I know I haven’t been great about answering comments and questions here latelyand I’m super sorry and am working to catch up!, but since I manually approve every comment that comes through, I have still been reading them. Lately I’ve noticed one particular type of question come up more often than most. Lots of you have been asking:
Should I use actives in my skincare routine?
It’s a great question, especially with all the affordable and presumably effectively formulated actives on the market these days. I talked briefly about the actives I use and why I chose them when I wrote about my anti-aging skincare routine a while back, but not generally enough to really answer the question at hand. So let’s get down to it!
But first, we should probably clarify…
What are actives in skincare?
When I talk about actives, I’m not talking about those Rare and Fancy Proprietary Botanical + Scientific Biosynthetic Molecular Complexes that brands sometimes advertise as their miracle “Active Ingredients.” Around these parts, “actives” are either:
- Skincare ingredients that have been Shown By Research™ to be capable of altering the actual structure or function of skin when used in a properly formulated product (for example, retinoids, AHA and BHA chemical exfoliants, or various vitamin C derivatives), or
- Skincare products that deploy those ingredients in an objectively effective formulation (for example, an L-ascorbic acid vitamin C serum that doesn’t offer the L-AA at such a low concentration and such a high pH that the whole product becomes a pointless atrocity like the one at the bottom of this post from the Holy Snail herself).
Basically, actives can actually change skin (some so much that the FDA regulates them as drugs rather than cosmetics), not just temporarily improve its appearance.
Actives sound great, right? Ingredients and products with real and (more or less) proven effects on skin–the opposite of snake oil! Who even needs anything else? We should totally just use actives!
No! Not so fast!
Should I use actives in my skincare routine?
I think of the actives in my beauty stash the way I think of the medicine in my pill drawer. I trust them to do what they’re supposed to do, and I use them when I need them, but I don’t use them for everything. Not every skin improvement is worth the risks (like photosensitivity with AHAs) or the possible side effects (like extreme dryness and peeling with retinoids) of these products and ingredients. If I have a headache, I’ll happily pop a pill, but if I’m just dealing with a mild case of overall blah, I might look at a nice herbal tea instead. Personally, I don’t think every skincare routine needs actives. In fact, sometimes they can do more harm than good.
In my opinion, serious actives can be a good idea if:
- Your skin is basically healthy, with no extreme sensitivity, overexfoliation, barrier issues, or medical conditions, and
- You’re tackling a specific skin problem, like acne or visible skin aging, that the active you’re considering has been shown to reduce, and
- The skin problem you want to treat is high-priority enough that you’re willing to make other adjustments to your skincare routine if your actives call for it.
I don’t think serious actives are a good idea if:
- Your skin is extremely sensitive or compromised due to medical conditions or practices like overcleansing or overexfoliation,
- You’re very new to skincare and unfamiliar with your skin’s tolerance to various ingredients or product types, like chemical exfoliants, and/or
- You’re unable or unwilling to incorporate additional products into your routine to compensate for possible side effects (for example, if you want to start an AHA or a retinoid, you’ll need proper sun protection, full stop, no exceptions except for cave people and vampires, neither of which are dealing with UV damage-induced skin aging or hyperpigmentation anyway).
If you don’t have any particular skin problems to treat, or your skin problems could be solved with some healthy skin habits like gentle cleansing and appropriate hydration and moisturization, then I don’t think you “need” actives. Again, actives are like medicine. You take them when you need them. Not just because.
(And, like medicine, if you’re pregnant, nursing, or under a physician’s care for any skin conditions, check with your doctor before starting any actives. Despite all my family’s best efforts during my childhood, I am most definitely not a doctor.)
So we’ve got medicine on one hand and herbal tea on the other. In my next post, I’m going to talk about a time when herbal tea wasn’t enough for me as well as a time when no medicine was needed for amazing results!
Do you use actives in your skincare routine? Why or why not?