How to Choose Which Active Ingredients Belong In Your Skincare Routine

How to Choose Which Active Ingredients Belong In Your Skincare Routine

How to Choose Which Active Ingredients Belong In Your Skincare Routine

Choosing the Right Ones Safety and Precautions Incorporating Them Into Your Skincare Routine

There's a good chance you've heard about the benefits of retinol, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and vitamin C many times. You may even use a few of them each day. But did you know there's one thing all these ingredients have in common? Each is an active ingredient, targeting a specific skincare concern like aging or dry skin.

Curious to learn a bit more about what active ingredients in skincare are, including when and how to use them? Read on for what you need to know, straight from board-certified dermatologists Ava Shamban, MD, Karan Lal, DO, Geeta Yadav, MD, and board-certified plastic surgeon Sheila Malek Kassir, MD.

What Are Active Ingredients? 

Active ingredients are compounds or substances added to products to address specific skin issues. “These ingredients often target skin concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation, or aging by interacting with biological processes or structures within the skin,” Shamban explains.

Common Active Ingredients in Skincare

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): These are a type of chemical exfoliant derived from plants that can help moisturize and hydrate your skin, stimulate collagen production, and exfoliate and smooth the skin’s surface, among other benefits.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): BHAs are another chemical exfoliant. They’re oil soluble and have anti-inflammatory properties. BHAs are often used to treat acne and soothe sensitive skin.
  • Retinol: A popular skincare ingredient, retinol is a vitamin A derivative often used for anti-aging purposes. It’s known to increase collagen production, speed up cell turnover, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a popular antioxidant skincare ingredient found in many different anti-aging, brightening, and wrinkle-reducing skincare products. Some potential benefits include encouraging collagen production and protecting the skin from free radical damage.
  • Niacinamide: Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, is a gentle skincare ingredient that helps fortify your skin’s natural defenses against environmental stressors and supports its repair process for a more balanced and radiant complexion, Shamban says. “This is a real powerhouse of an ingredient—it’s an antioxidant, helps control oil production, evens skin tone, promotes skin hydration, and reduces inflammation,” adds Yadav.
  • Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic acid is a popular skincare ingredient found in many serums, creams, and fillers. It’s well-known for its hydrating and moisturizing properties and may also reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
  • Ceramides: Ceramides are a moisturizing skincare ingredient said to help repair the skin’s protective barrier and retain moisture, Yadav explains.

Benefits and Effects

You can think of active ingredients as the worker bees of your skincare routine. "Every product has actives, and some have multiple," Lal says. "Inactive ingredients are just support staff—they are there to help the actives work and penetrate better."

By incorporating the right active ingredients into your skincare routine, you can improve your skin’s tone, texture, and overall health and even defend against environmental stressors. “For example, ingredients like retinoids and antioxidants support the skin’s natural repair mechanisms, promoting collagen synthesis and neutralizing free radicals that can disrupt the circadian rhythm and accelerate aging,” Shamban says.

Choosing the Right Ones

When choosing skincare products with active ingredients, it’s important to consider which concerns are bothering you. From there, you can seek out products with actives that target those specific concerns. “For example, if you are concerned about anti-aging, you want to look for retinol, peptides, and hyaluronic acid,” Lal says. “Targeted skincare is the most effective form of skincare.”

Because some active ingredients can contribute to irritation, it's also important to consider whether or not your skin is sensitive. Additionally, "paying attention to product formulation, concentration, and compatibility with other skincare products can help prevent adverse reactions and maximize efficacy," Shamban says.

Safety and Precautions

Some active ingredients—like AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids—can potentially cause irritation or skin sensitivity, especially if they’re overused or used incorrectly. You might experience symptoms including red, dry, peeling, or inflamed skin. So it’s important to slowly incorporate new actives into your skincare routine, starting at just one day a week or so and slowly working your way up. Lal says using too many active ingredients at once can also be problematic and dry your skin, so you might want to space them out in your skincare routine.

