Ten Tips for Using Active Ingredients in Skincare

It's undeniable that the skincare industry has seen a boom. Whilst many brands claim that their advice  - and their products - make navigating your skincare routine easier, I would have to argue that the saturated skincare shelves has put more responsibility on the consumer to educate ourselves.

In principal, this isn't something I'm opposed to. As consumers we should definitely be savvy and, at the end of the day, money talks, so we should be investing our money in companies that are reputable; so it's down to us to make an informed decision. The skincare market has, in my opinion, made this very hard to do because actual scientific data gets lost adrift the endless marketing claims. For example many brands will brag about including essential oils in their formulas, yet did you know essential oils "pose risks when applied to skin"? (Here's a helpful article by a brand I trust: https://www.paulaschoice.com/expert-advice/skincare-advice/natural-skincare/essential-oils-for-skin.html.)
The lack of clarity means we consumers need to put our critical thinking caps on and educate ourselves. Today I'm sharing a brief guide for using active ingredients in skincare. I'm just a skincare enthusiast and cynical shopper, but I have taken the time to research skincare carefully. I have also asked for help from two other sources I trust (and have more authority on this topic than I do!): author of beautyblogwales, host of Skincare with Friends podcast and aesthetician Nia Patten; and Alia, a pharmacist who is currently studying cosmetic science. 

1. Understand what is meant by "active ingredient" 
An "active" is an ingredient that actually does something. That is to say it targets a specific concern. An ingredient is widely considered 'inactive' if it only has a cosmetic effect, like brightening. An active ingredient serves a purpose, like protecting from ultraviolet rays (titanium dioxide) or dissolving bonds between cells on the epidermis (salicylic acid). 
2. Wear a sunscreen 
Speaking of titanium dioxide, when using active ingredients - whether you're a hardened user or just beginning - the golden rule is to wear sunscreen. Nia agrees, saying "the most important tip I would give to skincare beginners is: find a sunscreen you can happily wear everyday. You need to look for something high factor and broad spectrum. Asian sunscreens tend to be much more wearable than western SPF products. You can pick up some fantastic and affordable products from YesStyle.com". Many active ingredients serve as chemical exfoliants and will increase photosensitivity. Ultraviolet rays can not only damage the appearance of your skin ('sun spots' and premature ageing) it can cause skin cancer and, in extreme cases, can damage your DNA (it can inhibit the production of folate; without which, our cells cannot divide).

3. Your face is like a map 
Look at your face. Whilst there is skin over all of it (or, one would hope) it is not of the same 'quality'. The skin under your eyes is thinner and more delicate than the rest of your face. Some parts of your face may produce more sebum (commonly called 'oil') than others. The skin around your nose is more porous because there are larger sebaceous glands (the glands which produce sebum). When applying active ingredients, you should consider whether the area where you're applying it will 'like it'. Strong retinols will be too harsh on delicate areas like under your eyes. You should also ask if using a certain ingredient all over is necessary: for example, if you aren't oily or prone to spots on your chin, skip the application of salicylic acid there. It only risks irritation without a justifiable need. 
4. Time it right 
Morning or night time? Actives that will greatly increase your photo sensitivity, like a strong retinol, should be used at night. Arguably you will also reap the most benefits of active ingredients at night when you're not wearing sunscreen and make up, so there are no 'distractions'. However, ingredients that supposedly fight free radicals may function better during the day time when you're exposed to pollution. 

5. Prep your skin adequately 
Ingredients like salicylic acid and retinol are inherently drying so prepping your skin adequately will pre-empt dryness. They also are potentially irritating, so Nia advises to"patch test and start slow". In some cases (I'm looking at you, Differin) irritation is likely, but a sacrifice you'll have to make for positive long-term results. Moisturising your skin, letting it dry completely (naturally, no scrubbing your face with a dry towel!) will set your skin up in a way that will limit dryness and irritation. 

6. Go Solo 
Don't you think it's funny how excessively lengthy skincare routines and profits go hand in hand? Of course the beauty industry is going to tell you that your skincare routine needs multiple steps and layers. The more products you buy, the more money you make! But most dermatologists will advise picking a singular active ingredient and sticking with it for a period of time (4-8 weeks is my benchmark). Not only will this give the active ingredient chance to work it's magic and offer longterm benefits (long term usage of some retinoids can increase the rate of cell turnover in general) it will also avoid irritation by using too many strong ingredients at once. Whilst in theory yes, you can use acids together; why increase the risk when one alone is going to be extremely effective, potentially even more so than using multiple? Speaking from personal experience, picking my active - like salicylic acid - and using it exclusively at night for a couple of months and that's the only active I use, has procured the best results: no kidding, my skin is clear now!

