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Skincare Ingredients Blog

The 10 Most Essential Actives In Your Skincare

December 10, 2019

If you want to sift the marketing messages out from what your skincare can really do, our advice is to understand which active ingredients to look for, and how they work.

When we say active ingredients, we mean ingredients that have been shown to influence change in your skin at the cellular level. They may help to repair the skin for anti-ageing purposes, reduce redness and uneven skin tones, or nourish the cells to help the skin regulate its moisture levels. If you see the term “medical grade skincare,” that is basically just skincare that contains active ingredients.

Here are some of the most important active ingredients in your skincare and how they work in your skin.


The term antioxidant may refer to any ingredient that protects your skin from free radical damage caused by oxidative stress. Free radicals are molecules that carry oxygen. They react with other molecules in your body and, when the balance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body becomes skewed, free radicals can actually cause minor damage and ageing. This is known as oxidative stress.

Foods that are rich in antioxidants can help reduce free radical damage internally. Antioxidant-rich foods like goji berries, sea buckthorn, pomegranate and blueberries can be eaten whole or used in a nutritional supplement.

When applied topically, antioxidant ingredients can help reduce free radical damage on the surface of the skin, though they make a broad ingredient category. Active ingredients with antioxidant properties include your Vitamins A, B, C and E (more on these below). Antioxidant properties are also found in natural herbal and fruit extracts such as Willow Herb, Songyi Extract, Jojoba Oil, Olive Extract and Resveratrol (extracted from grapes-more on this below, too).

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is one of the most highly trusted skincare ingredients. Its research and use goes all the way back to the 1950s. In skincare, it can ante up for two main purposes; anti-acne and anti-ageing.

This vitamin is so effective with acne because it helps regulate the natural oils in your skin (known as sebum) and improve cell turnover (natural exfoliation) to reduce congestion.

Improved cell turnover also helps with anti-ageing as old cells are more regularly removed to reveal healthy, fresher cells. The main reason, though, that Vitamin A is so effective for anti-ageing is because it helps promote collagen production and growth. After the age of 25, our skin produces 1% less collagen every year. This means our skin loses elasticity and starts to crease or sag, so the purpose of most anti-ageing efforts is to promote more collagen in our skin, and Vitamin A helps to do that.

Vitamin A comes in a few different forms and strengths, so it may be listed as retinol, retinoids or retinaldehyde. Some forms may cause irritation or redness when you first start to use it, so we recommend introducing it into your skincare routine slowly. Retinaldehyde is the least irritating form of Vitamin A, but it’s also the most difficult to stabilise in skincare formulas, so you may only see it in a few products.

Any Vitamin A can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so be sure to slop on your sunscreen while using it.

Vitamin B

Vitamin B is a potent antioxidant and an even better anti-inflammatory. In some instances, it can calm atopic skin conditions like eczema (but we recommend that you check with a professional before using it for this purpose).

In addition to calming the skin and helping to soothe inflammation, Vitamin B can help your skin regulate its natural moisture levels and restore your skin’s natural moisture barrier. It is often recommended for dry, sensitive skin types. It can also help counteract the sensitivity that some people experience when they first start using Vitamin A in their skincare.

There are eight different forms of Vitamin B, but the most common ones used in skincare include Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) and Panthenol (Vitamin B5).

Vitamin C

C is the vitamin of summer and sunshine. It helps to brighten the skin, even out skin tone and reduce visible signs of sun damage and pigmentation.

Vitamin C also has some anti-ageing properties. While Vitamin A promotes collagen production, Vitamin C helps to synthesise new collagen. This means that it interacts with the amino acids inside the collagen cells so that they can do a better job at rebuilding the collagen fibre structures.

There are a few forms of Vitamin C in skincare. The more common forms of Vitamin C include L-Ascorbic Acid, Ascorbyl Glucoside, Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate and Ethyl Ascorbic Acid.

Vitamin C can sometimes be irritating for more oily or acne-prone skin types, unless it is Ethyl Ascorbic Acid which is both water and oil soluble (other forms may be just water soluble).

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is another antioxidant with a long-running history in skincare. It protects the skin from free radical damage. It’s also a fat-soluble anti-inflammatory, which makes it a popular ingredient in active moisturisers. It may be labelled as “Tocopherol” instead of Vitamin E.

