Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: All About Actives in Skincare (everything you need to know)!

Heya, pretty! Welcome back to the blog with a big, fat, well-that-escalated-quickly (but hopefully informative) edition of the Hey Pretty Beauty ABC! Sandra launched this skincare series back in January with a special on cleansing… and yesterday, I contracted a serious case of research-itis and decided to tackle a pretty big subject:

Active Ingredients in Skincare (Beauty ABC: Skincare Actives on Hey Pretty Beauty Blog)

As a beauty blogger, I frequently get asked which ingredients one should look out for in facecare (good and bad), but very often, it’s not that simple to answer, because there is a huge range of actives that are great for your skin, from hydrators like hyaluronic acid, glycerin or squalane to anti-aging power players like acids or retinol to anti-oxidants that protect and repair.

With a bit of (okay, LOTS of) help from my «skintellectual» friend Maja, I already blogged about Anti-Aging with Actives here, but now I want to present the bigger picture, with a comprehensive overview of the highest-quality active ingredients that facecare products can offer – and, consequently, which ingredients you can be on the lookout for when buying your next serum, moisturizer or facial oil. 

Are you ready for actives camp?

Beauty ABC: All About Actives in Skincare


Hyaluronic acid

This «ultimate moisture booster» has been used in skincare (and especially face care) for decades. Hyaluronic acid is a substance that is produced by the human body as well, and acts like a sponge, as it can bind over 1000 times its own weight in water within the skin cells. As our natural level of hyaluronic acid in the dermis starts declining around the age of 25 (eek!), basically every moisturizer should contain some hyaluronic acid, because it not only delivers hydration, but keeps the skin’s own hydration levels up.

Due to its low molecular weight, hyaluronic acid is able to spread easily in the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin, here’s a good article on this), and is very well tolerable, even for very sensitive skin. And yes, it can be injected, too: Nearly all of the currently available dermal fillers and «freshups» are essentially composed of hyaluronic acid varying in viscocity (thickness), which, depending on where they’re being injected, need to be either  denser, or more liquid.

Ideally suited for: Wrinkles and fine lines, and dry skin… but it’s a great ingredient in any moisturizing product!

Two great products with a high percentage of hyaluronic acid that I can personally recommend:

Kiehl’s Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate (50ml), approx. US$ 60 and Vichy Hyaluron-Boost Minéral 89 (50ml), approx US$ 30

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Skincare actives and ingredients: Hyaluronic acid (Kiehl's Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum and Vichy Mineral 89)

Retinol (Vitamin A)

This fat-soluble essential vitamin (also known as beta carotine, which can be absorbed by the body and turned into retinol) is basically the Roger Federer* of anti-aging actives, and for good reason, too: It helps retain moisture levels in the skin for hours, stimulates cell and collagen production, tightens the skin and helps protect the epidermis, tool

*sorry, I’m Swiss.

Retinol has a photosensitizing effect on the skin, which means that it becomes (much) more delicate and can burn even at low doses of UVA and UVB radiation. That translates to: You really, REALLY need to use sunscreen daily when using products containing retinol and retinoids! 

In general, any concentration of retinol can irritate the skin, which means that, upon beginning treatment, it may flake or feel dry. The irritation usually disappears once the skin has built up tolerance for this particular active, but it’s usually worth gradually implementing retinol into your skincare regime. So you can initially use your retinol product every second or third day.

Ideally suited for: Pigmentation, wrinkles and fine lines, dull skin. Retinol’s scary big brother is the (prescription-only) Tretinoin, which is used in acne treatments as well as in anti-aging. 

Two products that contain a proper percentage of retinol (or similar substances) worth trying:

Rodial Bee Venom Night (50ml), approx. US$ 100 and Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream (30ml), approx. US$ 65

Hey Pretty's Beauty ABC: Skincare Ingredients and Actives – Retinol (Rodial Bee Venom Night and Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream

Vitamin C

One of the most effective (and cheapest!) anti-oxidant actives around is good old Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid in its pure form. This naturally occurring organic compound is a real heavyweight in terms of cell turnover, and is especially efficient as a serum or moisturizer, as it can work on the skin directly, without any product barriers. Vitamin C protects the collagen structure in our skin from the damaging effect of free radicals, and also lessens micro-inflammation in the skin that can cause acne.

