Skincare Actives 101

This post has been in the works for a long time. I posted a few months ago about my new skincare addiction, and I’ve since been putting together a routine that seems to have done a lot of good for my skin. But before I show you my routine, I want to talk about safety.

Chemical exfoliation is no joke. In this post, you’ll learn:

  • The importance of SPF and moisturizing
  • What actives are
  • Some types of actives available, including chemical exfoliation
  • Why pH matters to your skin

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to incorporate actives into your routine safely and walk you through the steps I took to start using them. And of course, I’ll cover my actual routine then, too.

SPF: Your New BFF

If there’s one thing you learn from this post, it’s that sunscreen needs to become a staple in your skincare routine, regardless of whether you choose to use actives. Your skin is pummeled with all kinds of stuff all day, and the sun can do more damage than you realize.

SPF is the most effective anti-aging product you can get. Without SPF, you’re letting UVA and UVB rays into your skin, which damage your skin and accelerate aging whether or not you get a sunburn. It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy or if you’re only outside for a few minutes at a time. You need it.

It’s important to get into the habit of wearing SPF 40 or better every day before you start adding actives. Some actives make your skin photosensitive—that is, your skin will be more prone to sunburn and sun damage. I made a couple misjudgments with SPF when I first started using actives, and believe me, you need to be diligent about it. If you can’t commit to smelling like sunscreen every day, actives aren’t for you, period.

Have I preached about sunscreen enough? Let’s move on…

Skin Problems? Start With Moisturizing

The next mega-important thing to drill into your head is that your skin needs a good balance of moisture. A lot of the acne and sensitivity I dealt with in my teen and college years was due to a lack of care for my moisture barrier, not oil. When I recently figured this out, it blew my mind.

You know how it’s recommended that you don’t wash your hair with shampoo every day because it causes your scalp to produce more oil to protect itself, which makes you want to wash it more, and so on? The same is true for your face. If you wash it with harsh soap twice a day, use physical exfoliation, and add drying acne treatments, you’re depleting your skin of moisture. The issue is compounded by hot showers, cold weather, and inconsistent use of a moisturizer.

I realized this applied to me when I was using Stridex pads during one winter in college. My skin was clearing up a bit, but it was so dry and sensitive, and then the acne was worse. I was using moisturizer every morning and night, but my skin was still peeling. I saw a video with a review for a moisturizing serum that you put under your moisturizer, and I went out and got one. I kept at it for a couple years and became a huge believer in hydrating serums, which you’ve seen in my old skincare routine and favorites videos. I was amazed when I looked back and realized that I’d somehow stumbled across the right thing to do.

Moisturizing is much more than lotion, although lotion does help. Hydrating serums contain ingredients that bind to water, like hyaluronic acid, that hold onto the moisture that comes into contact with your skin. Then, when you put a moisturizer or lotion on top, you’re locking in more moisture than you would be without the serum. In addition to benefiting your skin’s health, a good moisture barrier helps fight against aging. When your skin is plumped and hydrated, it’s more resilient and bounces back faster. It’s why eye creams can help with fine lines under your eyes.

Out of everything in my skincare routine, my hydrating serum has made the most visible improvements in my skin. I have two separate ones that I cycle during the week. That’s how much I love them.

What Are Actives?

Actives are a casual way of referring to skincare products with active ingredients. Some work better in the morning, and some work better at night. With each of these, you’ll want to do a patch test on your skin and introduce them slowly and one at a time, waiting 1-2 weeks before introducing the next one. This helps you pinpoint the culprit if you start breaking out.

Again, some actives make your skin photosensitive, so you must wear SPF daily while using actives. If you stop using actives, you should keep wearing SPF for one or two weeks, as the photosensitive effects take some time to wear off. I will keep saying this throughout this post. It’s important.

The Main Types of Actives

Actives are useful because they give your skin a boost. There are a bunch of different types that all have varying benefits, but I’ll go over the most common ones.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation products help get the gunk out of your skin to prevent acne and let your other products absorb better. They can also encourage cell turnover in your skin and keep the blood flowing.

