Active ingredients — like vitamin C, exfoliating acids, and niacinamide — are the workhorses of your entire skin-care routine. Much like a star quarterback or that one person who always did all the work on group projects in high school, they carry the entire team. Without them, the products you slather on may not do as much — so if you want to make a real difference in your skin, they’re especially important to include in your regimen.
“An active ingredient refers to an ingredient that is responsible for an intended outcome, result, or effect within a product,” says Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “They are important because they refer to the main ingredients that we consider important in a skincare regimen.”
To get the most bang for your buck from your active ingredients, Dr. Garshick recommends adding them to your routine in face serum form. These types of products deliver high concentrations of actives in small molecular sizes that can easily penetrate your skin, which means they will likely give you faster results than any other part of your regimen. “Because serums are lightweight and absorb easily, they can effectively deliver key ingredients into your skin,” she says.
When deciding which actives to add to your routine, you’ll want to consider your primary goals. Do you want to brighten up dullness? Even out your skin tone? Reduce irritation? Chances are, there’s an active ingredient to address whatever complexion concern(s) you’re dealing with, and the good news is you don’t have to choose just one of them — thanks to a little technique called double serum. “It is okay to layer serums, though typically it is best to layer from thinnest to thickest,” says Dr. Garshick.
That said, you’ll want to make sure to choose actives that play nicely together. “It’s also important to know what the active ingredients are in your skincare to ensure you are not combining too many or ones that are not meant to be used together,” says Dr. Garshick.
Combining too many intense actives can sensitize your skin, so it’s important to alternate the timing when you’re applying each one—for example, stick to vitamin C or niacinamide in your a.m. routine, and use exfoliating acids more sparingly (generally 2-3 nights per week). “In general, it is best to avoid combining serums that contain exfoliating acids and retinoids as this can lead to irritation,” adds Dr. Garshick. However, we should note that all Glow Recipe products are carefully formulated to work together in a single routine, so go ahead and pick your fave synergistic pairings.
Now that you know why you need active ingredients, we’ve broken down exactly what the most common ones do. Keep scrolling to choose the best one (or two, or three) for you.
The active ingredient: Alpha and beta hydroxy acids
What it does: Even out texture
How it works: Alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids — which you’ll often see listed on labels as AHAs and BHAs — serve as chemically exfoliants that work by melting the “glue” (aka breaking down cellular bonds) that holds dead skin cells to the surface of your complexion. In doing this, they can help to improve your skin tone and texture, combat dullness, and leave your skin brighter and more radiant overall. You can find them in our Strawberry Smooth AHA+BHA Salicylic Serum.
The active ingredient: Vitamin C
What it does: Brighten and even skin tone
How it works: As any derm will tell you, vitamin C is one of the most important ingredients you can use in your A.M. routine — second only to SPF. “Not only does it work to brighten the skin and help brighten discoloration, but it also serves as an antioxidant to fight against free radical damage that can occur throughout the day from environmental stressors,” says Dr. Garshick.” It can be used by all skin types and is especially helpful for those looking to help with the signs of skin aging.” You can find it in our Guava Vitamin C Dark Spot Serum, where it’s paired with tranexamic acid (another powerful brightening agent) and guava.
The active ingredient: Hyaluronic acid
What it does: Hydrate and plump
How it works: Hyaluronic acid acts like a sponge, drawing moisture beneath the surface of your skin and locking it in — it’s famous for being able to hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. In hydrating skin, it can also help to plump the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, which means all skin types can benefit from adding an HA serum into their routine. Naturally, we’re big fans of the stuff, and you can find it in everything from our Watermelon Glow Hyaluronic Clay Pore-Tight Facial to our Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum.
The active ingredient: Niacinamide
What it does: Reduce redness, irritation, and discoloration
How it works: A do-it-all ingredient, niacinamide soothes irritation, reduces redness, boosts moisture, strengthens the skin barrier, provides antioxidant protection, and evens out discoloration — phew. Because of this, Dr. Garshick notes that niacinamide serums can be particularly helpful for those with sensitive skin, or in combination with other active ingredients to help minimize irritation. We pair it with mica-free luminizers for both instant and long-term brightening in our Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops.
The active ingredient: Ceramides
What it does: Strengthen the skin barrier
How it works: Often referred to as the building blocks of our skin, ceramides are essential for supporting the strength of your skin barrier. “This can be especially important for those with dry or sensitive skin to help restore the skin barrier to help keep moisture in and keep external irritants out,” says Dr. Garshick. You can find not one, not two, but five kinds of ceramides in our Avocado Ceramide Recovery Serum.
The active ingredient: Retinol
What it does: Smooth and firm skin
How it works: Retinol is an MVP active ingredient, with tons of evidence to back up its efficacy. That’s because it’s able to speed up skin cell turnover — helping skin shed dead skin cells for a smoother texture — as well as stimulate collagen production, keeping it firm. The downside? It can be irritating. While we don’t have a retinol serum in our lineup, you can find it in our Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask. We use an encapsulated form that allows it to penetrate with minimal risk of irritation, and pair it with super-soothers like avocado and niacinamide. And if you’re using a prescription retinoid for your whole face, no sweat — just offset its effects with a moisturizer like Plum Plump Hyaluronic Cream.
Read more about the best active ingredients: