Skincare Ingredients 101: Actives Vs. Inactives

Actives Vs. Inactives

Smooth skin. Enhanced hydration. Wrinkle reduction. Such promises of healthy, radiant skin are advertised on the front of most skincare products. However, to really understand their effects and get the most out of your skincare routine, it’s essential to look at the back label for the list of ingredients.

While these components may be difficult to recognize — and even pronounce — understanding the ingredients and their functions is vital to keeping your skin healthy. What’s more, knowing what goes on your skin can help you build a better beauty and wellness repertoire for years to come. Below is a look into two ingredient categories, active and inactive, as well as the benefits of some common examples.

Key Differences Between Active and Inactive Ingredients

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires skincare products to list their active and inactive ingredients for two reasons: one, to disclose any ingredient classified as a drug; and two, to back up any medical claims.

To be classified as a drug, the ingredient needs to be used either to alter the way the body works or to treat or prevent a condition. Once established as a drug by the FDA, the ingredient must be designated as active on the label. These actives can be used to treat acne flare-ups, reduce inflammation, or improve the skin’s tone and texture.

Essentially, actives are the substances designed and proven to modify the skin. What, then, are inactive ingredients? Typically, these elements work as emollients and stabilizers. They may be responsible for transporting the actives to the intended areas, helping prolong shelf life, or improving the scent or texture of the product.

Examples of Actives and Their Benefits

An everyday example of an active is vitamin C. It is included in skincare products to promote even pigmentation and stimulate collagen production. It also works as an antioxidant to scavenge for free radicals. Due to its many benefits, topical vitamin C is recommended for every skincare regimen.

Another celebrated active ingredient is Retinol. Known for anti-aging properties, Retinoids have proven their ability to stimulate the production of collagen, increase cell turnover, and help treat and prevent clogged pores. It’s available in many over-the-counter exfoliation products and in chemical peels with higher concentrations at the dermatologist.

A final example is two actives often found together. Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are commonly used as a chemical exfoliant. They work by dissolving the bonds that hold dead cells to the skin’s surface. When this skin is gently removed, the brighter and smoother skin underneath is revealed. However, these acids may deactivate Retinols when applied at the same time.

Examples of Inactives and Their Benefits

As mentioned above, some inactive ingredients are used to extend a product’s lifespan. These preservatives may also be used to eliminate bacteria growth and contamination. Parabens typically take on this role, but there are alternatives, such as phenoxyethanol and potassium sorbate.

Generally, the most common inactives are emollients. They are utilized in moisturizers to soften and smooth the skin. Common emollients include fatty acids, squalene, cholesterol, and ceramides. These substances can boost skin barrier function, cell signaling, and membrane fluidity, resulting in better skin texture and appearance.

A third example is botanicals. These powerful extracts and oils are typically distilled using natural and organic ingredients derived from plants, flowers, seeds, and even nuts. Licorice and chamomile can be used to help minimize blotchiness and redness, while black cumin seed oil and green tea may deliver anti-aging properties.

Read Labels Carefully

While it can be tricky to keep these chemicals and classifications straight, staying attentive to their differences can help improve your skincare routine and avoid stressing out your skin.

For more information on actives and inactives, please see the accompanying resource, by SeSpring.

This infographic was created by SeSpring, cruelty-free Korean gentle gel cleanser for face

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