Now that healthy skin is in—which has been made apparent by the exponentially growing skin care industry—manufacturers and skin care brands are going to have to learn how to market based on active ingredients alone.

That may seem easier said than done, though, because it involves making science sound interesting to a consumer—so we’ll make it a little easier on you. We’ve listed some of the most common active ingredients below, as well as how active ingredients differ from inactive ingredients in some of the most common skin care products around the world.

First off—what are active ingredients anyway?

When we refer to active and inactive ingredients in skin care we’re talking about which ingredient in the product is going to produce a reaction on the skin. In other words, the active ingredient is the one with a biological target. While this distinction applies to virtually any chemical product you can buy—from prescription and over the counter medications to home cleaning supplies—in skin care it refers to the specific ingredient that’s going to produce a result on the skin.

In a moisturizer, for example, the active ingredient will be the ingredient in the product that helps moisture bind to the skin. In an anti-aging product, the active ingredient could either be a retinol, or a collagen to help plump the skin and diminish fine lines. For consumers with sensitive skin and specific needs, it becomes paramount to understand which active ingredient is in the product in order to avoid a negative reaction. Anti-aging products, specifically, can differ greatly in how they achieve the end result of younger looking skin, either by sloughing off the top layer of old skin cells, or plumping and nourishing existing ones.

Active Ingredient Categories

All active ingredients fall into some sort of category based on what problem they’re designed to treat. Such categories are as follows:

  • Rosacea - azelaic acid, certain antibiotic ingredients, and sulfur
  • Psoriasis - steroids, anthralin, salicylic acid, urea, lactic acid, vitamin A/retinoids, vitamin D, tacrolimus, pimecrolimus
  • Eczema - steroids, tacrolimus, or pimecrolimus
  • Pigmentation - AHA’s, BHA’s, Vitamin C derivatives, kojic acid, and hydroquinone
  • Acne - retinoids/Vitamin A, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, azelaic acid
  • Signs of Aging - vitamin C, vitamin E, chemical SPF’s such as octinoxate and oxybenzone, vitamin A/retinoids, collagen
  • Dry Skin - Vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, ceramides

Beyond that, certain active ingredients fall into deeper categories that designate differences in potency. For example, a retinoid refers to the umbrella term for both retinol, an over the counter topical, and retin-a, a prescription-only topical that’s about 100x more potent than retinol. Both active ingredients are a derivative of vitamin A, a naturally occurring molecule that aids in cell regeneration. Because vitamin A can’t absorb into the skin on it’s own, it has to be presented in the chemical form of a retinoid in order to be used in skin care.

Vitamin C works in a similar way, and products that are marketed as a vitamin C serum contain a derivative in the form of active ingredients like ascorbyl glucoside, L-ascorbic acid, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate, and magnesium ascorbyl palmitate. Each derivative operates differently and can result in different reactions in the skin, so it’s important to understand which derivative is being used as an active ingredient in vitamin C serums and skin care products. L-Ascorbic acid is one of the most potent forms of vitamin C found in skin care products, while ascorbyl palmitate is much more stable, as it’s lipid soluble, making it ideal for persons with highly sensitive skin.

Understanding & Choosing Active Ingredients

When picking which ingredients to use in a skin care product, it’s important to understand which active ingredients are going to be the best for that product. For an acne-treatment, that may be salicylic acid, but for a gentle acne treatment, it may be niacinamide. Considering how you plan on marketing your product will play into how you pick an active ingredient, as regulations also come in to play a major role.

Certain active ingredients—particularly those that are designed to treat a diagnosable disease like acne, psoriasis, and rosacea—are designated as drugs by the FDA in the United States. Products that are treated as such are often offered only as a prescription. This usually means that the active ingredient is offered in a higher concentration that must be monitored by a doctor in order to avoid negative side effects, or active ingredients that have a lot of potential negative side effects if used by the wrong person. A lot of acne medications, for example, can cause issues like dry mouth, dry and peeling skin, hives, or other sensitive drug reactions.

How active ingredients are presented and marketed play a big role in whether or not they’re sold as a prescription or an over the counter product as well. In this case, two products might have the same active ingredient dosage but are marketed differently. A product marketed as a drug will list the active ingredient as a drug, while a skin care product that markets the active ingredient will simply list it on the label.

