You’ve probably seen active ingredients recommended as a way to boost your skincare routine. But has anyone ever explained exactly what an active ingredient is, how it works, what makes it active and why you should use it? 

You might also be wondering about ingredients that aren’t classed as active too. Does that mean they’re not doing anything, even when they’ve been included in your favorite skincare? You may start questioning what’s the point in including them.  Happy to say that we’re taking care of that dilemma for you by decoding the difference between active and skincare ingredients right here, so keep reading

Why Are There Different Types of Ingredients in Skincare?

Skincare products are formulated to be effective, safe and easy to use at home. They blend together science, chemistry and dermatology to create products that work to address a whole range of different skincare issues.

As you can probably guess from the variety of skin concerns, skin types and routines out there; different areas of concern need to be handled differently. This usually means using different ingredients.

For example, oily, acne-prone skin that struggles with congestion has completely different needs to aging skin that’s dry and dull. The latter usually needs hydration, exfoliation and firming whereas the former might need mattifying ingredients that won’t clog pores. 

This is where active and inactive ingredients come into play. They blend together to create skincare solutions that are delivered in the right way, feel great on the skin and last as long as you need them to in the jar.

What Do Active Ingredients Do?

Active ingredients (sometimes just known as actives) are the chemical ingredients that are responsible for what a skincare product does. They deliver the benefits that the skincare claims and are usually backed up by science or clinical studies.

There are lots of different actives available in skincare, all of which provide different benefits and work best for different skin types. We’ve listed the most common active ingredients that are used in skincare, along with what they’re most commonly used for.

What Types of Active Ingredients Are There?

Active ingredients can be natural or synthetic. Depending on your skincare goals or skin type, you might want to use a couple of different actives to address different issues. 

Here are some common skincare concerns and the actives that work best for them.

  • Acne: Retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid
  • Hyperpigmentation: Hydroquinone, licorice root extract, vitamin C
  • Dryness: Ceramides, hyaluronic acid, petrolatum
  • Aging: AHAs, retinoids, vitamin C
  • Cleansing Agents: Cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate
  • Sun Protection: Avobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide

As the name ‘active’ suggests, because these skincare ingredients cause changes to the skin – they can cause reactions, particularly in sensitive skin. It’s always a good idea to carry out a patch test on the skin before you dive in with a brand new product, and if you have any concerns to flag them with the brand (their contact information is usually found on the label).

Something else to keep in mind with active ingredients is that their packaging makes a difference. Vitamin C, for example, is easily affected by the environment around it, especially when it’s in liquid form. Heat, light and air can all affect how effective it is – so choose a vitamin C formulation that comes in an opaque bottle, rather than a clear one.

What Do Inactive Ingredients Do?

Despite their name, inactive ingredients aren’t just there doing nothing. They’re usually used for texture and consistency, to help deliver the actives into your skin, to help active ingredients to perform, to preserve the product and to add scent or color. They wouldn’t necessarily make a big difference to your skin on their own but they improve how a skincare product works or is used overall.

If active ingredients are the main performer, then inactive ingredients are the supporting act – or at least the behind-the-scenes stage hands, setting everything up. A formula that balances out effective ingredients with the right inactive ingredients to support them is key when you choose a skincare product.

Similar to active ingredients, some people can be sensitive to certain types of inactive ingredients. A patch test is always a good idea with any new ingredient or skincare product, especially if it’s in a combination that you haven’t used before.

What Type of Inactive Ingredients Are There?

There are lots of different types of inactive ingredients (both natural and synthetic), and you’ll usually see several on any skincare ingredients list that you take a peek at. This starts out with the base. This is the starting point for every skincare product and usually consists of water and oil, determining the consistency of the product and whether it’s a cream, gel, lotion or serum. Water and oil are considered to be inactive ingredients.

Emulsifiers are another type of inactive ingredient. These are used to stop the oil and water in the base from separating out, which is what would happen if they were left to their own devices. Some emulsifier examples that you might see on an ingredients list are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), benzalkonium chloride, behentrimonium methosulfate, cetearyl alcohol, stearic acid, glyceryl stearate and ceteareth-20.

Preservatives  make skincare products last longer by preventing bacteria from growing, meaning that it isn’t a race against time to use them up. You might see sodium benzoate, phenoxyethanol, propylene glycol, butylparaben, propylparaben, diazolidinyl urea and benzyl alcohol used as preservatives in your favourite skincare products.

Hydrating and moisturizing ingredients like emollients, humectants and occlusives are all inactive ingredients along with glycerin, allantoin, petrolatum, squalene, dimethicone and shea butter. 

Buffers like sodium phosphate, malic acid and calcium carbonate are all used to help adjust, balance and stabilize a product’s pH. Thickening agents (such as carbomer, beeswax, xanthan gum and cetyl alcohol) are used to create smooth, thick product consistencies. Penetration enhancers – like olive oil – change the skin barrier temporarily to help active ingredients penetrate.

And finally, cleansing agents (known as surfactants) have both active and inactive components all in one ingredient. The active side removes dirt and oil from the surface of the skin, whilst the inactive part of the ingredient makes it easier to apply evenly to the face.

Conclusion: Active vs Inactive Ingredients

There’s no doubt: if you’re looking for results-based skincare then you need to be adding active ingredients into your routine. However, for the active ingredients to work effectively they need to be paired with the right inactive ingredients. These support and enable those all-important actives to do their job on your skin.

Skincare formulations are based on chemistry, science and research to make sure that ingredients work well together, are safe to use and support your skin. You need the right balance of ingredients coexisting to give you the results you need. It’s always best to do your own research and test out what your skin can tolerate as some actives and inactive ingredients don’t work that well together. Of course, you may prefer to skip this step and leave your skincare routine in the hand of experts 

At the end of the day, think of active and inactive ingredients as essential components of a symphony. Similar to the lightness of strings complementing the heaviness of the brass, your skincare routine is carefully crafted and combined to perform to the best of its ability and work magic on your skin.