Skincare Expert Hannah English Tells Us Which Ingredients You Should Actually Be Pairing

Did you know that in the US, there are approximately 12,500 unique chemical ingredients approved for use in personal care products? Add to that, within each serum, moisturiser and sunscreen you apply, there will be anywhere between 15 to 50 ingredients. So what roles do all these ingredients play in your skincare?

Most of them, from preservatives, carrier oils, emulsifiers, thickeners and water are “supporting players” that you won’t see advertised. Then there are the two to three ingredients you see labelled on your tub of moisturiser or bottle of serum. These are the “hero” ingredient, otherwise known as actives, that usually promise big results.

While 50 ingredients sound like a lot, in Australia, each ingredient included in a cosmetic product is vetted by the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme

They’re sticklers, even “natural” ingredients are considered “industrial chemicals” by AICIS, and are subject to intense scrutiny before landing on your pharmacy or department store shelf. So while 50 ingredients might sound scary, in Australia, we’re in pretty safe hands.

With so many ingredients to navigate and multi-step product regimes in vogue, you could be using ingredients that are either of little benefit to your skin or ineffective when combined.

So in the interest of glowing skin and money well spent, POPSUGAR Australia spoke to Pharmaceutical Scientist, Hannah English, and got the breakdown on common and uncommon ingredient combinations that are totally “in sync”.

Retinol (Vitamin A) and Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)

How They Work:

Retinol is part of the Vitamin A “umbrella,” comprised of 4,000 natural and synthetic retinoid molecules. From retinoids, to retinaldehyde, Retin-A and prescription tretinoin, Vitamin A is considered a “gold standard” anti-ageing ingredient, with a variety of other applications. “Retinol is wonderful for a range of skincare concerns,” says English, “it helps normalise skin cell turnover, regulate oil production and smooths out lines.”

Niacinamide, otherwise referred to as Vitamin B3, is a multifunctional antioxidant. It’s been found to regulate sebum and inhibit melanin production (helping to prevent the appearance of dark spots), while also providing a shield against oxidative stress caused by pollution.

Why They Work Better Together:

So if retinol targets fine lines, acne and pigmentation, what could possibly go wrong? “Retinol can be challenging for the skin initially,” says English. This is because retinol increases the turnover of dead skin cells in order to prompt the production of new skin cells. It can just take your complexion a minute to get the message, and in the interim, if applications are not spaced out enough, you’re likely to experience redness and irritation. This is why many dermatologists recommend phasing retinol in.

English says, pairing retinol with niacinamide is another way to dial down the side effects.

“Niacinamide addresses these concerns,” and comes with some additional benefits, “while assisting in normalising oil production, inhibiting melanin production and strengthening the skin moisture barrier — essential when you’re accelerating skin cell turnover.”   

Vitamin C and Salicylic Acid

How They Work:

Surprised to see these two together? So were we, but English says there’s something special about this combination. Vitamin C is considered one of the most powerful antioxidants in skincare. It has been shown to protect against photoaging, and oxidative stress, while helping to increase collagen production and inhibit melanin formation.

Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant. It’s a BHA, the only “oil soluble” exfoliant, making it perfect for the treatment of blackheads, acne and uneven skin texture. You can usually find salicylic acid on the ingredients list for spot treatments and anti-acne serums, moisturisers and cleansers.

Why They Work Better Together:

You don’t frequently find these ingredients together, which is why when we spotted them in La Roche-Posay, Vitamin C 10 Brightening Serum, we were intrigued.

English says that while salicylic acid is often found in high concentrations for the management of acne, it has other benefits. “Salicylic acid is misunderstood,” she explains, “it can be calming as well as exfoliating, which is helpful because L-Ascorbic acid has an acidic pH.”

English says if you’re looking to overhaul your skin texture, combining Vitamin C with salicylic acid is a good place to start. “Vitamin C is necessary for collagen production, and delivers a gradual smoothing and plumping effect,” meanwhile, “salicylic acid gently unclogs pores, and prevents bumps and spots.” This translates to smoother, plumper skin in the short and long term. 

