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Welcome to the world of active ingredients, where anything is possible but good skin is a given…

A few years ago, you might not have had a clue what retinol, niacinamide and glycolic acid were, but now they roll off the tongue. The rise in single-ingredient formulas has accelerated our awareness: according to research, 21% of women now hunt out ‘actives’ in their skincare. Over the past six months, Google searches surrounding niacinamide increased by 122%. And interest grew tenfold in lockdown, with searches for skincare-related vitamin C on boots.com shooting up by 4,917.9%, compared with the same period in 2019.

You might expect all products to be ‘active’, but only a handful are. ‘“Actives” have scientific evidence to alter the skin in a beneficial way, but they’re usually based in a non-active formulation,’ explains Dr Ewoma Ukeleghe, cosmetic doctor and founder of Skndoctor. This means actives are the star of the show and everything else has a support function. ‘Many other ingredients act as essential components, looking after the stability and preservation of the product, as well as making it feel nice on the skin,’ says Dr Eleanor Bradley, science credentialing manager at Boots.

But we shouldn’t be swayed just by what’s #trending. ‘These ingredients are very effective, but they can irritate skin if overused or used in combinations that aren’t right for your skin type,’ warns Dr Rekha Tailor, medical director at Health & Aesthetics. Choose your actives according to what you want to address first – fine lines, dark spots, etc – then depending on your skin type. And don’t layer: use one in the morning and one in the evening, suggests Dr Ukeleghe. Not all actives are team players, so while niacinamide is great for pairing with retinol, as it reduces any irritation, it can weaken or deactivate vitamin C, so they shouldn’t be applied together.

There’s also confusion around concentrations. Higher percentages don’t always mean better. ‘Every active ingredient works at different concentrations, and in some cases, such as with retinol, higher levels can mean more tolerance issues, with only minimal gains in efficacy,’ explains Dr Bradley. Start with the weakest percentage and once your skin has got used to it, work your way up. So which actives should you be trying? Read on to find out.

Retinol

What is it? A form of vitamin A that speeds up cell turnover, so tired cells naturally shed more quickly, making way for brighter, smoother, clearer skin. It also helps skin produce collagen, helping it stay springy and soft. ‘Arguably, it’s the most proven ingredient on the skincare market,’ says Dr Bradley.

Who’s it for? Generally, retinol is targeted at those concerned with the signs of ageing, when collagen levels in the skin start to drop and pigmentation appears. But it can also be used to obliterate breakouts.‘We wouldn’t recommend adding retinol to your regime if you’re under 25. However, it’s great if you have blemish-prone skin, as it helps remove pore-clogging dead skin cells,’ explains Mark Curry, product formulator and co-founder of The Inkey List.

Good to know: This is where percentages can get users in a pickle, because retinol can aggravate the skin: dryness, redness and peeling are some of the well-recognised side effects. That said, most formulations now combat this with other ingredients. For example, No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate (see details below), the UK’s No1 skincare brand, contains soothing bisabol to minimise irritation. It also has the combined power of 0.3% pure retinol and Matrixyl 3000+ for an added anti-ageing boost.

How to use it: Always use retinol at night, as it makes skin more sensitive to sun damage. Ramp up usage slowly and apply a night cream or niacinamide afterwards if you’re worried about flare-ups. Dr Tailor also advises against using products containing benzoyl peroxide (often in blemish treatments), as it counteracts the effects of retinol.

Find it in: No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate

Squalane

What is it? A lipid (oil) that’s naturally produced by the skin, it can also be found in plants, such as olives and rice bran. It locks in moisture and helps the skin barrier stay sturdy and strong.

Who’s it for? Essentially, it’s a very effective, odourless, moisturiser. Normal to dry skin will lap it up, but oily complexions will love it, too. ‘It mimics your skin’s natural oils, making it a good emollient,’ explains Dr Tailor. Plus, because it’s so skin-loving, it can even be used to treat itchy and irritated areas, too.

