7 Skincare Ingredients You Need to Know About and What They Do

It feels like there is an overwhelming amount of skincare products and even more launching every day. It doesn’t help that almost every influencer is filling up our feeds with a different product and they all have confusing and slightly scary names like hyaluronic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids. Is anyone else confused? What do these ingredients in skincare products even DO? In this skincare ingredient breakdown, I am deciphering 7 skincare ingredients you need to know about and what they do.

Disclaimer #1:

I decided to write this post because I love skincare but felt like I was putting products on my face and I didn’t know what the ingredients were actually doing. I mean, my face looked great! But what products should I be looking for? I researched each ingredient individually and compiled them down below because I couldn’t find a similar resource.

I also wanted to know what the best and recommended products were for each of these ingredients. I’m not a dermatologist and don’t claim to know what any single product will do for your skin. However, the below information is based upon what research has been done for these individual ingredients. This list also doesn’t include every single product found in skincare, just some of the most common.

Disclaimer #2:

Some of the products linked below may be affiliate links. This means that if purchased, I get a small compensation at no additional cost to you. I only link products that I truly believe in and I link at the source with the lowest price for the specific product (even if that means I won’t get a commission). You can read my full disclosure here!

What do all these ingredients on skincare products even do?

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Usually known as AHAs, this ingredient is used to reduce wrinkling and fine lines, improve skin texture and tone, and also to unblock your pores by exfoliating your face. Since their main function is reducing wrinkles and fine lines, they are commonly found in anti-aging products, however, they do come in the form of peels.

Products will have all different potencies of AHAs, but as recommended by most healthcare resources and the FDA, you should not use a product with more than 10-15% if you use them on a frequent (daily or every other day) basis. AHA can cause skin irritation if you’re using too high of a potency or are using it too frequently. This means limiting your use to 3x a week at night and only doing a mask every two or more weeks. This active ingredient if perfect if you have dry skin because it won’t further dry out your skin.

Usually using an at home peel will contain between 20-30% AHA and if you go to a physician they will do a peel that contains between 50-70%. If you’re wanting to try a mask using AHA, some of the ones on the market with amazing reviews from reputable brands are:

My personal favorite products:

Types of AHAs

There are many different types of AHAs. This includes glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid and mandelic acid. If you’re interested in what it’s derived from, you can check out this article by clicking here.

Beta Hydroxy Acid

Usually known as BHAs, this ingredient is used similarly to AHAs and improves the skin’s color and texture and will unclog pores. This ingredient can also help with acne and is less irritable than AHA for the skin. BHA reaches deeper into the pores than AHA which is why it’s better for curing your blackhead or whitehead acne struggles.

When you use BHA it can be really drying for the skin so the best skin type, if you want to use this ingredient, is oily. It also shouldn’t be used with certain medications like blood thinners, if you are allergic to asprin, or used if you are pregnant. Like AHAs, you should start slow to introduce this into your skincare routine as not to irritate your skin. Test on a patch and then start out by using once every couple of days. You can use BHA during the morning or night, unlike AHA that should be used during your nighttime skincare routine.

Most BHA product contain 2%. If you’re wanting to use BHA, some of the well reviewed products with this active ingredient on the market are the ones I listed above that are used in conjunction with AHA or one of these:

My personal favorite products:

Types of BHAs

If you are looking at the ingredients of your skin care product, BHAs listed may include salicylic acid, beta hydroybutanoic acid, tropic acid or trethocanic acid. The most common used for the properties of BHA is usually salicylic acid.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is naturally produced in the body and is mostly found in skin, eyes and connective tissues. It functions to retain water, meaning it keeps your skin looking plump and hydrated! However, after over time your body begins to produce left after damage like UV radiation or smoking. Have no fear, you can take a supplement containing HA or use it topically in your skincare products.

So if you apply it topically, what does it do? Hyaluronic acid supplements increase skin moisture which can, in turn, reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. Applying hyaluronic acid topically can also reduce redness. This active ingredient is perfect for you if you have dry, dehydrate skin or want to reduce the effects of aging. Hyaluronic acid can also work for any skin type whether you have dry, oily or combination!

