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What is an Active Ingredient in Skincare?


What exactly are active ingredients in skincare and what do you need to know about them? Discover all you need to know in our comprehensive guide.

“Active ingredient” is one of those buzzy skincare terms that sounds important, but the actual definition of an active ingredient often feels unclear. Is it the first ingredient listed? Is it the ingredient that goes after a specific skin issue?  A number of skincare products are considered to be over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by the FDA, and as such have a “Drugs Facts’ box on the carton which lists active ingredients with their purpose along with all inactive ingredients.  It can be very confusing.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an active ingredient is “any component that provides pharmacological activity or other direct effect in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or animals.”

In other words, it’s any ingredient that is biologically active, whether that means it’s in a medication, pesticide, or natural product. Many seek out these ingredients to see if they can possibly help target specific concerns, such as a damaged skin barrier or to help lashes grow.

The FDA maintains a list of these active ingredients known as the OTC drug monograph.

But what does an active ingredient mean from a purely skincare and consumer perspective? We asked dermatologists—here’s everything you need to know.

What is an active ingredient?

According to cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green, MD, an active ingredient in skincare is defined as a clinically studied, FDA-approved ingredient that serves a specific skincare purpose that it is tailored to target.

“If you are looking for a product to treat acne, for example, you would choose one containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid because these active ingredients have been comprehensively researched and thoroughly proven to clear acne breakouts,” she explains.  These ingredients will be clearly listed in the Drugs Fact box on the carton.

Active vs inactive ingredients in skincare

“Inactive ingredient” is another skincare term, and it’s more mystifying than the term “active ingredient.”

Essentially, an inactive ingredient is any ingredient in a medication or other product that is not an active ingredient. An inactive ingredient can only be used to support cosmetic claims, whereas an active ingredient is related to treatment.

Surely if an ingredient is inactive, it’s not important, right? Actually, that’s not the case at all.

Dr. Deborah Spey, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Livingston, NJ, explains the difference between active and inactive ingredients:

“In contrast to active ingredients, inactive ingredients, also known as excipients, are substances that do not have any direct therapeutic effect,” she says. “While pharmacologically inert, inactive ingredients serve a variety of important functions in skin care products. They include vehicles, binding agents, buffers, fillers, lathering agents, stabilizers, preservatives, texture enhancers and fragrances.”

So, while inactive ingredients may not be directly “solving” your skincare issue the way benzoyl peroxide works to stop the cycle of acne, they still serve an important purpose in skincare products. As Dr. Green puts it, “The active ingredient is what will deliver the promised outcome of a skincare product and the inactive ingredients are the means by which the active ingredient is delivered.”

When thinking about active vs. inactive ingredients, it’s also important to understand the difference between cosmetic and drug claims. As the FDA website explains it, a cosmetic is defined by their intended use as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body … for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”

A drug, on the other hand, is defined as something “intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.”

An example of a drug claim in a skincare product is “treatment of acne,” whereas a cosmetic claim is “hydrates or brightens.”

Common active ingredients in skincare

According to Dr. Spey, the active ingredients we encounter the most often tend to be the most powerful, too. So, what are some examples of active ingredients?

“Be they physical (mineral) blockers or chemical blockers, sunscreens are an important class of powerful active ingredient,” Dr. Spey notes. “Likewise, anti-acne ingredients such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are both considered Active Ingredients by the FDA.

She adds that in the anti-aging category, although there are no ingredients that meet the FDA’s strict definition of “Active”, retinoids are known to be effective at addressing anti-aging concerns along with antioxidants like vitamins C, E and niacinamide (vitamin B3).

“Likewise, there are also potent exfoliators, including glycolic and lactic acid and humectants and moisturizers, such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides, which help the skin absorb and retain moisture, all of which are considered Excipients even though there are clear benefits to using them” Dr. Spey adds.

Dr. Green agrees that Excipients such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides improve skin hydration and moisture retention. “AHAs, like glycolic acid and BHAs like salicylic acid, have exfoliating properties that can help promote a youthful, even complexion,” she says. “In the world of skincare, there is an ingredient to target virtually any skin concern.”

In summary, products that contain Active Ingredients are available both over the counter and via prescription, and are designed to treat a concern identified by the FDA as a medical concern (such as acne or prevention of sunburn). It’s always a good idea to talk with a dermatologist before trying a new active ingredient, especially if you’re using them as anti-aging agents or acne-fighting products.  Many skincare products do not contain Active Ingredients because the concerns they target are not considered to “medical”, but still can provide significant consumer benefits.

Are active ingredients in skincare required for effectiveness?

Are active ingredients required for maximum effectiveness in skin care products? The answer, according to Dr. Spey, is yes and no.

“While active ingredients are generally considered to be what make a skincare product effective, and higher quantities of higher quality actives make a product more effective (and can justify a higher price point), there are cases where a product without active ingredients on the label could be beneficial,” she explains. “Petroleum jelly, for example, can soften dry lips, and arnica gel has been shown to be effective in soothing pain, swelling and bruising; Neither has active ingredients on their labels.”

Summary

Long story short, if you’re looking for a skincare product that you hope will make big changes in your life and skin, in most cases when that concern is “medical” ie Acne, you’ll be using a product with an active ingredient in it. But don’t fully rule out skincare products without active ingredients in them, because those can be very effective, too. If you ever feel unsure about which skincare products you should be using, it’s always a good idea to consult your dermatologist.

Sources

Drugs@FDA Glossary of Terms.U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed 7/23/2021.

Inactive Ingredients in Approved Drug Products Search: Frequently Asked Questions”. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed 8/5/2021.

Dr. Michelle Green, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist and chief resident in Dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine

“Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both (or Is It Soap?).” U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Deborah Spey, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Livingston, NJ

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