Active Ingredients In Skin Care: What They Are, Where To Find Them & Examples  

mbg Beauty Director By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director. Previously she worked at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.
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In beauty writing, we love to toss around a very specific lexicon of words—do this enough, and with regularity, and sometimes it's easy to forget that certain words aren't always clearly defined or understood. I think about this a lot with the word "actives" or "active ingredients." Sure, with some context cues, you may be able to suss out what it means in relation to skin care—but wouldn't it be easier to delve into a full-blown explainer, no? 

See, actives are such an integral part of product formulation; without them, it's hard to fully understand how your products are working, or whether they are working at all. 

What is an active ingredient?

A broad-stroke definition of it is: Active ingredients are those found in your beauty products that have an intended purpose—ingredients meant to address a specific concern. And, well, there are as wide a variety of skin concerns out there as there are types of actives—from those that protect from sun damage, soothe, tend to acne, hydrate, and target fine lines. 

However, it gets a bit fuzzy when we talk about them within the context of beauty—because there's the stricter FDA-regulated term "active ingredients," and there's the looser, less involved colloquial way that it's used (or when you see people use it in beauty stories or marketing).

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The FDA definition of an active ingredient.

See, according to the FDA, "actives" are actually considered topical drugs. "Any ingredient classified as a drug by the FDA must be designated as 'active' on the product label. The FDA classifies an ingredient as a drug if its use is intended to treat or prevent certain conditions or if the ingredient alters the way the body works," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. "Active ingredients must be approved by the FDA for both efficacy and safety before being brought to market."

The easiest visualization I can offer is your sunscreen: Go to the back of the label and you'll see a box titled "active ingredient" with UV-blocking ingredients, such as zinc oxide, as well as the percentage they are formulated at. That's a perfect example of an FDA-cleared active ingredient.

Active ingredients as they are sometimes called in skin care.

But on a less stringent level, this language is often used to describe ingredients that alter the appearance of the skin. These are not regulated by the FDA as they are not considered drugs but rather cosmetic ingredients. So while these ingredients—usually things like antioxidants or the like—can serve a specific purpose in the skin, they aren't under the same scrutiny nor do they need to be explicitly stated on the label. 

Within this context, perhaps the easiest way to explain active ingredients is by example. Let's say you've been developing dark spots recently, and you decide it's time to invest in a dark spot corrector. The "actives" in said product will be whatever is intended to lighten and treat those marks. You may find a mask infused with alpha-hydroxy acids to slough off the stained skin. You may find a serum with vitamin C to help brighten tone and fight free radicals. You may also look into a retinol night cream, which will encourage cell renewal and turnover. All of these things have actives that target spots but do so in several ways. 

Another example: If you have acne or are prone to breakouts, you may look for something that helps clear up blemishes. The actives in these products will either encourage exfoliation, tend to inflammation, control oil production, or target the acne-causing bacteria on the skin. And again, you can find a variety of ingredients and products to these: You may find a face wash that has salicylic acid to break down the oil on the skin. You may, again, opt for a night product with retinol (a gold standard ingredient for a reason). Or you may look for soothing botanicals to focus on the skin's inflammation. 

Common actives and their purpose.

Here, I'm going to talk about actives in the broader sense, so I'll discuss things that the FDA would categorize as a cosmetic ingredient, not a drug—but will note when an active often falls under the FDA's definition, in the event you are curious. 

  • Sunblocks, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide: These mineral actives fall under the FDA's purview—as they protect the skin from UV damage and the potentially dangerous side effects of too much exposure. They also have to be formulated at a certain percentage to be effective. 
  • Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, astaxanthin, and CoQ10: Topical antioxidants do not fall under the FDA's regulations and thus will only appear on the ingredients list. However, they do wonders for your skin—by tending to wrinkles, inflammation, dark spots, and so on—so people often use them in skin care. Sometimes you'll see brands call out how much is in it (like if vitamin C is formulated at 20%, for example), but that's not necessary; it's only for marketing. 
  • Salicylic acid: A tricky one, but this is often considered a drug—especially in the context of treating acne—so you'll often see it called out in an active label. However, some brands chose not to go this path and instead opt out of making "treating acne" claims and simply market their product as having it.  
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids: These almost always are considered a cosmetic ingredient—and they work by gently exfoliating the skin. Common examples are lactic and glycolic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide: This antibacterial agent is regulated by the FDA for treating acne. Unlike salicylic acid, it's almost always called out as an active. 
  • Azelaic acid: Over-the-counter options of azelaic acid usually aren't regulated; however you can get it in prescription strengths to treat rosacea in which case it's, of course, considered a drug. 
  • Retinol/Retin-A/Retinoic Acid: These vitamin-A derivatives help increase cell turnover, thereby helping acne and fine lines. And the strength of the derivative depends on its classification. For example, prescriptions obviously are considered a drug by the FDA, whereas some OTC brands are considered cosmeceuticals. 
  • Pro-, pre-, and postbiotics: These are various ingredients that help your skin microbiome by either feeding your current bacteria (prebiotics), place strains of bacteria back on the skin (probiotics), or provide your skin with the beneficial byproducts of the bacteria themselves (postbiotics).
  • Hydrators, like hyaluronic acid and ceramides: These are generally only cosmetic ingredients. 
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Where do you find actives?

Active ingredients are formulated into a variety of products—from cleansers to serums. You can find them at many price points, too; they are also both OTC or prescription-strength. However: How the active is formulated, to what percentage, and how high quality the ingredients are can make a pretty big difference in the outcome. So while actives can be found in a wide range of products, they are certainly not all created equal. 

The most potent, of course, are prescriptions to be given by a dermatologist. These—like retinols, azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and others—are formulated at such percentages that they should be monitored by professionals and given to those who need them. If you feel your skin concern warrants a derm's visit, you'll most likely be given one. 

OTC options run the gamut. You can find serums and creams north of $500 at retailers or direct-to-consumer—or you can find drugstore options that are decidedly less costly. The type of product, too, tends to have an influence. For example, face washes are often less expensive than serums or creams, so even if your cleanser has an active in it, it may be less costly than its cream counterpart.

Essentially: When you're dealing with OTC products, what to look for is entirely up to you, your preferences, and cost limitations. If you can only afford options at your drugstore? Don't worry, there are plenty of good choices that will help your skin (Alba Botanicals and Burt's Bees are two favorites.) Or if you'd like to spend more, you can look to department stores or retailers like Sephora or Credo for additional options—these more expensive options may have stronger actives or simply more actives in the formula. 

What are "inactives"?

So, unless you're just using a pure ingredient—there's likely going to be other additives in the formula which are not considered "actives." And while you may be tempted to think that these are nothing more than filler, many times they serve a purpose. 

There are preservatives—in the natural space, look for phenoxyethanol, sea salt, and citric acid, among others—which keep the formula free of mold and bacteria for long-term use. They can also help stabilize the product so you can keep it around for more than its typical shelf life. Or there are ingredients that help improve absorption, like propanediol, which helps deliver the actives and enhances the sensorial experience. Or there are the more recognizable options that serve as your bases—things like botanical oils, shea butter, aloe, and so on—so you have a well-rounded product.

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The takeaway. 

Understanding skin care can sometimes feel like alchemy. Just when you figure out how to decode an ingredient label, you now have to figure out how those ingredients play together—and which one is doing the heavy lifting. That's essentially what you're doing when you dive into actives. But once you're better aware of what we mean when we talk about the concept, you'll be better able to decipher your skin care routine. 

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