Label Basics: Active vs Inactive Ingredients

What are you putting on your skin? Although the label lists ingredients, some labels also list an inactive or active ingredient. What does it all mean? 

The list on the side of your skincare products can read like a book with names that are difficult to pronounce. Ingredients are often listed in the order of concentration, meaning the formula contains more of the first ingredient than the last. However, many products also list inactive and active ingredients.

What is an “inactive” and “active” ingredient?

Active ingredients address a primary skin concern. For example, salicylic acid is an active ingredient in acne medications and products. An “active ingredient” acts as a solution or treatment for the user’s skin concern.  Inactive ingredients don’t directly address the skin concern. For example, Vitamin E is beneficial to the skin, but may not directly address the primary concern of the product, such as acne.  The remaining ingredients relate to the appearance, texture, and smell of the product. They help the ingredients mix with and work well together and even help it come out of the tube or bottle easily. Click here to download

What if the label doesn’t identify any inactive or active ingredients?

Products without inactive or active ingredients are not making a medical claim. For example, a cleanser cleans your pores, which may help prevent breakouts, but the cleanser’s primary function isn’t to treat acne. Products that list active ingredients have ingredients considered “drugs.” A governing authority, like the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), outlines skin care regulations, which requires labels to include the name and concentration of drugs. That’s why on an acne treatment product, there is a percentage next to salicylic acid that can range from 0.5% to 2%. Treatments for lines and wrinkles will include the percentage of Retinol in the formula.

Why is an ingredient listed as an active ingredient in one product, but not another?

Why is it a medication in one and not the other? The reason is simple: the cleanser doesn’t treat acne on its own. While the salicylic acid removes dirt and prevents clogged pores, people use the cleanser to clean their skin. If they do have acne, they can still reap the benefits of using the cleanser.

What are some active ingredients I should look for?

That depends on your skin concern. Some ingredients, such as Vitamin A and its derivatives and salicylic acid may be listed as an active ingredient on the label. Other times, you may have to hunt for it on the list.

Turn back the clock

Vitamin A reverses the signs of premature ageing. It goes by other names, including retinol. Additionally, vitamin A acid is also known as tretinoin. In addition to treating anti-ageing, vitamin A in all of its forms is great for boosting cellular turnover.

Brighten skin

Vitamin C brightens skin and is found in powder and liquid form. It boosts the effectiveness of Vitamin A to improve skin's overall texture and appearance. Also, look for lactic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps remove dull dead skin cells.

Hydrate skin, naturally

Hydration is vital for skin health. However, many moisturisers have ingredients that actually inhibit the skin's natural ability to stay moist. Look for natural hydration from ingredients such as shea butter, jojoba, squalene, and niacinamide to keep skin well hydrated.


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Avoid spots

If your skin is acne-prone, look for salicylic acid, which dissolves deep down dirt and debris that causes unwanted spot eruptions. Use it in combination with masks or treatments containing kaolin clay, which also draws out impurities and sulfur, which absorbs excess sebum.

Shrink pores

If enlarged pores are all you see when you look in the mirror, shrink them down with activated charcoal. Activated charcoal draws out bacteria, dirt and other chemicals below the skin's surface to shrink the appearance of pores. Also look for kaolin clay, which can help tighten the skin. Clear? It’s often overwhelming at first, but the more you read the labels the more sense it’ll make.    

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