Additionally, Vitamin C inhibits the production of melanin and also protects the skin (cells) from UV rays. Because Vitamin C is relatively instable as a substance, you should choose a skincare product that is protected from UV rays (dark or opaque container) and from air as well, for instance with an airless pump dispenser.

Ideally suited for: Pigmentation, dull skin and acne. 

These two products pack a proper Vitamin C punch:

Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster with Pure Vitamin C 10% (four 7-day vials, for four weeks), approx. US$ 77 and John Masters Organics Vitamin C Anti-Aging Face Serum (30ml), 45 Franken at Qosms Zurich

 Beauty ABC: Actives in Skincare – Vitamin C (Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster with Pure Vitamin C 10% and John Masters Organics Vitamin C Anti-Aging Face Serum)

Vitamin E

Vitamin E (and tocopherols, which have Vitamin E activity) is very efficient in terms of cell protection: It’s basically your own personal anti-aging bodyguard! Vitamin E delivers moisture to the corneal layer, and as an anti-oxidant, once again fights free radicals that can age the skin prematurely. But that’s not all: Vitamin E plays the flute beautifully. That is absolutely NOT true, I just wanted to see if you’re still paying attention.

Vitamin E is a popular preservative in organic skincare, and is a total team player and performs best when combined with other anti-oxidants. Vitamin E and Vitamin C is a dream team for your skin. And, fun fact: When used in haircare, Vitamin E prevents hair color from fading!

Ideally suited for: Fine lines and sallow skin.

Two lightweight, but very efficient Vitamin E «bombs»:

Jo Malone London Vitamin E Gel (30ml), approx. US$ 90 and The Body Shop Vitamin E Moisture Cream (50ml), approx. US$ 25

Hey Pretty's Beauty ABC: Active Ingredients – Vitamin E (Jo Malone London Vitamin E Gel and The Body Shop Vitamin E Moisture Cream)

Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)

Sheesh, this word!«Nye-a-cyna-mide»!», Steffi! It’s not that hard!

Niacinamide is a form of Vitamin B3 is a form of Vitamins B3, which we coincidentally cannot produce in our own bodies, and therefore have to find in food or as a dietary supplement… or in skincare! Niacinamide lessens skin damage, strengthens the skin’s barrier function, has an influence on oil production in the skin (which is why its commonly used as an acne treatment) and also has an effect on pigmentation. Ironically, Niacinamide can both lessen and create redness, so it’s another one of those «start out gently» actives!

Ideally suited for: Wrinkles, enlarged pores, acne, dry skin and redness.

Two pore-fessionals (sorry, Benefit!) with Niacinamide:

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% (30ml), approx. US$ 7 and HighDroxy Porify Solution (100ml), approx. US$ 50

Wirkstoffe in der Hautpflege: Niacinamid (The Ordinary und HighDroxy Porify Solution) – Hey Pretty Beauty ABC

Glycolic acid (AHA, Alpha-Hydroxy Acid)

Thanks to its very small molecular weight, Glycolic acid has excellent capabilities in terms of skin penetration and is most often used as a chemical peel to lessen pimples and blackheads, enlarged pores and hyperpigmentation.

Glycolic acid also stimulates the skin’s natural collagen production and help shed dead skin cells, which also intensifies the effect of any following skincare products.

As it’s a chemical peel, the skin will be much more photosensitive during and after any AHA treatment, and really needs to be protected DAILY with an SPF of at least 30. I’m not kidding around!

Ideally suited for: Wrinkles, enlarged pores, sun damage and hyperpigmentation, local cornifications and on dry/dull skin. 

Two products that’ll make you go «ah-HAAA!» (sorry!):

REN Skincare Clarimatte Clarifying Toner (150ml), approx. US$ 20 and Filorga SLEEP AND PEEL Resurfacing Night Cream (50ml), approx. US$ 80

Hey Pretty's Beauty ABC: Actives (REN Skincare Clarimatte Clarifying Toner and Filorga SLEEP AND PEEL Resurfacing Night Cream 

Salicylic acid (BHA, Beta-Hydroxy Acids)

BHAs are basically deep cleansers for the pores, and practically miracle weapons for acne-prone and blemished skin. If the concentration of BHA acids is listed (which, sadly, isn’t the case for al lot of products), 1% is great for slight impurities, 2% for acne and visibly blemished skin.

