioned on the label and what they truly mean. Remember that there is more to the packaging and the ingredient label than what meets the eye. At the end of the day, while the packaging may be catchy and attractive,  the product and its inherent benefits and characteristics are what is more important. Shop wisely, shop clean and get maximum benefits from your skincare products.

    - By Gauri Sindhu

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