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Skin Care Actives: How to Use, Examples, Best Options

Skin Care Actives

Skincare actives refer to the active ingredient in the product you’ve chosen to use for your skin.

Each skin care product targets a particular skin concern. But WHICH is BEST for you?

Check our list of tips so you can find the right skin care actives to bring out your beauty!

Table of Contents

Why Are Skin Care Active Ingredients Important?

You wouldn’t eat at a 5-star restaurant for a so-so dish, right? The same applies to skincare products. Active ingredients are the MAIN INGREDIENT, just like the signature dish of a chef.

When choosing between skin care products, the active ingredient will be your deciding factor. It’s usually the only reason you’d invest in it because of the particular benefits it will give your skin.

What’s Important: Find the perfect active ingredient so you can add that product to your skincare routine.

The 4 Main Actives

Below are the most common active ingredients you’ll find in skin care.

Each will suit particular skin types or help with certain skin concerns. The key is to choose the one for YOUR skin type.

1. Vitamin A

#1 Vitamin A

What to Look for on the Label:

  • Retinol
  • Retinal
  • Retinoid
  • Retinaledehyde
  • Differin gel
  • Adapalene
  • Retin-A
  • Tretinoin

What this active ingredient does: Increases cell turnover, smoothens fine lines, fights wrinkles, treats acne

All these forms of Vitamin A (aka Retinoids) may differ in formulation, but they all have one thing: THEY’RE RICH IN ANTIOXIDANTS.

So Retinoids are great for you if your skin type is prone to getting wrinkles and fine lines.

This makes Vitamin A an excellent active ingredient if you’re looking for something that focuses on anti-aging. However, you need to consider the SIDE EFFECTS Vitamin A is known to cause:

  1. First, it can cause dry skin, so you will need extra hydration. Use it in combination with a rich moisturizer or serum.
  2. Second, vitamin A can cause skin irritation and increase your face’s susceptibility to sun damage.

To combat this, we recommend adding this active ingredient slowly and gradually over time.

Moreover, ALWAYS WEAR sunscreen with at least SPF 30, which is good practice anyway, regardless of whether you choose this particular active or not!

You can also take a look at our comparison article about retinol and retinoids to learn more about them.


  • You can try the Olay Regenerist Overnight Moisturizer with Retinol. We love that you can use this when you’re sleeping to get all the good effects of retinol, while also fighting off the drying effect it has.
  • You can also start with 0.25% concentration like the Retinol serum from First Aid Beauty. Apply every 3 nights until your skin can handle it. Then, you can start using it every night.

2. Vitamin B

#2 Vitamin B

What to Look for on the Label:

  •  Niacinamide

What this active ingredient does: Brightens dull skin, fades dark spots/age spots, moderates oil production in your pores, excellent in combination with other actives

Vitamin B is well-known for having a calming effect on your skin because it can give you that GLOW while also evening out your skin texture and tone.

It’s also great at treating dark spots and acne breakouts, so it’s good to always have one handy.

With a more or less neutral pH of approximately 4.5, this active is extremely versatile.

For instance, you can easily combine it with other actives, like vitamin C, to CALM ANY SKIN IRRITATION that may be caused by the use of stronger active ingredients like retinol, AHA, or BHA.


  • You can also combine Niacinamide with active ingredients like vitamin C serum and other brightening agents to give you even better results in the same period. It’s great even for sensitive skin types, as it reduces irritation other actives may cause.
  • We recommend incorporating Niacinamide into your routine, whether as a standalone or in combination with others.

3. Vitamin C

#3 Vitamin C

What to Look for on the Label:

  • Ascorbyl palmitate
  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate
  • Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate (THD)
  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Palmitate
  • L-Ascorbic Acid

What this active ingredient does: Increases collagen production and elastin production, brightens skin, fights off free radicals and environmental pollutants

Vitamin C is a super active ingredient for your face and body. It’s great at brightening your skin and increasing your collagen and elastin production in the dermal layer of your face.

On top of that, just like Vitamin A, this is excellent at delivering ANTI-AGING BENEFITS.

This antioxidant can easily fight off free radicals and any chemical that may contaminate your skin from your environment.

Note that in its L-Ascorbic Acid form, this molecule tends to be unstable – this instability irritates some people’s skin, so we recommend starting with the other forms of this active ingredient first.


  • If you’re looking for Vitamin C serum acids, you can take a look at our review of the top Korean Vitamin C serums for some great options.
  • Remember to use Vitamin C in combination with Niacinamide to soothe potential irritations. Moreover, DON’T USE high concentrations of it with vitamin A.