Good to know: While it’s rare to find a product that’s dedicated entirely to squalane, you’ll often see it in the ingredients list at a lower percentage level, because it brings a whoosh of moisture to the formula. FYI: it used to be derived from shark livers, but now it tends to come from plant oils. Check for vegan certification if you want to be sure.

How to use it: It can be applied after your other actives if you’re using it neat, in an oil formula, or in your moisturiser (just check the ingredients list). As it’s so comforting to the complexion, think of it like a blanket you place over your skin once you’re done with everything else.

Find it in: Elf SuperHydrate With Squalane

Niacinamide

What is it? Known as vitamin B3, this is what you call an all-rounder. ‘It normalises skin’s oil production to help keep pores clear and breakouts in check, and regulates pigment-making cells to fade hyperpigmentation. It also soothes redness and boosts skin’s hydration levels,’ says Dr Paris Acharya, a Harley Street cosmetic doctor.

Who’s it for? If you’ve got a compromised skin barrier, which is weak and prone to bacterial attacks that cause spots, this is like sending in the heavies to nurture it back to health. It’s also naturally calming, so a win if you have sensitivities (which is why it’s brilliant to use with retinol).

Good to know: ‘As little as 4% is enough to get results, although 10% is the optimum level,’ suggests Mark.

How to use it: Niacinamide likes to reside in serums, as they’re light and easily absorbed so get to work quickly. If you’re using vitamin C in the morning, apply niacinamide at night (the two don’t mix well), along with retinol. Otherwise, add it to your routine first thing, too.

Find it in: Revolution Skincare 10% Niacinamide + 1% Zinc Blemish & Pore Refining Serum

Glycolic acid

What is it? Derived from sugar cane or fruit acids, this exfoliating AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) easily permeates the skin, removing dead skin cells from the surface.

Who’s it for? If you crave luminosity or regularly suffer from spots and oiliness, this is for you. Ridding skin of build-up and sebum, which blocks pores and triggers breakouts, it gets a gold star for reducing the appearance of pores and fine lines.

Good to know: Glycolic acid is great for mixing with other acids, such as salicylic or PHAs (poly hydroxy acids). But it can leave skin vulnerable to sun damage, so always follow with a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

How to use it: Found in everything from cleansers to masks and peels, Dr Tailor suggests using a gentle glycolic acid cleanser to get your skin used to the ingredient before diving straight in with leave-on serums or peels. The latter will have the most concentrated form, but only use these at night and 2-3 times a week as a treatment.

Find it in: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Serum

Vitamin C

What is it? Also known as ascorbic acid, it helps create a glowy ‘light bulb effect’ by reducing sun-related hyperpigmentation (aka dark spots). It can also help with the signs of ageing by minimising the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.

Who’s it for? Anyone exposed to outdoor aggressors (that’s everyone, then!). It’s also a must if you have hyperpigmentation.

Good to know: Pure L-ascorbic acid is the gold standard, but it’s very unstable and breaks down when exposed to light and air, rendering it ineffective. So look for products where it’s encased in oil or silicone, sealed in airtight packaging, or that you mix on opening. There’s also ascorbyl glucoside, which is a more stable, water-soluble version that converts to ascorbic acid on the skin.

How to use it: Vitamin C works well with exfoliating acids such as AHAs to aid its skin-brightening credentials. It can be used morning and night, layered over acids (and before sunscreen in the day).

Find it in: The Inkey List Vitamin C Serum

OTHER ACTIVES TO LOOK OUT FOR

Cica is a great skin soother. Apply a generous layer of YourGoodSkin Cica Repair Sleep Paste at night – so it’s a face mask – and it magically sinks in within seconds.

Bakuchiol is a plant-based ingredient touted for its anti-ageing properties. Just add a few drops of Bybi Bakuchiol Booster, to your regular day and night cream and pat on to skin, or use on its own.

Salicylic acid is another effective but gentle exfoliator, and is great for skin that’s dry, rough or bumpy. Find it in CeraVe SA Smoothing Cleanser, which you can use morning and night, every day.

Photography: David Lineton