Salicylic acid has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and can be combined with AHAs. Actually, they work even better as a duo, but your skin needs to be «introduced« to them gradally, as they are pretty effective! Salicylic acid works like a chemical peel, so – once again and with feeling – you gotta do your daily SPF!

Ideally suited for: Oily skin, blackheads, blemishes and acne, as well as with rosacea*

Salicylsäure ist als Toner oder Lotion besonders effizient, und in diesen beiden Wässerchen verträglich konzentriert: Salicylic acid is especially efficient as a toner or lotion, such as:

Clinique Clarifying Lotion 1.0 (200ml), approx. US$ 25 and Origins Zero Oil Pore Purifying Toner (150ml), approx. US$ 23

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Skincare actives (Salicylic acid) – Clinique Clarifying Lotion 1.0 and Origins Zero Oil Pore Purifying Toner

*Even if both of these products are relatively gentle, I have utmost respect for at-home treatments of it, and would recommend visiting a dermatologist first, okay?

Lactic acid

Strictly speaking, lactic acid is an AHA acid and one of the fruit acids. Lactic acid molecules are bigger than those in AHA or BHA acids, which means that they can’t penetrate quite as deeply into the skin and doesn’t effect its thickness. But this is pretty good news for sensitive skin, as lactic acid is much more hydrating than glycolic acid and is generally more easily tolerated. It also boosts ceramide levels in the skin, which makes it smoother and more radiant.

Ideally suited for: Sensitive, dehydrated skin 

Two products with lactic acid (und just so you know, you can smell the slightly sour tinge of lactic acid in most products containing it, so don’t freak out!):

Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant (75ml), approx. US$ 43 and The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA (30ml), approx. US$ 6

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Skincare Actives – Lactic Acid (Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant and The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA


It sounds a lot like chemistry class where the boys would start guffawing in an extremely immature way (they never really stop doing that, do they?), but Squalane is a natural component of our own sebum! As an ingredient in skincare, squalane delivers softness, helps lessen moisture evaporation and acts like an anti-oxidant on the skin – similar to the Vitamins C and E.

Squalane is a natural oil and used to be derived from shark’s liver (ew!), but today, it’s extracted from olives, and most recently, from sustainably farmed sugar cane that can even carry the EcoCert certification. Squalane creates such a silky finish on the skin that, in certain products, it can feel a bit like silicone. But don’t worry, it really is good for the skin!

Ideally suited for: All skin types as a non-comedogenic, gentle hydrator.  

And just in case you’re asking yourself why not ALL skincare products contain squalane if it’s so fabulous… it’s because it’s pretty expensive to make, and not quite as stable (i.e. long-lasting) as other oils.

Here are two formulas with a high percentage of squalane:

Herbivore Botanicals Orchid Facial Oil (50ml), approx. US$ 64 and Beyer & Söhne reines Squalan (50ml), approx. US$30

Wirkstoffe in der Hautpflege: Squalan (Herbivore Botanicals Orchid Facial Oil und Beyer & Söhne Squalan) – Hey Pretty Beauty ABC


Ich mag okay BRAUCHE ihn in Form von Kaffee, um am Morgen überhaupt ansprechbar zu sein… und auch in der Hautpflege ist Koffein eine Art Taser für die Zellen… aber auf eine gute Art, ahem! Die anregenden Eigenschaften, für die wir ihn in Kaffee und Schoggi so lieben kommen besonders in straffenden Anti-Cellulite-Cremen, (Männer-)Shampoos und Augencremen zum Zuge, denn Koffein fördert in erster Linie die Durchblutung – und transportiert damit Nährstoffe schnell dorthin, wo sie gebraucht werden… und Abfallstoffe schneller weg.

I enjoy okay NEED it in my morning coffee, just to be able to function – and in skincare, caffeine is a kind of taser for the cells. But in a good way! Its stimulating properties that we so love in coffee, tea and chocolate naturally lend themselves to slimming anti-cellulite creams, (men’s) shampoos and eye creams, as caffeine’s principal effect is to stimulate circulation, which rapidly transports nutrients where they’re needed most… and to flush waste materials.

Ideally suited for: Puffy under-eye circles, stimulating circulation in tired, lifeless skin.

