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Skincare Ingredients

“Actives” is a big buzzword in skincare right now — and for many, that’s what it’s all about. It is true that active ingredients are important, and many of us purchase our skincare products with these ingredients in mind. We want hyaluronic acid to provide hydration, retinol for the anti-aging benefits or glycolic acid to help with exfoliation.

The problem is that there’s a misconception about active ingredients versus inactive. While actives are important, the inactive ingredients are, too. It’s always wise to check the ingredient profiles for each of your products to learn as much as you can about both types of ingredients.

Why are inactive ingredients important? We’ll show you!

Defining Active and Inactive

You’re probably already aware of the basic differences between active and inactive ingredients, but did you know that the FDA has a specific definition for actives? According to the FDA, active ingredients are components that are intended to affect the structure of the human body, or to treat, mitigate or prevent disease.

When translated to skincare terms, active ingredients are those proven to affect skin.

Inactive ingredients include everything else. Essentially, these are the ingredients that haven’t been proven to affect skin. Don’t be fooled, however, because even though clinical research may not have proven the effects of an “inactive” ingredient, the ingredient may still have some sort of effect.

What Makes Active Ingredients Important?

Think of active ingredients as the workhorses in your skincare products. While inactive ingredients may or may not have an effect, the actives are proven to have certain effects — and they’re included in products because those effects are desirable.

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

Here are some of the most common active ingredients that you’ll see in skincare:

  • Vitamin C, which offers antioxidant properties
  • Vitamin B3, which reduces inflammation
  • Hyaluronic acid, which is a molecule that binds water to the skin
  • Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, both of which are common treatments for acne
  • Retinol and other retinoids such as vitamin A, which minimize signs of aging by promoting cell turnover
  • Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), which tone, brighten and provide chemical exfoliation by loosening dead skin cells

What About Inactive Ingredients?

So, if the purpose of an active ingredient is to affect the skin in some way, then what is the purpose of inactive ingredients? There are three primary functions, which we’ll explore below.

Active Ingredient Delivery

Inactive ingredients create the formula base that allows the active ingredients to be delivered successfully to the skin. For example, you wouldn’t want to use pure glycolic acid (which is an AHA) on your skin because it would cause so much irritation. Instead, glycolic acid is typically included in lower percentages (such as 3% or 10%) in a formulation that includes inactive ingredients to dilute it and make application easy.

Texture, Appearance and Scent

Inactive ingredients are also commonly included to improve the way a skincare product looks, feels or smells.

  • Silicone is a common inactive ingredient, one that is often present in moisturizers because it improves the texture and creates a cosmetically elegant formulation.
  • Dyes are inactive ingredients that create a better-looking product. Manufacturers use them to tint skincare products that may otherwise have an unappealing color.
  • Perfumes and fragrances are inactive ingredients that make skincare products smell nice. While technically considered an inactive ingredient, some fragrances — most notably, alcohol-based scents — can irritate sensitive skin.


Some ingredients in skincare products won’t last as long as others if preservatives aren’t included in the mixture — and that’s why you’ll so often see preservatives listed in the ingredient list. In some cases, the preservatives are there simply to prevent things such as mold growth. Other times, preservatives prevent the active ingredient from breaking down too quickly.

Vitamin C is a common example of this. Without preservatives, Vitamin C can oxidize and lose its efficacy quickly — but with the right preservatives, cosmetic chemists can create a longer-lasting formula.

How to Choose and Test Skincare Products

While you’re probably purchasing skincare products to get the benefits of the active ingredients, be sure to read labels to learn about the inactive ingredients, too. These may or may not be listed by order of concentration. Sometimes instead of ordering inactive ingredients by the amount used, they’re listed alphabetically.

Keep an eye out for substances that you know will irritate your skin, and be sure to check for vegan and cruelty-free labels if you’re interested in these types of products.

As for using these products, be careful to avoid mixing active ingredients that may react with each other or that can compound potential irritation. For instance, you should avoid using benzoyl peroxide with retinoids, as together these can cause reactions and irritation. AHAs, BHAs, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids can all dry or irritate the skin, so it’s best to use them separately — especially if you’re using formulations with higher concentrations of these ingredients.

Patch Testing

Until you know how a skincare formula will affect your skin, it’s best to patch test it before using it regularly. Patch testing is simple. Just apply the product to an inconspicuous area — such as the corner of your jawline — and leave it be until it’s time to cleanse your face. Reapply after cleansing and repeat this process for seven to 10 days. If you don’t have a reaction, you should be good to go.

If you do have a reaction, then you know to watch out for the ingredients in that product in the future. In fact, you can likely compare the ingredient list to the ingredients in other products you use regularly to help zero in on which ingredient may have caused the problem.

While the focus is so often on the active ingredients, inactive ingredients are just as important. Reading labels for both types of ingredients can help you choose amazing products that work well for your skin while avoiding products that may cause irritation. For more information, please see the accompanying resource, by SeSpring.