Some of the best-reviewed products that are currently on the market are:

My personal favorite products:

Kojic Acid

This may not be something that you’ve heard too much about like the previous three active ingredients. So what does it do? Kojic acid is primarily used as a skin-lightening agent and is derived from a fungi. This would be used in products meant for sun damage, hyperpigmentation, age spots and scars. It does this by inhibiting the amino acid tyrosine which is needed to produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment-determining factor in your hair, eyes, and skin.

However, there are a couple of speculated possible risks involved with this chemical. Usually, products will contain a lower potency of less than 2%. When tested on mice in higher concentrations it was seen to produce tumors and be carcinogenic, but Kojic Acid has been deemed safe for use up to 4%. This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise because lots of ingredients found in everyday beauty products have health concerns such as aluminum which is found in nearly every (non-natural) deodorant. I personally try to stay away from these products so I won’t be listing any recommendations, but Kojic Acid is effective in reducing hyperpigmentation and there are lots of products out on the market with this being the active ingredient.

L-Absorbic Acid

Although L-Ascorbic Acid is what you see on the ingredients label, it’s better known as Vitamin C. Vitamin C is found in tons of topical skincare products and is usually in concentrations between 5 and 15%. Any concentration above 20% can end up causing skin redness or irritation. Overuse of vitamin C can also cause the skin more harm than good and cause the skin to look aged (the opposite effect when used properly). Vitamin C is amazing for your skin and can help it boost its firmness through stimulating collagen fiber production. Another use for L-Ascorbic Acid is reducing uneven skin tone which this active ingredient does by slowing the production of melanin. Luckily, L-ascorbic acid works well with all skin types and even if your skin tends to be more on the sensitive side.

Some of the best-reviewed products that are currently on the market I listed below. These products have a pH of below 3.5 which is preferable when using this ingredient and the concentrations are between 5-15%!

My personal favorite products:

Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA)

While the cells in your body already produce alpha-lipoic acid, many supplements and topical creams contain this active ingredient. It’s basically seen as a holy grail with claims to improve fat burning, collagen production, blood glucose control, and neurological or mind conditions. While the effect of alpha-lipoic on the latter (neurological, mood and mind) isn’t as thoroughly researched, studies have shown great results with its use on skin. Alpha-lipoic acid is used in many anti-aging products because it has been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines and skin roughness that was caused by sun damage. Sun damage is the leading cause of skin wrinkles and other signs of premature aging. So, if the sun is the cause of your fine lines, look for this ingredient!

If you are sold on the amazing effects of alpha-lipoic acid (like I am!), the best products currently on the market are:

The Ordinary’s is so affordable and you only need two drops for your entire face twice a week! The reviews are all amazing, although it’s pretty unanimous that it smells awful.

Retinol

If you’re into skincare, then you’ve probably heard about retinol. Retinol is another form of vitamin A and is used to decrease the appearance of fine lines and minimize pores. So, of course, it’s in basically every anti-aging product! This product is best with those that don’t have sensitive or dry skin because it can be even more drying and sometimes cause redness or flakiness. However, you can acclimate your skin by starting out with a lower potency and work your way up if needed. Also, to prevent redness or drying, don’t use retinol AHAs, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, exfoliators, or other really drying products.

Unlike BHA and AHA above, if you are using retinol, your skin does not become more sensitive to the sun so you can go out into the sun carefree (however you should always be using sunscreen anyway!). Retinol does deactivate when coming in contact with the sun. So, you still want to use it during your nighttime routine. It also means that you should only buy retinol in opaque packaging. It can still become ineffective if exposed to sunlight in its bottle if the bottle is clear.

Products with retinol can get expensive. There are also SO many on the market. If you haven’t used retinol before and want to begin with lower potency, here are some products to try:

Skincare Ingredient Breakdown

There are, of course, hundreds of different ingredients that go into skincare. These seven are names of some that seem to come up a lot when looking into skincare and seem slightly scary sounding. I hope this skincare ingredient breakdown clears up what some active ingredients in skincare actually DO and how to use them properly.

On a different note, I found this really cool ingredient directory on Paula’s Skincare that ranks different ingredients as poor, good or best and gives a little blurb of what it’s for. So if this didn’t cover an ingredient you’re looking for, that would be a good resource. I also use the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database to figure out which ingredients to avoid. I am an advocate of ‘clean’ beauty. You can read more on clean beauty + why I use it in this post.

What Ingredients do You Include in Your Skincare Routine? Let me know in the comments below!

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