Intro to Actives: What Are Active Ingredients & Why They’re Important in Your Skin Care

Intro to Actives: What Are Active Ingredients & Why They’re Important in Your Skin Care

If you’ve ever spent time in skin care communities on Reddit, Facebook, or Instagram, you’ve definitely seen talk of “actives.” Honestly, you’ve probably even seen the term thrown around in beauty magazines and blogs, too. I know I’ve used it in previous articles.

In case you don’t feel confident in your knowledge of actives, I’m going to dedicate today’s post to explaining what they are, how they can help, and how to choose the right ones for you.


Actives 101

When you see the term “actives” in the beauty community, it’s referring to a specific category of ingredients. These are the general workhorse components of a product that deliver targeted, long-term benefits. Consistent use of actives over time can actually change the way your skin behaves.

Actives are the workhorses of your skin care products. Consistent use of actives over time can actually change the way your skin behaves.

Some of the most popular actives you’ve probably heard of:

    • Niacinamide (vitamin B3)
    • Retinol (or retinoids)
    • Vitamin C
    • Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
    • Beta hydroxy acid (BHA)

Now that we’ve got the “what,” let’s talk about the “why” (as in, why you totally need them in your life!).


Why Your Routine Needs Them

Like I said before, actives are the workhorses of a beauty routine. Sure, those herbal extracts and fancy proprietary blends are alluring, but these guys are the tried-and-true reliable heroes that can make your skin better, brighter, and more beautiful.




So, even if you just can’t resist a mile-long list of tempting plant extracts (looking at you, Sulwhasoo!), you should also be looking for products that contain effective percentages of the ingredients I mentioned earlier.

Which products you need and what percentages are “effective” will depend on your needs, but don’t worry! We’ll talk about that later.

Here’s a taste of what the right actives can do for you:

    • Clear clogged pores
    • Brighten your skin tone
    • Scavenge free radicals
    • Lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
    • Clear acne breakouts
    • Lighten and eliminate hyperpigmentation
    • Boost collagen production

Exciting, right? I wouldn’t blame you at all for wanting to buy everything at once, but first let’s take a look at which ones are likely to help you most.

Actives can clear clogged pores, brighten your skin tone, lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and boost collagen production. Exciting, right?


A Quick Breakdown of Popular Actives

Retinol (Vitamin A)

Retinol and its derivatives (called retinoids) are generally considered the “gold standard” when it comes to actives. If you’re over 25, adding a little bit of retinol to your routine is probably a good idea.


  • Reduces wrinkles
  • Stimulates collagen production
  • Encourages cell turnover
  • Fights acne
  • Fades hyperpigmentation

Effective Concentration:

This can range from as low as 0.1% up to 1%. It’s best to start low and slow with retinol because it’s easy to irritate your skin when you’re first starting out.



Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)

Niacinamide is my personal Holy Grail Ingredient. Unless you’re specifically sensitive to it, it rarely causes irritation and is well-suited to any skin type. You also don’t need to worry about pH for this one, which is nice.


  • Regulates sebum production
  • Brightens skin tone
  • Reduces redness
  • Minimizes appearance of pores

Effective Concentration:

Ideally, you want 3 to 5% niacinamide in your products. Some will state the concentration on the packaging, but others you might need to look up! Skin care with a 10% or higher concentration can cause irritation or breakouts for some people, so again, start out low and see how your skin responds.

Niacinamide is my personal Holy Grail Ingredient. It regulates sebum production, brightens skin tone, reduces redness, and minimizes the appearance of pores.



Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are great for any skin type, but the right AHA is especially helpful for those with dry skin since they can be hydrating as well as exfoliating. This group of actives includes glycolic, lactic, malic, tartaric, and citric acid.


  • Eliminates dullness
  • Speeds cell turnover
  • Reduces mild acne scarring
  • Minimizes appearance of pores

Effective Concentration:

The “right” concentration depends on how tolerant your skin is. There’s a broad range of available strengths, but 5% is the minimum recommended to be effective. In addition, you’ll want to make sure the pH of your AHA is around 3 to 4 in order to get the most benefit.




I’d suggest starting with an AHA in the 5 to 7% range and then slowly adjusting upward if your skin can tolerate it. And remember that AHAs are photosensitizing, so it’s extra important to wear sunscreen diligently!



BHAs, or beta hydroxy acid, are ideal for people with oily, clogged, or acne-prone skin. They’re able to penetrate past the skin’s oil production to really get deep into your pores and dislodge blackheads and debris. Salicylic acid is the most popular BHA, but you might also see its gentler counterpart betaine salicylate as well.


  • Unclogs pores
  • Improves rough texture
  • Dissolves excess oil

BHAs are ideal for people with oily, clogged, or acne-prone skin. They’re able to penetrate past the skin’s oil production to get deep into your pores.

Effective Concentration:

If you go for a salicylic acid product, the most common percentage you’ll see is 2%. For sensitive skin, however, this might be too much. You can opt for gentler products with as little as 0.5% salicylic acid, or you can try betaine salicylate instead (CosRx’s BHA uses betaine salicylate!).

BHAs aren’t as fussy as AHAs when it comes to effective pH, but it’s helpful to look for one with a pH in the range of 3-5.


Vitamin C

We can’t talk about actives without vitamin C! This is one of the most reliable and well-researched actives out there. There are so many different derivatives, product types, and concentrations that it really requires its own separate post. In my opinion, if you can only pick one single active to add to your regimen, vitamin C will give you the most bang for your buck.





  • Brightens complexion
  • Reduces redness
  • Encourages collagen production
  • Boosts sun protection
  • Provides extra hydration
  • Increases elasticity
  • Strengthens skin (makes it thicker and more resilient!)
  • Fades hyperpigmentation and shallow acne scarring
  • Encourages wound healing
  • Basically, what doesn’t it do?

Effective Concentration:

Again, this is hugely varied based on the product you choose. In general, you need a bare minimum of 5% to see any improvements, but it’s usually recommended to grab a product with at least a 10% concentration. In addition, vitamin C is usually pretty pH-dependent, so to reap all of the benefits, it’s best to use products with a pH around 3.5.

If you can only pick one active to add to your regimen, vitamin C will give you the most bang for your buck.


Let’s Recap!

That was a lot of info all at once, so let me hit the highlights one more time:

  • Actives are workhorse ingredients that are able to make lasting, long-term changes in how your skin looks and behaves.
  • Choosing the right actives (or combo of actives!) is essential for achieving The Youthful Glow™ we’re all chasing.
  • The most popular actives are retinoids, AHAs, BHAs, niacinamide, and vitamin C.
  • Always start low and slow whenever you’re introducing a new active to minimize irritation.

One final note: There’s a lot of info floating around regarding whether you should or shouldn’t mix certain actives. I’ll be covering that in a future post, but for now, my recommendation is to either split your active use between your AM and PM routines (e.g., vitamin C in the morning, AHA at night, etc.) or just alternate your actives in the evenings. It’s always better to be too cautious with acids, especially if you’re just starting out!

Do you have more questions that I didn’t answer? Drop them in the comments and let’s chat!



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