When you’ve got a skin condition — acne, keratosis pilaris or eczema, for example — you want a skincare product that will actually treat it. That sounds so obvious, right? We tend to take for granted that all those skincare products on store shelves claiming to address a given skin concern can actually handle the job.
Turns out, that’s not the case. This is why you need to be a skincare label sleuth: capable of cutting through the packaging claims to get to the nitty gritty details. A good place to start: searching for active ingredients.
What exactly are active ingredients, and what separates them from plain old, inactive ones? With the help of our founder, dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) we’ll explain everything you need to know about actives.
Article Quick Links
- 01.How are skincare labels regulated in the U.S.?
- 02.What does the law require on skincare labels?
- 03.What does active skincare ingredient really mean?
- 04.What are the active ingredients in skincare?
How are skincare labels regulated in the U.S.?
Before we tackle active ingredients specifically, we need to take a couple of steps back. If you’re looking for a product to really treat a skin condition (like acne, for example), knowing a little bit about how skincare products are classified and regulated will help you make an informed choice. This is where things can get a bit complicated, which is why we’ve broken down how the FDA categorizes products before. Here it is in a nutshell:
- A drug is intended to treat or cure a condition, and affects the skin’s physiology (aka function), and sometimes the skin’s physical appearance.
- A cosmetic cleanses, beautifies, or alters the appearance of the skin. It affects physical changes only.
It’s worth noting here that a skincare product can be strictly cosmetic, or it can be a cosmetic that’s also a drug. Why is that important? According to Dr. Lee, products that are drugs have been clinically proven and evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat a given skin condition. The manufacturers have to meet strict government standards (outlined in a monograph) to be able to make claims on their packaging that give consumers confidence that the item will live up to those claims.
What does the law require on skincare labels?
When you’re standing dumbfounded in front of endless skincare shelving, you’re probably not thinking about the U.S. Fair Packaging and Labeling (FP&L) Act. But the manufacturers of all those products have presumably followed the specific requirements for what goes on the front (known as the Principal Display Panel, or PDP), and the back/sides (called Information Panels) of skincare packaging.
Why does this matter? Because being able to distinguish between what’s printed on the package and what’s really inside — the difference between marketing and substance — is crucial when you’re trying to solve a real skin concern.
All skincare labels (both drugs and cosmetics) need to contain standard information. If the product contains drug ingredients, there are additional requirements (more on that in a minute). Here’s a breakdown of what’s required:
- Name of product
- Identity (what it is)
- Warning(s), if applicable
- Contents (weight, volume, item count)
- Directions for safe use
- Name and place of business
- Any other required information
What does active skincare ingredient really mean?
If you follow skincare online and on social media, you’ve probably heard the term active ingredients used (and misused) a lot. Most skincare and beauty bloggers will tell you that an active ingredient is one that’s been clinically proven to effect a change to the skin. But that’s where things get hazy, because that suggests that all active ingredients are drugs — which means all the skincare products that contain them should be strictly regulated (and they’re not).
Turns out, the FDA actually has a very precise definition of the term active ingredient:
An active ingredient is any component that provides pharmacological activity or other direct effect in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or animals.*
In other words, they’re drugs. When you’re looking at a skincare label, active ingredients are only those ingredients that are regulated and listed as drugs — which again, means they’re intended to treat a condition, as opposed to just making it look better.
On the label, you’ll see a special box that reads Drug Facts that details the active ingredient and the percentage used in the formula. You’ll also see the ingredient list divided into Active Ingredients and Inactive Ingredients.
Things get a little murky when skincare formulas include ingredients that are regarded as active ingredients, but are still awaiting formal drug classification by the FDA. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid — which is still under evaluation by the FDA for the treatment of conditions like hyperpigmentation — fall into this category.
To complicate matters a bit more, some cosmetics contain active ingredients, but they don’t advertise on their packaging that the products inside actually treat a skin condition. Without that claim, the FDA classifies the product as a cosmetic, not a drug, even if it contains a regulated active ingredient (phew).
What are the active ingredients in skincare?
As we mentioned above, there are quite a few over the counter skincare ingredients that are regarded as active ingredients, though not all are officially recognized by the FDA as such. Here, we break down some of the most common, organized by those that are sanctioned on FDA monographs, followed by those that aren’t.
FDA active ingredients
- Acne: benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, sulfur
- Skin protectants: allantoin, calamine, cocoa butter, colloidal oatmeal, dimethicone, glycerin, zinc oxide
- Astringents: witch hazel
- Sunscreen: avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide
- Analgesics (pain relievers): hydrocortisone, zinc oxide
“Unofficial” active ingredients
- Retinoids: retinol esters, retinol, retinaldehyde
- Humectants: hyaluronic acid, beta glucan
- Antioxidants: vitamin C, vitamin E, kojic acid, niacinamide
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): glycolic acid, lactic acid
- Peptides and amino acids
- Emollients: shea butter, linoleic acid, ceramides
What’s the difference between active and inactive ingredients?
Let’s get something straight: an ingredient listed as inactive still plays an important part in a skincare formulation. Think of it in pop culture terms: if an active ingredient plays a lead role, an inactive ingredient is a supporting actor. According to Dr. Lee, inactive ingredients perform a variety of vital tasks, including:
- Stabilize: formulators add these ingredients to maintain texture and consistency.
- Buffer: manufacturers often add ingredients that nourish and condition the skin to mitigate irritation.
- Transport: these are ingredients that help deliver the active ingredients into the skin.
- Preserve: adding these ingredients helps prevent contamination and extend the shelf life of a product.
- Perfume: adding scent to a product can either mask odors or create a pleasant fragrance.
- Color: these ingredients can add visual appeal to a product.
Dr. Lee’s last word
There’s a lot of confusion out there about what skincare products actually treat skin conditions. This is one of the main reasons why I started SLMD Skincare — because I wanted to deliver products that really fulfill their claims to treat things like acne and keratosis pilaris. When we developed our products, we took the extra step to use FDA regulated active ingredients that provide real results.
—Dr. Sandra Lee