Collagen Peptides

Technically speaking, peptides are amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are essential building blocks of collagen and collagen fibres are the building blocks of skin.

As we age, we start to lose some of these building blocks, and visible signs of ageing appear. When we apply collagen peptides to the skin, they help rebuild and remodel the collagen to restore a youthful texture and elasticity. They also signal existing collagen peptides in the skin to remodel themselves. Bonus fact; collagen peptides can also help minimise the appearance of large pores.

There are many different collagen peptides with their own technical names, so look for the term “peptide” in the ingredient names, especially tetrapeptides or oligopeptides. You may also see products advertised as polypeptides, but these are just another marketing term for collagen peptides.

Growth Factors

Growth factors are naturally occurring proteins that stimulate healing and regeneration in living tissues, including the collagen fibres in your skin. As a skincare ingredient, they can be sourced from plant proteins, most commonly barley seeds.

They may appear on a label as an EGF (epidermal growth factor) or with a technical name such as rh Oligopeptide. When applied to the skin, they can help accelerate the growth of healthy skin cells and repair damaged skin tissues to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and acne scarring.

Hyaluronic Acid

This ingredient made a splash last year when it suddenly started showing up in serums and moisturisers across the industry, and we understand why. It’s non-irritating, it occurs naturally in your skin’s natural barrier, and it helps with hydration and plumping of the skin. In fact, Hyaluronic Acid holds up to 1,000 times its weight in water.

The important thing to note is that this hyper-hydrator of an ingredient comes in regular and low molecular weight. The regular molecular weight helps to hydrate and plump the surface of the skin while the low molecular weight can permeate the slightly deeper layers of the skin. It’s often best to use a product that contains both regular and low molecular weights. It’s also important to add moisture after applying Hyaluronic Acid so that it has water to bind to once it’s absorbed into your skin.


This ingredient is extracted from the skin of red grapes, and it’s also found in red wine. It’s become a popular antioxidant that can be taken orally or applied topically. Products with Resveratrol can help protect cells from DNA damage caused by UV exposure and oxidative stress. Its anti-inflammatory properties can also help soothe the skin and reduce redness.

Pigment Inhibitors

Pigmentation can be caused by sun exposure, hormonal changes or ageing. We’re not talking about a tan, which appears with short term sun exposure and fades again. Pigmentation is long term discolouration that may appear as dark spots or unevenly toned areas of the skin. Pigment inhibiting serums can be used to reduce existing pigmentation and prevent further pigmentation from forming.

There are a few ingredients that have been found to be effective at reducing pigmentation. Symwhite (Phenylethyl Resorcinol) is derived from pine trees and found to inhibit pigment catalysts in the skin. 90% of study participants reported that their pigmentation faded after 28 days of regular use. Sepi-White (Undecylenoyl Phenylalanine) also inhibits the activity of pigment catalysts in your skin to reduce uneven pigmentation. Beta-White (comprised of Hydrogenated Lecithin, Sodium Oleate, Butylene Glycol, Oligopeptide-68, Disodium EDTA) safely binds to receptors on the pigment-producing cells and reduces tyrosinase (a pigment-stimulating hormone in your skin) to reduce pigmentation and prevent further discolouration from forming.

Tetrapeptide 30 is a peptide that has been found to reduce pigmentation trapped in the skin, and it’s often recommended for sun spots and for melasma.

Brown algae extract has also shown benefits in pigmentation reduction, and it’s safe for melasma as well.

Glycyrrhetinic Acid (derived from Licorice) is a nice anti-inflammatory that inhibits communication between the pigment-producing cells to reduce pigmentation in the skin.

Products that have a combination of these pigment inhibitors are often more promising than products with only one or two active ingredients.

Earlier this year, beauty bloggers and skinfluencers debated whether simply lemon juice could do the trick with pigmentation. In our professional opinion, any improvement you may see with lemon juice is likely thanks to the Vitamin C content, but straight lemon juice on the skin (especially before sun exposure) is a major risk for irritation because of the natural acids that lemons contain, so we don’t recommend it. You’re safer leaving the formulations to skincare professionals working in a controlled lab.

Want to upgrade your skincare but unsure where to start?

Speak to one of our highly trained, knowledgeable specialists to find out which active ingredients are right for you!

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