7. Know your combos  
Whilst using one ingredient persistently is my best advice, some people do like to 'mix and match'. It's unsurprising because that's what marketing has told us to do. (I'm sure we're all familiar with the 'Korean 10 step routine'. Unnecessary, but okay.) I've found from experience that there are certain combinations you definitely do not want. As examples: I would let Vitamin C sit it out especially if you're using other actives, because it's so unstable - especially in the form ascorbic acid - and can quickly become very irritating if it's ph changes; using benzoyl peroxide with retinol can actually decrease the effectiveness of both ingredients! My point is that it's worth noting that, whilst I wouldn't recommend combinations anyway, certain ingredients simply don't like each other. If you do intend on using multiple actives on your face, it's worth doing a bit of research into how effective that combination is. The same applies even if you're alternating, like using retinol at night and an AHA in the morning - such a combination may prove to be just too irritating. 
8. Know your retinol
Retinol has cropped up again and again so far. It is commonly accepted as the most effective remedy for a lot of skin complaints, including acne and the appearance of ageing skin, because it works on a deeper level and is very effective at 'unblocking' sebum trapped within the skin causing blackheads and whiteheads. Alia explains, "the umbrella term ‘retinoid’ refers to a class of compounds that are derivatives of vitamin A". But they are not all made equal. Alia continues: "There are prescription and cosmetic options. Prescription retinoids are available as topical or oral drugs. Topicals include adapalene (brand name Differin) and tretinoin. In the US Differin is available over the counter. Cosmetic retinoids, such as retinols, can be thought of as less ‘potent’ as they require further conversion in the skin to their active form. Although not as ‘potent’, cosmetic grade retinoids can still provide skincare benefits. Retinols are a more accessible option than prescription retinoids; however, neither should be used by anyone who is pregnant or planning to become pregnant."

9. What about other vitamins? 
We've covered that retinol is derivative of vitamin A, what about the other vitamins often found in skincare? I'm looking at you, B and C. Vitamin B3 - also known as niacinamide - is commonly accepted as a solution for reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone and texture. I really like vitamin B3 because it's a very friendly ingredient. It doesn't have a huge risk of irritation and it tends to get on well with other actives, so I might use a niacinamide serum and apply a salicylic acid based spot gel where I need it, and I don't have to worry about this being a troublesome combo. Vitamin C is a difficult ingredient to navigate because it comes in so many forms and has so many names! Ascorbic acid, L-Ascorbic acid, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, this list is honestly so long. Vitamin C is an antioxidant generally considered to improve sun damage and hyper pigmentation, protect from environmental pollution and potentially improve the effectiveness of sunscreens. That being said,  I leave it out of my skincare completely. It always seems to break me out; It's just such a volatile and unpredictable product! There are so many variables that impact if vitamin C works: the concentration, the formula (some are thick and gloopy and 'clog pores'), exposure to oxygen and light, acidity... it's a difficult one. Some herald it is a wonder ingredient, I heed it with caution and advise you to do the same. 
10. Know your acids
Acids are very famous in skincare and you can see the word littered across ingredients list. Ascorbic, alpha-hydroxy, beta-hydroxy, hyaluronic! Not all acid offers chemical exfoliation, which is what I would assume you're after if you're looking for it as an active ingredient. Ascorbic acid is a form of vitamin C, and hyaluronic is hydrating - so they may not necessarily be 'actives', depending on the context. Good active acid options are glycolic: for 'surface level' cell turnover, a good 'all rounder'; salicylic is good for improving blemishes because it 'unglues' the cells beneath the epidermis and dissolves sebum. Azelaic is a favourite of mine because it's considered a gentle acid that has 'unclogging' properties and reduces the appearance of hyperpigmenation; mandelic is another good option if you're looking for a gentler option. The molecule is physically bigger than glycolic acid so the penetration is slower. There's many of them and I've given you a very brief introduction, I highly recommend getting to know them, and knowing what they're for.
Thank you for reading, and thank you again to Nia and Alia for lending me their knowledge! I'd hate to be that person that tries to give advice without any actual authority on the subject, so I really appreciate their input.

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