Everything You Need To Know About Active Ingredients


First things first, if you’re not familiar with active ingredients, your first question is probably ‘What are active ingredients,anyway?’ Well, here’s the low down on everything you need to know about active ingredients, how they work and what they work for!

What are active ingredients?

The short answer : An active is the ingredient in a product addressing whatever skin concern it’s meant to target. An active ingredient has been proven in a lab by research to change the skin in some way and has data behind it. So, in other words, an active ingredient targets a specific concern, for example, congestion, dull skin, dry skin, acne, pigmentation, aging, you name it.

Here’s a breakdown of the most commonly found active ingredients in today’s skincare :

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Alpha-hydroxy acids are very commonly used and could be one of the following : glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids. Creams and lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids may help with fine lines, irregular pigmentation and age spots, and may help shrink enlarged pores. It is also recommended for acne scarring.

Environ Concentrated Alpha Hydroxy


Side effects of alpha-hydroxy acids include mild irritation and sun sensitivity. Sunscreen is SUPER important daily, but if you use products containing AHA’s, it is even MORE important. To help avoid skin irritation, start with a product with a maximum concentration of 10% to 15% AHA. If you are new to active ingredients, products containing AHA’s should be applied every other day and gradually work your way up to every day use.

Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid)

Salicylic acid you will especially find in products that are targeted for acne. This ingredients removes dead skin and can improve the texture and color of sun-damaged skin. It penetrates oil-laden hair follicle openings and, as a result, also helps with acne. Some products containing Salicylic acid are available over-the-counter and others need a doctor’s prescription. Studies have shown that salicylic acid is less irritating than skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids, while providing similar improvement in skin texture and color.

Contains Glycolic and Lactic acid along with Salicylic acid

From personal experience and use of products containing Salicylic acid, I do experience dry, flakey skin on the areas I have applied the product to.


Skin care products containing hydroquinone are often called bleaching creams or lightening agents. This will ring a bell if you are familiar with Asian/Korean skincare – they are very much into whitening skincare products. Products containing Hydroquinone are used to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots related to pregnancy or hormone therapy (melasma or chloasma).

Products with Hydroquinone are banned over the counter in South Africa and can only be prescribed by a doctor. It is also recommended to be used for a specific period of time only. Again sunscreen should also be used religiously when using Hydroquinone.

Kojic Acid

Kojic acid is also is a remedy for the treatment of pigment problems and age spots. Discovered in 1989, kojic acid works similarly to hydroquinone. Kojic acid is derived from a fungus, and studies have shown that it is effective as a lightening agent, slowing production of melanin (brown pigment). Prior to using Kojic acid chech the specific percentage recommended for your skin.

Kojic Acid Serum by Skinceuticals


One that gets most, if not all skincare junkies very excited, myself included. Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is found in many over-the-counter “anti-aging” skin care products. Tretinoin, which is the active ingredient in prescription Retin-A and Renova creams, is a stronger version of retinol. If your skin is too sensitive to use Retin-A, over-the-counter retinol is an excellent alternative.

Overnight Retinol Repair by Dermalogica


Environ Retinol in a selection of 3 different strengths.

Here’s why skin responds to skin care products with retinol : Vitamin A has a molecular structure that’s tiny enough to get into the lower layers of skin, where it finds collagen and elastin. Retinol is proven to improve mottled pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone and color, and your skin’s hydration levels. Retinyl palmitate is another ingredient related to retinol, but is less potent. A must in your skincare regime! It is an all-in-one powerhouse ingredient.

L-Ascorbic Acid

This is the only form of vitamin C that you should look for in your skin care products. There are many skin care products on the market today that boast vitamin C derivatives as an ingredient (magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl palmitate, for example), but L-ascorbic acid is the only useful form of vitamin C in skin care products. With age and sun exposure, collagen synthesis in the skin decreases, leading to wrinkles. Vitamin C is the only antioxidant proven to stimulate the synthesis of collagen, minimizing fine lines, scars, and wrinkles.

Lamelle Vit C Corrective

Hyaluronic Acid

Skin care products containing this substance are often used with vitamin C products to assist in effective penetration. Hyaluronic acid (also known as a glycosaminoglycan) is often touted for its ability to “reverse” or stop aging. In the big, big world of beauty, you might have heard of hyaluronic acid as the “key to the fountain of youth.” This is because the substance occurs naturally (and quite abundantly) in humans and animals, and is found in young skin, other tissues, and joint fluid. Hyaluronic acid is a component of the body’s connective tissues, and is known to cushion and lubricate. As you age, however, the forces of nature destroy hyaluronic acid. Diet and smoking can also affect your body’s level of hyaluronic acid over time. Skin care products with hyaluronic acid are most frequently used to treat wrinkled and also dehydrated skin.

Hyaluron Complex by Doctor Eckstein


Lamelle HA Plus Corrective – This is an absolute stunner of a product.

Copper Peptide

Copper peptide is often referred to as the most effective skin regeneration product, even though it’s only been on the market since 1997. Studies have shown that copper peptide promotes collagen and elastin production, acts as an antioxidant, and promotes production of glycosaminoglycans (think hyaluronic acid, as an example). Studies have also shown that copper-dependent enzymes increase the benefits of the body’s natural tissue-building processes. The substance helps to firm, smooth, and soften skin, doing it in less time than most other anti-aging skin care products. Clinical studies have found that copper peptides also remove damaged collagen and elastin from the skin and scar tissue because they activate the skin’s system responsible for those functions.

Copper Peptide by Dermafix

Alpha-Lipoic Acid

You may have heard of alpha-lipoic acid as “the miracle in a jar” for its anti-aging effects. It’s a newer, ultra-potent antioxidant that helps fight future skin damage and helps repair past damage. Alpha-lipoic acid has been referred to as a “universal antioxidant” because it’s soluble in both water and oil, which permits its entrance to all parts of the cell. Due to this quality, it is believed that alpha-lipoic acid can provide the greatest protection against damaging free radicals when compared with other antioxidants. Alpha-lipoic acid diminishes fine lines, gives skin a healthy glow, and boosts levels of other antioxidants, such as vitamin C.

Alpha Lipoic Activator by Nimue

DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol)

If you’ve heard of fish referred to as brain food, you can thank DMAE. This substance is naturally produced in the brain, but DMAE is also present in anchovies, salmon, and sardines. DMAE boosts the production of acetylcholine, which is important for proper mental functions. DMAE in skin care products shows remarkable effects when applied topically to skin, resulting in the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles.

We hope after this post and the breakdown of each active ingredient, you have a clearer understanding about what each of them are and what purpose they serve.



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