A foaming facial wash that contains salicylic acid 3% may be available only as a prescription if it’s marketed as a drug that can treat acne, rather than an ingredient that can help alleviate side effects like redness and other blemishes. The potency of the active ingredient also determines how it can be sold in the United States, and since the FDA says that any salicylic acid treatment containing more than 2% of the ingredient can’t be sold over the counter, a 3% salicylic acid facial wash would have to be sold as a prescription acne treatment. Here is the information on FDA regulations, if you want to get technical.

Innovations In Skin Care Technology

With access to technology, skin care manufacturers and suppliers are finding new, innovative ways to deliver active ingredients in different ways. Companies like The Ordinary have branded themselves on transparency and marketing active ingredients in affordable skin care lines that are accessible over the counter.

Meanwhile other companies, Clinique for example, are taking different routes—from personalized skin care made just for the consumer based on their individual needs, to innovations in production that can make plant-based versions of previously non-vegan active ingredients (such as retinol) or even infuse active ingredients like CBD to be sold among the cannabis consumer market.

Common Active Ingredients:

AHA’s: Alpha-hydroxy acids include ingredients such as glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids. Serums and creams that contain AHA’s are used to treat things like fine lines and wrinkles, smooth over pores, and gently exfoliate the face chemically, rather than physically. While AHA’s are popular products for treating these symptoms, they can also sensitize the skin and make it easily prone to sunburns, so it’s important to use AHA products in the evening and pair them with a good SPF regimen during the day. L(+)-Lactic Acid by Jungbunzlauer is a natural lactic acid made by the pure fermentation process of carbohydrates. The product is colorless to yellowish, odorless, and syrupy in consistency with an acidic taste. It is available in various concentrations depending on your needs.

BHA’s: Beta-hydroxy acid, also known as salicylic acid, is an acne treatment ingredient that can help remove dead skin cells and treat acne by penetrating oily pores to clean them. For this reason, it can be drying and dermatologists will often suggest to pair it with a moisturizer to replace natural moisture with something that won’t worsen acne. Presperse Biogenic SA-200 is a salicylic acid offered at a highly concentrated amount of 40%. The ingredient is able to be watered down to 10% salicylic acid to be used in various products of different strengths.

Hydroquinone: Similar to Kojic Acid, this active ingredient is found in products that promise to brighten the skin and treat signs of hyperpigmentation and age spots. Many of these products are only available as a prescription, but it isn’t uncommon to find products that are available over the counter that contain either of these active ingredients. Eastman Hydroquinone is a high quality hydroquinone for skin brightening and lightening products. The ingredient is certified to meet or exceed expectations set by the United States Pharmacopoeia.

Ceramides: This active ingredient works to improve barrier function on skin cells by moisturizing and hydrating. Think of it as the glue that binds the cells together, keeping them healthy and working as a cohesive whole. Nippon Fine Chemical Phytopresome Cera-V is a high quality ceramide from Nippon Fine Chemicals, a chemical and ingredient supplier out of Japan. This is a plant-derived ingredient containing five types of ceramides.

Hyaluronic Acid: Hydrating ingredients work differently than moisturizers because they don’t supply nourishment so much as they pave the way for the skin to absorb water. Hyaluronic acid is a molecule that allows water molecules to bind to the skin and be absorbed within its barriers. Green Angel makes a great Hyaluronic Acid out of pure and organic materials to assure the highest quality of ingredient is made.

Copper Peptides: Our bodies slow production of this naturally occurring amino acid as we age. While AHA’s may help reduce signs of wrinkles, copper peptides help prevent them from appearing while improving elasticity and suppleness. Biostren Chemical offers a high quality copper peptide among its list of available peptides. One thing we love about this company is that they can create custom ingredients based on the needs of each client.

Niacinamide: Often referred to as another acne-fighting active ingredient, niacinamide helps reduce inflammation. A powerful antioxidant and vitamin B3 derivative, niacinamide can help remove environmental stressors—like pollution—that contribute to acne. Aako is one of our favorite suppliers of niacinamide because of its high quality and use as an ingredient in after-sun care.

Key Takeaways

  • Active ingredients, or actives, refer to any ingredient in a skin care product that gives it its purpose—whether it be a nourishing lotion or an acne cleanser.
  • Consumers like to know which active ingredients are being used in their favorite products, but that requires a thorough understanding of what active ingredients are and what their uses are in specific products.
  • Technology can make it easier to market the same product with different active ingredients (like salicylic acid vs niacinamide in an acne treatment product), utilizing things like machine learning and artificial intelligence to match your consumer to a product will make your brand feel more personal to them.

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