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Skincare Ingredient Basics: Actives vs. Inactives

Skincare can be a confusing topic, not only because there are hundreds of products out there to choose from, but also because there are so many different types of products — cleansers, serums, creams, masks, boosters, and more. On top of that, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ingredients that make up these products, and all those ingredients can be broadly categorized into two categories: actives and inactives.

Fortunately, simply understanding the difference between active ingredients and inactive ingredients can demystify much about skincare and how to design a routine that suits your needs. That is why we’ve created this guide. We want to show you why both groups are important and the differences between them.

Active and Inactive Ingredients: What Are They?

Understanding the difference between active ingredients and inactive ingredients starts with the FDA definition of active ingredients. According to the FDA, an active ingredient is “any substance that has a pharmacological activity or another direct effect in the diagnosis, treatment, mitigation, or prevention of disease, or affects the body structure or function of a person or animal.”

That sounds complicated, but essentially it means that actives either treat a disease or condition or they affect your body in some other way.

Within the skincare industry, this definition changes a little bit. Although skincare products are regulated by the FDA, they’re not meant to treat diseases, which is one of the main points in the FDA’s definition. Thus, in skincare, an active ingredient is one that has been proven to affect the skin in some way.

What about inactive ingredients? They’re just the opposite. That is not to say that they have no purpose in skincare products because inactive ingredients do serve very important purposes, but inactive ingredients have no effect on the skin.

What Do Inactive Ingredients Do?

While inactive ingredients don’t have a direct effect on the skin, they do serve three primary functions in any skincare formulation. They exist either to deliver the active ingredients to the skin, to preserve the product so that it doesn’t spoil or become ineffective too quickly, or to make the product look, feel or smell good.

For example, active ingredients such as vitamins may need to be suspended in a solution of inactive ingredients in order to create a mixture that you can spread over your skin. Preservatives work to keep products safe, sanitary, and long-lasting since some inactive ingredients can go bad or become ineffective too quickly without proper preservation.

When it comes to making the product look, feel or smell good, there are a lot of inactive ingredients to address these factors. Dyes and textural enhancers can make creams and other products both look great and feel great when you apply them. Fragrances neutralize the scents of other ingredients to create a product that you’ll want to use simply because it smells amazing.

One interesting thing to note about inactive ingredients is that they may not truly be inactive. It’s important to understand the distinction: These are ingredients that have been proven to be safe for use on skin but they haven’t necessarily been proven to have an effect on skin. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect; some may moisturize or provide other benefits, for example. It just means that clinical testing hasn’t yet proven the effect.

What About Active Ingredients?

The active ingredients are typically one of the major reasons why people choose particular skincare products. Most people have specific concerns they’d like to address, so they shop for actives that will improve those concerns.

Because there are a lot of active ingredients available, there’s likely something you can use for just about any skincare concern. Some examples include:

  • Hyaluronic acid — an active ingredient that helps hydrate skin
  • Vitamin B3 — a vitamin that eases inflammation
  • Alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, several varieties — useful to improve skin’s texture
  • Retinoids including Retinol, vitamin A or retinyl palmitate, or even adapalene — minimize the signs of aging to varying degrees depending on the strength of the ingredient and its concentration within the formula
  • Acne fighters, such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid — additional common active ingredients

As you can see, while active ingredients often steal the show because of their proven effects, both actives and inactives are important parts of every formulation. Chances are, you’ll likely shop for products based on what the active ingredients can do, but don’t discount the inactives, which can help your products last longer, look nicer, feel better and smell great.

See the accompanying resource, by SeSpring, which you can use as a convenient reference as you browse skincare products and their ingredients.

This infographic was created by SeSpring, a cruelty-free Korean moisture lock serum mask

The Counter Beauty

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