Your Definitive Cheat Sheet For Navigating the Most Common Active Ingredients in Skincare

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As the wave of skincare advice continues to rush across social media, there’s one thing we’ve all become increasingly aware of: active ingredients. Gone are the days of the classic cleanse, tone, moisturise combo — these days, we all want to know exactly what’s in our products and exactly what they’re going to do for our skin. 

L’Oreal Consumer Insights Director, Joanne Norton, confirms this, telling POPSUGAR Australia that “especially in the last two years during the lockdowns, consumers have become even more interested in skincare. And what they’re looking for is much more information around ingredients and benefits, in order to make the best skincare choice for them.” 

Basically, no one has the time (or the space in their inner-city bathrooms) for mediocre products. Thankfully, as our awareness of active ingredients and the crucial role they play in our routines has risen, so too has the elegance of the formulations that include them. Where once, exfoliation was dominated by abrasive scrubs, we now have sophisticated acids and enzymes that slough away dead skin while we sleep. 

But how are we supposed to know what actives our skin actually needs? Sydney-based dermatologist, Shreya Andric, tells POPSUGAR Australia that many people don’t really know what products to use for their skin type — which is hardly surprising when we’re being bombarded with recommendations every day on social media. “I would always choose products that suit your specific skin type and introduce active ingredients slowly (max one per week) and one at a time to see how your skin tolerates it,” Andric explains. 

All of this might sound complicated, but it’s worth noting that affordable, multi-purpose products that include gentle actives are now an option, so there’s no need to go in with the tougher products when you’re first starting out. Ahead, we’ll give you a quick rundown on what the most common active ingredients actually do for your skin, so you’re armed with some facts the next time you pick up a new product. 


Sitting at the top of the list for a reason, sun protection in the form of SPF is the most important skincare active and we should all be using it daily. In fact, if you’re not using SPF every single day, then any cash you splash on other skincare products is really a waste. The Cancer Council has clear guidelines on exactly what sunscreen you should be using, but the general rule is to slather sunscreen on when the UV rating is set to hit three or higher (which is basically year-round for Aussies) and also recommend you reapply every two hours. 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is the gateway active for many people, but don’t be fooled, because she’s also potent. In fact, vitamin C is one of the most abundant antioxidants present in the skin and when applied topically (through skincare), it works to brighten the skin and tackle pigmentation by neutralising the oxidative stress caused by external factors like pollution. It will usually appear on skincare labels as anything including the words “ascorbic” or “ascorbyl”, or could appear in the form of pineapple fruit extract, too. 

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is one active ingredient that gets a lot of hype and that’s because it has a unique function of binding to moisture in the skin and holding it there to make the skin look plumper and more hydrated. Andric explains that it’s “helpful for people who have dry skin, whereas it is an unnecessary step for those with oily skin.”


Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide can assist in improving the skin’s barrier function and also help with hyperpigmentation, skin irritation and soften fine lines. According to Andric, “niacinamide is good for sensitive and irritated skin but may not be required for all skin types.”


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and is scientifically proven to be the most effective ingredient found in skincare to slow the ageing of the skin. While some hydrating products may help with fine lines in the short term or the appearance of ageing, retinol is the gold standard. The very simplified definition is that retinol improves the skin texture, dryness and fine lines, and also treats pigmentation. There are prescription-only and cosmeceutical options widely available. 

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a common chemical exfoliant used in acne treatment products — and thankfully, formulations have come a long way since the drying formulas of our decades past. Specifically, salicylic acid works by exfoliating the superficial layers of the skin, leading to the removal of superficial acne spots, thus causing new and fresh skin to grow in its place.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant and when used topically, it’s thought to hydrate the skin and help with burns and UV damage, as well as protect against free radicals on the skin. When you think of vitamin E, you might also picture the little oil capsules you can buy at the pharmacy. But, in nature, vitamin E doesn’t always come in that oily form. In fact, as cosmetic doctor, Imaan Joshi, explains, it can also be found in ingredients like watermelon fruit extract.

Beta-Hydroxy and Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

Beta-hydroxy (BHA) and alpha-hydroxy (AHA) acids are both superficial peeling agents, which means they’re what we’d call a chemical exfoliant. Common AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid, and as for BHAs, you’ll likely come across salicylic acid the most.

Essentially, they work by munching away at the dead skin cells that sit on the surface of your skin and it’s not uncommon for people to prefer one over the other or a combination of BHAs and AHAs. While there’s no reason to be scared of these acids, dermatologists recommend you go easy on incorporating these into your routine — start with once a week and work up from there, depending on what your skin can tolerate. 

To start your journey into the world of skincare actives, we suggest checking out the range of Garnier Green Labs Serum Creams, which combine some of our favourite skincare actives in a simple-to-use product. Head to the Garnier website to figure out which product is right for your skin.

Editor’s note: Dr Andric is an independent dermatologist and Dr Joshi is an independent cosmetic doctor — neither are contracted to Garnier in any capacity.
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