Sometimes, just trying a new active ingredient can lead to irritation, redness, or sensitive skin, which is why patch testing is crucial. "Before introducing any new ingredient into your skincare routine, patch test it first, applying it to a small area on your inner forearm before applying it to your entire face," Yadav says. "If you don't have a negative reaction, you can feel good about applying it to your face."

Some actives, like AHAs and retinoids, might increase your skin's sensitivity to sunlight, Shamban explains. So, you must protect your skin from the sun throughout the day to minimize the risk of sunburn and other negative effects of the sun.

If you're ever unsure about a product or want more information before trying it (totally fair!), schedule some time to talk with your dermatologist.

Incorporating Them Into Your Skincare Routine

As you begin to incorporate new actives into your skincare routine, here's some helpful background info you'll want to keep in mind for each:

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) 

The preferred frequency of use for alpha-hydroxy acids varies depending on the specific type of AHA you’re using and your skin. AHAs can cause dry and irritated skin, especially if overused, so consider starting with just one or two applications per week and then increasing from there depending on how your skin tolerates the product, Kassir says. AHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to wear sunscreen throughout the day, Lal adds. Kassir recommends avoiding using AHAs and retinoids at the same time, as this can increase irritation and skin sensitivity.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) can be used during the day or at night, and while some people can tolerate daily use, Kassir says it's best to slowly incorporate them into your skincare routine. (She recommends starting with just once or twice each week.) Lal says it's important to use sunscreen daily if BHAs are part of your skincare routine. Shamban adds that you'll want to avoid using them with retinoids, especially if you're experiencing skin irritation.


It's best to apply retinol at night, after cleansing, but before moisturizing. "This allows the active ingredient to work effectively during the skin's renewal phase, promoting collagen production and cellular turnover while minimizing potential sensitivity to UV exposure," Shamban says.

Because retinol is known to cause irritation and sun sensitivity, it's best to start using a small, pea-sized amount two to three times each week and to make sure you're wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day, Shamban says. If your skin seems to be tolerating the retinol well, you can start to gradually use retinol more frequently, possibly working up to once a day. You'll want to avoid combining retinol with other potentially irritating ingredients like alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids.

Vitamin C

For the best results, vitamin C should be used daily as part of your morning skincare routine, Lal says. If your skin is sensitive and doesn't react well to daily vitamin C use, Shamban recommends using it just a few times a week. The dermatologists note that many vitamin C formulations are unstable, so for a more effective product, find one packaged in an opaque container, which helps prevent oxidation.


Niacinamide can be applied at any point in a skincare routine, but a serum will offer the most bang for your buck, Yadav says. You can use it up to twice a day, and it's generally not irritating, though it may cause skin sensitivity at higher concentrations. "You'll want to look for a product that contains more than 2% but less than 10% niacinamide to get results without the risk of irritation," she says.

Hyaluronic Acid

One of the more gentle skincare products out there, hyaluronic acid generally doesn't cause much skin irritation, Yadav tells us. So, as long as the other ingredients are mild in whatever product you're using, she says you can apply it as frequently as you like. She adds that you can incorporate hyaluronic acid into any step of your routine, but it's best to apply it as a serum and ideally to slightly damp skin.


Yadav recommends applying a moisturizer containing ceramides as the last step in your skincare routine. This is because ceramides strengthen the skin barrier to help prevent water from escaping and irritants from getting in. People with dry or sensitive skin or those with conditions like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis often have lower levels of natural ceramides and may need a bit of extra support, she explains. “As long as the other ingredients in the formula are gentle and mild, you can apply a product with ceramides, such as CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, as frequently as you like,” she says.

Article Sources Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863.

  2. Moghimipour E. Hydroxy acids, the most widely used anti-aging agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.

  3. Kong R, Cui Y, Fisher GJ, et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2016;15(1):49-57.

  4. Telang PS. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013;4(2):143-146.

  5. Hyaluronic acid: what it is, benefits, how to use & side effects. Cleveland Clinic.

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