An Introduction to Actives

What are actives?

When we use the term ‘actives’ in the context of skincare, it’s referring to:

o   Ingredients used in skincare that have been Shown by research to be capable of altering the actual structure or function of skin when used in a properly formulated product (for example, retinoids, AHA and BHA chemical exfoliants, or various vitamin C derivatives), or

o   Skincare products that deploy those ingredients in an objectively effective formulation (for example, an L-ascorbic acid vitamin C serum that offers the L-AA at a high enough concentration and a low enough pH so that it can be effective). 

The conversation about what actives are should necessarily involve guidelines for when to use them (as in order in your routine, as well as when you need them more broadly), and that brings us also to the subject of pH as many acids (a form of active) are pH dependent - meaning they can only be effective under specific pH conditions. 

A good way to think about actives in your beauty regimen is that they don't always need to be a part of your routine, but if you're looking to make significant changes to the appearance, texture or health of your skin they're pretty much essential*. Think of them as medicine in your medicine cabinet, they're great when you need them, but probably not a good idea to reach for them all the time just because they're around. 

*One exception to this rule is when skin becomes over-exfoliated and/or severely dehydrated, in this case it's possible that dramatic improvements can be made to the texture and appearance of the skin by actually removing the products in a routine that contain actives... I'm planning to write another post on the topic over-exfoliated skin soon though so more on this topic later...

In my opinion, serious actives can be a good idea if:

  • Your skin is basically healthy, with minimal sensitivity, over-exfoliation, barrier issues, or medical conditions, and
  • You’re tackling a specific skin problem, (e.g., acne or visible skin aging), that the active you’re considering has been proven to reduce, and
  • The skin problem you want to treat is high-priority enough that you’re willing to make other adjustments to your skincare routine if your actives call for it.

I don’t think serious actives are a good idea if:

  • Your skin is extremely sensitive or compromised due to medical conditions or practices like overcleansing or overexfoliation,
  • You’re very new to skincare and unfamiliar with your skin’s tolerance to various ingredients or product types, like chemical exfoliants, and/or
  • You’re unable or unwilling to incorporate additional products into your routine to compensate for possible side effects (for example, if you want to start an AHA or a retinoid, you’ll need proper sun protection, full stop, no exceptions).

If you don’t have any particular skin problems to treat, or your skin problems could be solved with some healthy skin habits like gentle cleansing and appropriate hydration and moisturisation, then I don’t think you “need” actives. Again, actives are like medicine. You take them when you need them. Not just because.

(And, like medicine, if you’re pregnant, nursing, or under a physician’s care for any skin conditions, check with your doctor before starting any actives.)