Active Ingredients for Beginners

You Will Learn:

  • What are Actives in Skincare
  • Why there’s so much talk about them
  • What are the most common and effective actives
  • How to choose the right actives for your skin

Reading time: about 7 minutes if you’re not checking your Instagram at the same time

So, what are Active Ingredients?

Let’s start with the long answer: active ingredients in skincare are biologically active compounds that affect your skin cells and mechanism, responsible for skin texture, humidity, elasticity and other characteristics.

Phew, that’s a mouthful. Ok, let’s simplify things: active ingredients are skincare ingredients that have a targeted and visible effect on your skin.

Another name for active ingredients is cosmeceuticals. This monster of a word is a combination of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals (another word for medicines). What does medicine do? Well, it’s supposed to make you better. So cosmeceuticals or active ingredients are supposed to make your skin better.

However, that does not mean your skin is sick*! That’s where the cosmetics part comes in. It’s about making your skin the best version of itself with the help of powerful, but safe active ingredients.

*in case your skin actually is sick, start with a good dermatologist, not cosmetics

Wait a minute – my mom never used any active ingredients!

You’re right, cosmeceuticals are a relatively new thing. While “old school” cosmetics have always used some ingredients that we now call actives, they were playing a supporting role.

But now, we’re giving actives the main part! They’re the star player! And it’s not just us here at Miss Alice, other (good!) brands are doing it as well. Why? That’s a great question!

Why are cosmeceuticals or active ingredients becoming so popular?

Easy – because they work. However, there’s another part to that answer and it has to do with us, women. When it comes to our skin, our desires have changed. Most of the time, we no longer want to “fake it” or hide our skin. We want healthy skin that ages gracefully. Sure, we want our skin to look good, but it’s even more important to feel good.

Cosmetics brands have taken that to heart. We know we did! Formulations have changed from short-term looks to long-term skin health. And active ingredients are the driving force that’s making that possible.

We also think “actives” sounds pretty cool.

The 8 types of active ingredients

You should keep in mind there’s no exact rule that defines what is or is not an active ingredient. So you’re bound to see this word blow up in the next years, as brands use it in everything from micellar water to deodorants. At Miss Alice, we feel the point of an active ingredient is a visible effect on your skin or hair.

The list below is not complete, as it’s basically impossible to compile a definitive collection of every cosmeceutical – you’d be reading forever! So the categories below contain a few of the actives we, skincare junkies at Miss Alice, would swipe right on Tinder (did that sound weird?).


They provide hydration or moisture for your skin.

Main stars: hyaluronic acid, alantoin

Barrier Agents

They strenghten the skin barrier and overall health of your skin, making it less prone to irritation, dryness or inflammation.

Main stars: ceramides, bisabolol, fatty acids


Main stars: resveratrol, astaxanthin, Q10, polyfenols, vitamin E,


Main stars: niacinamide (vitamin B3), retionids (vitamin A in forms such as retinyl palmitate, tretinoin), vitamin C (stable derivatives of vitamin C, such as sodium ascorbyl phosphate), vitamin E (tocopherols)

Hydroxy Acids

They tackle age-related pigmentation, promote exfoliation, turnover of cells and reveal brighter, smoother skin.

Main stars: AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acids), BHA (Beta HA), PHA (Polyhydroxy Acids)

Skin Lightening Agents

They affect overall pigmentation of the skin – lighten darker areas. A word of warning: some skin lightening agents can be very strong and should be only used under professional supervision. However, those below are safe to use in cosmetics.

Main stars: retinol, niacinamide, arbutin, kojic acid, vitamin C

Anti-Inflammatory Ingredients

They calm down and help prevent skin inflammation. Be careful, though – seriously inflammed skin can be a medical condition and you might need medicine for it.

Main stars: CO2 extracts (chamomille, oats, calendula and so on)

Photo Protective Agents

These are essential for protecting your skin against UV rays and photodamage.

Main stars: zinc & titanium oxide

Anti-Aging Ingredients

Anti-aging ingredients can take many different forms. They can provide antioxidant properties, remove pigmentation, strenghten the skin barrier and so on. The goal is to slow down skin aging and help your skin look and feel as good as possible in the long run. Many cosmeceuticals fall into this category.

Main stars: retinoids, vitamin C, peptides

3 Tips For Choosing The Right Actives For Your Skin

Start Slow

If you’re just starting out, don’t go overboard and change your entire skincare routine! We recommend you start with one or just a few compatible products with active ingredients. Why do we say compatible? Because not all actives can be used at the same time.

For example, your skin will love our Hey, Gorgeous! serum in combination with Wake Up or Night Shift. But you should not combine Hey, Gorgeous! with AHA, So That’s The Secret! at the same time. You can use one in the morning and one in the evening, but they should not be used at the same time.

Manage Your Expectations

It’s easy to get sucked into big promises. Yes, actives work, but your skin might need a bit of time to adjust and renew. It’s not uncommon to see some unwanted behaviour in the first days or weeks – especially if your skin is used to more basic or synthetic skincare.

So relax, follow your routine and before you know it, you’ll love what you see in the mirror (well you should always love what you see in the mirror, but you get our point).

A Goal Helps

The table below will help you choose the right actives based on your skin goals. You’ll soon discover that many actives have multiple functions – they work towards multiple goals. That’s a good thing, otherwise we’d all go insane with too many products. Skincare science should not be rocket science!

Table: How to Choose The Right Active Ingredients for your Skin

Before Your Brain Explodes

We know, there’s a lot to digest in this article. Don’t worry too much about it – the point isn’t to “get it right”. The point is to understand what you’re putting on your skin and why. With a bit of new knowledge, you’ll make better choices when it comes to skincare!

And as always, if you have any questions or suggestions, we’d love to hear back from you!


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