skin care essentials What Exactly Are Actives In Skin Care?

An expert breaks it down.

February 23, 2022
Skin Care Actives


Between common ingredients like retinol and hyaluronic acid, and skin care forms like emollients and serums, it can be difficult to keep up with popular terms in the skin care category. And if you consume a lot of skin care related content or like to educate yourself on products and their ingredients, perhaps you’ve heard the term “actives” in reference to skin care formulas. But if you’re not sure exactly what actives (often referred to as dermatological actives) are in skin care products, you’re not alone. 

So if you’re ready to expand your skin care knowledge, keep reading because we consulted with Madison Godesky, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Scientific Affairs at L’Oréal Paris, to share what you need to know about skin care actives.


What Are Skin Care Actives?

“When it comes to skin care, active ingredients are the stars of the show,” says Godesky.

You may even be familiar with some of the more popular dermatological actives in skincare, such as retinol, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, glycolic acid, peptides, and azelaic acid. 

“The specific ‘cocktail’ of actives is the engine that drives product performance, and both the concentrations and combinations of actives are important to consider,” explains Madison. “However, for an efficacious skin care product, actives selection is only half the battle; a powerful engine of actives needs an equally robust vehicle for delivery into skin,” she says. 

“Well-constructed vehicles are formula architectures that stabilize active ingredients and optimize their delivery into skin. They can include various compositions of ingredients like solvents, emollients, texture enhancers, stabilizers, and pH modifiers.”

That was science heavy, we know. In simpler terms, actives like retinol, vitamin C and more are effective in skin care depending on how they’re combined, what formulas they’re in and at what concentrations they exist within the formula. 


What Are the Best Products to Deliver Actives Into the Skin?

As Godesky explained, some formulas (or vehicles) are better able to deliver actives into the skin than others. 

“When it comes to delivery vehicles for dermatological actives, serums tend to be the most amenable to maximize product potency,” Godesky further explains. 

Serums are excellent delivery vehicles because they’re water-based fluids and can hold high concentrations of most dermatological actives. They’re also fast absorbing and can deliver actives deeply into the skin.

How to Use Actives in Your Skin Care Routine 

In order to yield the skin benefits of dermatological actives, it’s important to consider how you’re using them in your skin care routine. First, figure out what your skin care goals are and what skin concerns you’re looking to address. Then, identify which actives are proven to help address those needs. 

Godesky says that understanding the potency of the formula you’re using is key. And potency is determined by the type of active in the formula, the concentration, and the specific formula it’s in. For instance, “cleansers are rinse-off products, so they have a shorter contact time on skin,” she explains. “A five percent glycolic acid in a cleanser will be less potent than five percent glycolic acid in a leave-on toner.”

It’s also extremely important to understand how the actives you’re using might affect skin’s sun sensitivity. For example, retinoids and hydroxy acids, such as retinol and glycolic acid, can make the skin more sensitive to the sun. Avoid applying these actives right before sun exposure, and always combine with SPF 30 or greater.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that your skin may take time to adjust to formulas with high concentrations of actives. Godesky suggests incorporating them into your routine slowly, and not to change too many elements of your routine at once.


Our Best Serums With Dermatological Actives 

If you’re looking to incorporate an active packed serum into your routine, we’re sharing our favorites below.


L’Oréal Paris Revtialift Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0.3% Pure Retinol

If addressing signs of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles, is your goal, this retinol serum is for you. It works to address these physical signs of aging without drying out the skin thanks to glycerin in the formula.


L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum

This potent glycolic acid serum is great for addressing uneven skin texture and tone. The lightweight, fast-absorbing formula works to smooth and refine the skin for a more youthful looking complexion.


L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum

If increased skin hydration and plumpness is what you’re after, make this pick your new go-to. The high concentration of pure hyaluronic acid in the formula helps to deeply hydrate and plump the skin while also addressing wrinkles.


L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps to brighten the skin and reduce wrinkles. This particular formula isn’t gritty like others can be, meaning that it smooths onto the skin with ease. Plus, it’s housed in an airtight tube which prevents it from oxidizing, which is common for vitamin C as it’s unstable and often shifts when exposed to air, water, and light.


L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Skin Care Cell Renewal Anti-Aging Midnight Serum

This anti-aging serum is packed with an antioxidant recovery complex to help strengthen your skin while it’s most susceptible to repair overnight. It helps to reinforce the skin barrier, provide hydration and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. 

Next: How to Build a Skin Care Kit for Beginners

Written by: Alyssa Kaplan, Photo Credit: Chaunte Vaughn