Two products that deliver a nice wake-up call to your skin:

100% Pure Caffeine Mask (5er Pack), approx. US$ 30 at Revolve and Annemarie Börlind Energy Nature Eye Serum (7ml), approx. US$ 28

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Actives in Skincare – (100% Pure Caffeine Mask (5er Pack) and Annemarie Börlind Energy Nature Eye Serum 


These organic, water-soluable molecules can be found in nearly every plant – especially in green tea, olives and grapes. Polyphenols have amazing anti-oxidant properties that (as you well know by now, or you wouldn’t still be reading) protect our skin cells from stress of many kinds. Which is why they’re widely-used in anti-aging skincare.

French skincare brand Caudalie really put Polyphenols on the map (well, it helps if you have your own vineyard and are able to create and patent an active component straight from home!), but there’s a bunch of other brands that have started using this natural, efficient molecule.

P.S.: Yes, red wine actually contains healthy Polyphenols, so… cheers!

Beauty ABC: All About Actives in Skincare

Ideally suited for: First signs of aging, fine lines and (I’m just gonna say it) WRINKLES. 

Two Polyphenol-rich products that you could apply while drinking a lovely glass of  Cabernet:

Perricone MD Hypoallergenic Nourishing Moisturizer (59ml), approx. US$ 80 and Grown Alchemist Hydra-Repair Cream Masque (40ml), 69.95 Franken

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Skincare Actives – Polyphenols (Perricone MD Hypoallergenic Nourishing Moisturizer and Grown Alchemist Hydra-Repair Cream Masque


I know… I immediately think of Nivea, too! The Coenzyme Q10 found its moment of glory thanks to beauty giant Beiersdorf, but it’s the perfect «cell food» for our entire body, and is also available as a supplement.

Q10 (also called Ubiquinol) in its pure form is a bright orange, yet 100% natural substance that strengthens connective tissue, catches free radicals and makes the skin more pliable… which translates into «less wrinkles». Generally speaking: The higher the concentration of Q10 in an product, the yellower it will be – and as an ingredient, it should be listed pretty high up.

Ideally suited for: Stressed out, tired skin

Two possible new Q10 faves (besides the ubiquitious Nivea Q10Plus Anti Wrinkle Day Cream):

Indie Lee Q10 Toner (120ml), approx. US$ 40 at Cult Beauty and the Lavera Basis Sensitiv Anti-Falten Nachtcreme (50ml), approx. US$13

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Actives in Skincare (Indie Lee Q10 Toner and the Lavera Basis Sensitiv Anti-Falten Nachtcreme)

Panthenol (Vitamin B5)

Aaaaaand… another one of those resourceful vitamins! The official name of this active ingredient is Dexpanthenol, and it’s pretty great at binding water, which is fab for dehydrated skin, but for dry, damaged hair, too! B5 also encourages energy metabolism of skin cells and accelerates wound healing, and acts as an anti-inflammatory.

Because of its high compatibility, Pantheol is also a popular ingredient in wound care and baby care, which shouldn’t stop you from enjoying some «tender lovin’ B5 care» in your facecare products, too!

Ideally suited for: Out-of-balance, sensitized skin, fine lines and as after-sun care (but you’d never get a sunburn anyway BECAUSE YOU USE SUNSCREEN, RIGHT?)

These two moisturizers contain a nice amount of calming Panthenol:

Aesop Lightweight Facial Hydrating Serum (100ml), approx. US$ 60 and Louis Widmer Emulsion Corps (200ml), approx. US$ 25

Hey Pretty Beauty ABC: Ingredients in Skincare (Aesop Lightweight Facial Hydrating Serum and Louis Widmer Emulsion Corps


So… WHOA, am I right? I know. That was a lot to take in in one sitting, but hey… you’re more than welcome to take a coffee break or annoy the poor person sitting next to you: YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR MONDAY.

And now, you can add «skincare actives expert» to your list of talents!

I hope you can take away something from this, otherwise you can just bookmark this blog feature and refer back to it the next time you’re standing at the cosmetics counter and have no idea what you really need.

And now, repeat after me three times: «nye-a-cyna-mide»!

Beauty ABC: All About Actives in Skincare (Hey Pretty Beauty Blog)

This post was written according to my own personal experiences, my acquired knowledge in skincare during a 10-year career as a beauty writer, and research. It is by no means exhaustive and, when in doubt, should not replace a consultation with a dermatologist.

This post also contains some affiliate links to products, yet this never influences my choice of product recommendations. More on that on «about me»!


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