Salicylic Acid and LHA

How They Work:

We’ll admit it, we were yesterday years old when we learnt what an “LHA” is. That’s because in the world of chemical exfoliants, it’s pretty new.

English explains that LHA, or “lipo hydroxy acid” is a derivative of salicylic acid. LHAs have a larger molecular size, meaning they stay on top of the stratum corneum. They’re in English’s words, “slow release”. While they’re slow, they’re effective. LHA’s are even more “lipophilic” than salicylic acid, meaning while they don’t penetrate as deeply, they make quick work of excess oil and congestion on the skin’s surface.

Meanwhile, salicylic acid penetrates the stratum corneum 58 percent deeper than its little sibling, making it a powerhouse for deep cleaning active breakouts, blackheads, and clogged pores, while brightening dark spots.

Why They Work Better Together:

English explains that by combining the two BHAs, you get a double-pronged approach to acne management. “You have your salicylic acid (BHA) getting to work on the pores, ungluing dead skin cells, unclogging them and reducing oil,” then, “you have LHA sitting on the surface of the skin in maintenance mode, taking care of dead skin cells and oil that will cause future breakouts.”

Humectants and Peptides

How They Work:

Humectants are ingredients that draw water to the skin. They sit on the outer layer of the skin referred to as the stratum corneum. English explains that because humectants plump the skin with water, “they make your skin look instantly great, providing a temporary, visible smoothing of the skin.”

Meanwhile, peptides are made up of chains of amino acids that form the building blocks of your skin. They are often referred to as “messengers” and can be used to address a variety of concerns.

Why They Work Better Together:

English says that hyaluronic acid and glycerin are very effective at providing instant results, and by keeping the skin hydrated, reduce the risk of inflammation. But how do we turn our fling with plump, juicy skin into a long-term relationship? English says because peptides can be tailored to target specific skin concerns, they’re the perfect long-term, tailored complement to the shorter-term, general benefits of humectants.

For example, if your skin is dry and dehydrated, but also highly reactive, simple humectants and emollients may not be enough, and tailored peptide will serve your needs better.

English uses the example of Neurosensine, a unique peptide found in La Roche-Posay, Toleriane Ultra Dermallergo Hydrating Serum, explaining it is specifically formulated to target skin reactivity. “That peptide signals the skin to calm itself,” says English, “someone with reactive skin might find their skin responds to everything from heat, to pollen, to rubbing too hard. Neurosensine can help reminds it to relax.”

Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid

How They Work:

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy-acid derived from sugarcane. It has the smallest molecular weight of any of the acids, meaning it is highly penetrative, working deep in the skin. It’s the most “active” of all the acids, which depending on your skin, can be a good or bad thing. Salicylic acid is, as we’ve established, a beta-hydroxy-acid, the only oil-soluble acid in the acid family, penetrating pores and dissolving oil on contact.

Why They Work Better Together:

English is all in on this cocktail, referring to it as an “elite combination,” especially for oily, acne-prone skin types. What makes it so good? She says that glycolic acid is perfect for treating rough, thickened skin and dark spots, because of its penetrative capacity. Both dark spots and rough skin texture can be caused by acne breakouts, so salicylic acid can go deep into the pores, clearing out debris and unplugging deeper areas of congestion. “Having a mix of the two is fabulous because you’re diminishing the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from previous breakouts while targeting future ones by mopping up residual plugs of dead skin cells and oil,” says English.

The Product That Goes With Everything

Of course, whether acne, sensitivity, dryness or hyperpigmentation is your concern, the most beneficial product you can use is sunscreen. La Roche-Posay, Anthelios Invisible Fluid Facial Sunscreen SPF50+ ($36) is lightweight, non-greasy and dermatologist-recommended for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.


Apply 20 minutes before sun exposure. Sunscreen is only one part of sun protection so wear protective clothing and seek shade. Avoid prolonged sun exposure. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming, towelling and perspiring in accordance with directions.

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