There are two main types of chemical exfoliation: AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid). BHA is oil-soluble, so it can penetrate deep into your skin past the sebum (oily layers) to help normalize the amount of oil on your skin and get rid of bacteria that causes whiteheads and blackheads. Salicylic acid is the most common BHA you’ll find. AHA is water-soluble, so it can’t get past the sebum but it loosens the dead skin cells from your outer skin layers and keeps them from blocking your pores. This encourages your skin to keep making fresh skin cells, leaving your skin glowing and healthy. There are a lot of AHAs available to you, like glycolic acid and lactic acid. I’m using a product that mixes a couple different acids.

You don’t have to use both of these depending on your skin, but they do work well together. A lot of people recommend using the BHA first and letting it sink in for 20-30 minutes so the product can penetrate deep into your skin. This apparently helps the AHA penetrate deeper when you put it on next, and once again leave it on your skin for 20-30 minutes. This is time-consuming, so another recommendation is to use your BHA in the morning and your AHA at night. How often you use them is up to you, and it’s something I’ll talk about in my next post. But you won’t want to use these every day.

Keep in mind: AHA makes your skin photosensitive, and there are some differing opinions about whether BHA helps or hurts your skin’s photosensitivity.


Antioxidants protect your body from damage from oxidants, better known as free radicals. In the skincare world, you’ll likely see people talking about Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that brightens skin and improves scarring by improving cell turnover. This is typically used in the morning because it also helps protect your skin from some of the environmental stress that your skin goes through during the day.

Retinoids and Retinol

These products are used to prevent and reverse signs of aging because they can visibly reduce wrinkles, treat acne, even skin tone, and increase collagen production, blood flow, and cell turnover. People talk about these products like they’re magic, and they kind of are. But, they can take a few months to have any noticeable effect on your skin, depending on your dosage and how often you apply them.

Retin products also don’t always play well with other actives, so do your research when adding one to your routine. I’ll touch on this in my next post, but I’m not a dermatologist and will always recommend you consult one if you have specific questions. You can find retinol over the counter (which is what I’m currently trying out), but a lot of people choose to get a prescription for Retin-A Tretinoin from a dermatologist (which I’ll probably do in a couple years).

What About pH?

I’m going to start this section by reminding you that I’m not a scientist, I’m just a random woman on the Internet. But I’ve done some research into this stuff and find it interesting, so I want to share what I can and encourage you to look to scientists for the most technically accurate information.

You probably learned about pH in science class at some point in your life. It’s a scale that tells you how acidic or basic (alkaline) something is. 0 is highly acidic and 14 is highly basic, with 7 being neutral.

Your skin has a natural pH of 4-5.5, so slightly acidic. Ideally, your skincare products leave your skin around that level. When your skin is in its healthy range, it does its job of resisting bacteria and holding onto moisture. If your skin is left too basic, it can’t defend itself as well, which can give you some problems like acne.

Here’s where it gets more complicated. If you’re using chemical exfoliation, you actually want those products to have a lower pH than your skin in order to do their job effectively. And even if your product is at a low enough pH, the products you use before it might make it less effective. For example, if your face cleanser has a pH of 6.5, the exfoliating acids have to work a lot harder to penetrate your skin and get to work. Some people prep their skin for chemical exfoliation by letting their skin rest for a while or by using a pH-balancing toner, but using a face cleanser with a pH closer to your skin’s natural levels is the easiest way to help with this.

Snow White and the Asian Pear has an amazing post about pH with tons more detail, so I highly recommend checking that out (and the trove of interesting posts she has).

One last thing about pH: you should never, under any circumstances, use highly acidic or basic products on your skin. The biggest culprits are lemon juice and baking soda. Don’t put them on your face, or anywhere on your skin for that matter. Even if they’re mixed with products to neutralize them, it’s not worth the risk. Lemon juice or other highly acidic substances can cause chemical burns, and baking soda or highly basic substances can butcher the outer layers of your skin. Yikes.

Woohoo, Skincare!

I hope this was useful information for you. Most of what I’ve learned has come from Reddit. The sidebar on /r/SkincareAddiction is where this all began for me, and I highly recommend their beginner information. This post from /r/AsianBeauty talks all about actives and is worth a read if you’re looking for more details. I also found this article on Bustle that gives some product recommendations and includes more types of actives than I’ve covered here.

Learning about skincare has been awesome, and I’m feeling really comfortable with my skin lately. I had to stop my skincare temporarily when I got LASIK at the end of September, and it made me realize how much my new routine has been doing for me. I’ll outline my routine and the process of going off and back on it in my next post.

Until next time,

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