4. AHAs and BHAs

#4 AHAs and BHAs

What to Watch For on the Label:

  • Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (like Lactic Acid)
  • Beta-Hydroxy Acid (like Salicylic Acid)

What this active ingredient does: Prevents blackheads, and whiteheads (AHAs); Prevents acne and treats clogged pores (BHAs)

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) refers to a class of water-soluble exfoliants or face wash products that remove buildup of dead skin cells immediately at the surface of your skin to give you an EVEN COMPLEXION.

Because AHAs work right at your skin’s surface, these acids are great at preventing whiteheads, blackheads, and acne.

BHA is a group of chemical exfoliants that are lipid-soluble.

This difference allows BHAs to PENETRATE DEEPER into your skin and pores to kill acne-causing bacteria. It also works to treat clogged pores more directly than AHA.


An easy way to understand this is AHA is a preventative ingredient, while BHA is what you use to fight off an active breakout.

Combinations for Various Skin Conditions


Dehydrated or Dull Skin? Go for Hyaluronic Acid and Vitamin C 

Dehydrated skin always lacks that MAGICAL GLOW.

To fight this off, try this combination of an active ingredient like Vitamin C with Hyaluronic Acid in your skincare routine.

  • Vitamin C brightens your skin and produces a synergistic effect between these two active ingredients. 
  • Hyaluronic Acid hydrates your skin.

The result? A brighter and more hydrated complexion in no time! 

Plus, you can use Hyaluronic Acid and Vitamin C in conjunction with amino acid skincare ingredients.

Discoloration and Hyperpigmentation? Go for Azelaic Acid and Vitamin C

Azelaic Acid is great at reducing inflammation and killing acne-causing bacteria.

If you use Azelaic Acid long enough, it lightens acne scars.

Paired with Vitamin C, you end up multiplying the scar and spot-fading effects of Vitamin C to give your skin a more EVEN SKIN TONE and LESSEN HYPERPIGMENTATION.

Sensitive Skin and New Retinol Users? Go for Retinol and Niacinamide

Retinoids are a great active ingredient for a lot of things, but they can be too much for sensitive skin. Use Retinol with Niacinamide to SOOTHE your skin and keep the skin barrier healthy.

Daily Skin Protection? Go for Vitamin C, E, and Ferulic Acid

This is a great combination for daily protection for your skin.

Vitamin E and Ferulic Acid help boost the efficacy of Vitamin C by stabilizing it, calming irritation, and nourishing your skin.

Vitamin E is also a powerful antioxidant that helps reduce UV damage/sun damage to your skin cells!

Tips for Using Active Ingredients


If you’re unsure about the effect of particular skin care on your face, we recommend doing a patch test BEFORE fully incorporating it into your skin care routine.

  • Apply a toner and moisturizer (like Hyaluronic acid) even when using these active ingredients for a better skin tone and to maintain your cell structure.
  • Always apply sunscreen and moisturize, especially if you’re using a concentrated formula with vitamin A or C toner or serum.

Most experts recommend an SPF of 30 or higher to protect you from UV damage. Keep an eye out for Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide, and other key ingredients.

How to Layer Actives

When layering, order the products from:

  • Thinnest to the thickest consistency, and from
  • Lower pH to higher pH

This means you should use water-based serums with lower pH after cleansing, THEN layer on silicone-based products with HIGHER pH like Vitamin A, hyaluronic acid, and other oils in your skin care routine.

End with your oils, creams, and sunscreens!

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

Most people who are new to using active ingredients are easily overwhelmed.

Do you use a toner or a serum? What about your eye area? Will you get enough hydration?

Hopefully this article had all the information you need to get you covered to achieve your skin care goals!


September 1, 2021 – Improved article formatting, reviewed and updated overall content, updated article title

August 23, 2021 – Updated article links

July 13, 2021 – Reviewed and updated article links

Paola Diaz
Paola Diaz

Hi, I'm Paola! A skin care enthusiast and nature lover. Creating content that promotes proper skin treatment and keeping a healthy glow is my way of sharing with the world how healthy skin can go a long way. I’m a firm believer of natural beauty that radiates inside all of us. All we need is the right kind of nourishment that inspires our wellness from inside out. So it’s really not about physical beauty alone – it’s the beautiful life we can create for ourselves when we connect with our own nature and see there is beauty that shines from every one of us.