Dermatology Decoded: Your Active Ingredient Guide

Skincare has found its place in the limelight in recent years, undergoing a transformation from “basic hygiene and general skin health” to a full-blown hobby for some individuals. Acids and active ingredients are emerging as internet buzzwords – From retinoids to hyaluronic acid, these potent compounds promise transformative results, fueling the skincare craze sweeping across digital platforms. However, amidst the allure of radiant skin and youthful glow – not all sources of skincare information can be trusted.  Widespread misinformation can leave you vulnerable to misguided advice and potentially harmful practices, and proper skincare practices are important for overall good health; not simply just a ~trend~.

Without further ado, here is your * dermatologist-approved * guide to the actives circling the internet!

AHAs or Alpha hydroxy acid: AHAs resurface the outer layer of the epidermis by exfoliating. This helps to improve surface lines and wrinkles, improve skin texture and tone, and unblock and cleanse pores. (I.e. Glycolic acid, Ascorbic Acid, Lactic Acid, Kojic Acid)

Azelaic acid: A leave-on exfoliant that helps keep your pores open, azelaic acid makes your skin less inflamed, and new breakouts less likely. Azelaic acid also addresses acne with its antibacterial properties. It can address dark patches by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme that leads to hyperpigmentation.

Benzoyl Peroxide: Benzoyl Peroxide is converted into an acid. It has antimicrobial properties that lower the levels of acne causing bacteria on the skin and reducing inflammation.

BHA or beta hydroxy acid: (commonly listed as salicylic acid) BHAs are an exfoliant effective in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improving overall skin texture and is gentler than AHAs.

Ferulic acid: Although research on ferulic acid is in its preliminary stages, some studies suggest that it can neutralize free radicals, or unstable molecules that damage and age cells. Researchers believe that ferulic acid has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, and can be used to minimize signs of aging and protect the skin from sun damage.

Glycolic acid (AHA): An AHA with the smallest molecules, enabling it to penetrate the deepest. Addresses a diverse array of concerns, including signs of aging and acne.

HA or Hyaluronic acid: Hyaluronic acid is a humectant – a substance that retains moisture – that can bind over 1,000x its own weight in water. HA is found naturally in the skin but decreases with age. Topical HA provides surface level hydration on the epidermis, or top layer of skin.

Kojic acid (AHA): Kojic acid helps to prevent your skin from forming tyrosinase, an enzyme that helps to create skin pigmentation, or melanin. Kojic acid can help fade dark spots on the skin from acne scars or sun damage.

Lactic acid (AHA): Lactic acid strengthens the skin’s barrier by encouraging it to create more ceramides, which makes it great for sensitive skin. The effects will depend vastly on the strength used, but LA can help signs of discoloration through hastened cell turnover, and in higher concentrations can improve signs of sun damage, fine lines, wrinkles, and rough skin texture.

LLA or L-ascorbic acid (AHA): LLA is a form of Vitamin C, which is essential for the growth, development, and repair of body tissues.  When applied topically, it can help to optimize the skin’s function, as well as the formation of collagen. The anti-inflammatory properties may also help reduce skin irritation, dark spots, and redness.

Niacinamide: A form of B3, or niacin, Niacinamide has anti-inflammatory effects on the skin, can help regulate sebum production, and improve skin elasticity. It is used to address conditions like acne and rosacea and may also minimize the appearance of pores by regulating oil production.

Retinoids: Retinoids are a Vitamin A derivative. The active ingredient in retinoids is retinoic acid, which is responsible for accelerating skin cell renewal. Retinoids are the gold-standard for decreasing visible signs of aging.

SA or Salicylic Acid (BHA): Salicylic Acid is an exfoliant that helps the skin shed dead cells from the top layer of the skin and decreases inflammation, addressing acne.

Tranexamic acid: When used topically, it can act as a brightening agent to reduce dark spots and improve hyperpigmentation. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and can help prevent blood vessel formation, reducing redness.

Just as certain chemicals in a test tube might react explosively when combined, certain skincare ingredients may have synergistic effects, while others might counteract each other or even cause irritation when used together. It is important to approach skincare formulations with caution and understanding, despite what the internet might tell you!

So – What Should NOT be mixed?

Retinoids and AHAs – Because they both exfoliate the outer layer of the skin, they can be irritating when used together – think red, stingy, flaky, and peely. The exception to this is clinically tested products that use a combination of retinoids and AHAs. Let the pros do the mixing!

Retinoids and Benzoyl Peroxide – Benzoyl peroxide may deactivate the retinoid molecule, which will only waste the product, which is often expensive!

Retinoids and Vitamin C – Vitamin C needs acidity to be effective, while retinoids work better in a higher pH (more alkaline) environment. If you use them together, they might not work as well as they could individually. When both are being used in your skincare regimen, proceed with caution, and use Vitamin C in the morning, and retinoids at night.

Retinoids and Salicylic acid – When trying to fight aging and acne simultaneously, proceed with caution! Retinoids and salicylic acid used together can be overly drying. Your body will overcompensate for this by increasing oil production, causing a cycle of dryness and acne.

Soap based cleanser and Vitamin C – Soap based cleanser has a high pH, which when used immediately before vitamin c products, will decrease the skin’s ability to absorb it. To get your money’s worth, use a salicylic or glycolic based cleanser before Vitamin C.

Two products with the same active ingredients – While not always problematic, doubling up on the same active can cause irritation. There is also little reason to use multiple forms of the same thing.

What CAN (and SHOULD) you use together?

AHAs and BHAs – AHAs are water-soluble and work on the top layer of the skin, while BHAs are oil-soluble, and can go deeper. To get the best benefit, use AHAs in the morning and BHAs at night.

Hyaluronic acid with AHAs and BHAs, OR retinol – Help hydrate the skin with Hyaluronic Acid to reduce the risk of irritation while using AHAs and BHAs, or retinol!

At a glance:

Glycolic acid and lactic acid – Enhanced brightening

Retinol and hyaluronic acid – Regenerative

Salicylic acid and niacinamide – Acne fighting

Vitamin C and peptides – Boosts collagen

Retinol and niacinamide – Increase cell turnover rate

And as always – PAIR SPF WITH EVERYTHING!  It will always be the most important skincare ingredient in your routine. And always apply it LAST!

Be sure to use your dermatologist as your only trusted skincare advisor.  Book an appointment online with one of our dermatologists to help build a custom skincare routine that is right for you and shop our recommended products!

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