Science-Backed Skin Care Actives That Actually Work


Nicolle Monico
Updated 1 March 2022
Science-Backed Skin Care Actives That Actually Work
Sections on this page
  1. What Are Active Ingredients? 
  2. Science-Backed Actives to Boost Your Skin Care Routine 
  3. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) 
  4. Alpha-Lipoic Acids 
  5. Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
  6. Copper Peptides 
  7. Hydroquinone
  8. Kojic Acid
  9. L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
  10. Retinoids
  11. How to Start Your New Skin Care Routine

The skincare market is filled with thousands of products promoting every type of benefit under the sun for your needs. But to get the best out of your skin care routine, it’s a good idea to really understand the skin care active ingredients listed in your products and whether they are effective (or are just another trendy buzzword).

We took a look at some of the industry’s most common actives and pulled out the ingredients that actually work based on scientific evidence, research and clinical studies. Here’s what we found. 

What Are Active Ingredients? 

Active ingredients are the ingredients used to address the skin concern that a product is targeting. In other words, if a product claims to have anti-aging benefits, its skin care active ingredient is treating the effects of aging such as wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.

Also called “actives,” these are typically science-backed ingredients that support their use for common skincare issues. Inactive ingredients, on the other hand, are used to deliver the active ingredient to the skin hence (most commonly, they are water- or oil-based).

Science-Backed Actives to Boost Your Skin Care Routine 

Go to any Sephora, Ulta, or other beauty retailer and you’ll find aisles of skincare products to choose from. While we can’t go through every skin care active ingredient on the market, we’ll be focusing on the benefits and science behind the below actives: 

  • Alpha Hydroxy acids (AHAs)
  • Alpha-lipoic acid
  • Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid)
  • Copper peptides
  • Hydroquinone
  • Kojic acid
  • L-Ascorbic acid
  • Retinoids 

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) 

Derived from natural sources such as fruit sugars and milk, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are gentle chemical exfoliants that are useful for removing dead skin cells. Typically, these acids are used in anti-aging products to reduce pigmentation, brighten the skin, battle uneven skin, combat wrinkles and improve your skin’s overall texture. 

The most commonly used AHAs are lactic and glycolic acids, with the latter having a better ability to penetrate the top layer of skin and lactic acid acting as a milder, non-irritating exfoliant that can be used for sensitive skin.

“For an AHA you want to make sure you're at between a 5-10%,” says Danielle Gronich, the Acne Guru at Clear Stem Skincare. “Five percent is the lowest amount that will creative meaningful change and 10% AHA is the upper limit before you start aggravating your skin barrier.”

The Science Behind Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

In a 1992 study, researchers found that lactic acid and ammonium lactate caused an increase in skin thickness. According to a review in the Journal of German Society of Dermatology, skin thickness was increased by around 25%.

Another study found that a 6-month application of 25% glycolic acid significantly improved melanin pigment distribution and increased the density of dermal collagen.

Finally, a 1996 study found that the use of 8% lactic acid or 8% glycolic acid (pH unstated) improved wrinkles, the smoothness and color of skin, and age spots—suggesting that their use could reverse sun-damaged skin. 

Alpha-Lipoic Acids 

Alpha-lipoic acid is touted as a miracle skin care active ingredient for its anti-aging effects. The highly potent antioxidant is believed to offer the best protection against free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells and cause aging) when compared with other antioxidants.

Soluble in both water and oil, alpha-lipoic acid gives skin a healthy glow, helps diminishes fine lines, and boosts the levels of other antioxidants. 

The Science Behind Alpha-Lipoic Acid 

In a study published in the European Journal of Pharmaceutics and Biopharmaceutics, data showed ALAs efficacy in reducing wrinkles, fine lines, and softening the skin with no side effects.

Further, studies show that alpha-lipoic acid increases the levels of other antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E, which work to reduce the signs of aging.

Our skin already contains a high concentration of antioxidants that protect the skin from ultraviolet light. However, there’s often little to no ALA found in the outer layers of the skin, so adding it into your skin care routine can increase your protection against UV rays. 

Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

A part of the hydroxy acids family, beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are similar to AHAs and are used to exfoliate the skin but are less irritating on the skin than AHAs. The most common BHA is salicylic acid which is found in many skincare products.

BHAs are known to help remove dead skin, improve sun-damaged skin, even out skin tone, decrease the appearance of large pores and surface wrinkles, unclog pores to prevent acne, and decrease inflammation.

While you can use either BHAs or AHAs to improve your skin’s overall appearance, the former is often used primarily for sun damage and acne. 

The Science Behind Beta-Hydroxy Acid 

The research behind BHAs is similar to AHAs since they come from the same family. The main difference is that, due to its solubility, BHAs are able to penetrate into the skin through sebaceous follicles.

Because of this, BHAs are ideal for those with oily skin, blackheads, and sensitive skin. However, the use of beta-hydroxy acid increases a person’s sun sensitivity by 50%, so using a good sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection is recommended. Look for products that contain 1-2% beta-hydroxy acid concentration to get the best results. 

Copper Peptides 

As you get older, signs of aging begin to occur due to a decrease in collagen production. Copper peptides are naturally occurring copper-binding tripeptides that stimulate collagen production and elastin.

Although they’ve only been on the market since 1997, copper peptides are often referred to as the most effective skin regeneration product. Copper peptides are used to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and promote the production of glycosaminoglycans which aid in the moisturizing and hydrating the skin below the surface. 

The Science Behind Copper Peptides 

Studies have shown that copper peptides can penetrate the outer layer of skin to help generate elastin found in collage deep within the skin tissue.

Further, a study in the journal of BioMed Research International found that copper peptides were shown to be effective in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, adding a “plumpness” to the skin over time.

Some studies also show that copper peptides can smooth, firm and soften the skin in less time than other anti-aging skincare products. Lastly, copper peptides may active the skin’s system responsible for producing collagen, allowing it to potentially remove the skin’s damaged connective tissues while adding new ones.  

Hydroquinone

Used as a lightening agent, skin care products containing hydroquinone are often used to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as dark spots, melasma, freckles, or age spots. Hydroquinone works by decreasing the number of melanocytes present (which make melanin) and thereby helping produce more evenly toned skin over time.

You can purchase produces with hydroquinone in them over the counter or get a prescription from your doctor for creams with a higher concentration of it. Although hydroquinone is generally safe to use, individuals with dry or sensitive skin may suffer from irritation or excessive dryness after using.

It typically takes four weeks for the skin care active ingredient to take effect and several months of consistent use before seeing full results. 

The Science Behind Hydroquinone 

For more than 40 years, hydroquinone has been the standard treatment for hyperpigmentation and the gold standard when found in bleaching creams to reduce melasma.

Studies have found that one of the key benefits of hydroquinone is photoprotection, the biochemical process that helps organisms cope with sun damage. Additionally, when using hydroquinone for depigmentation, studies show that maximum results occur when using it in combination with a retinoid and corticosteroid.

Lastly, when combined with 0.75% Kojic acid with 2.5% vitamin C, research shows that 4% hydroquinone can be highly efficacious in the treatment of melasma.

Kojic Acid

Another skin care active ingredient used for hyperpigmentation, kojic acid works similarly to hydroquinone but is a less aggressive alterative to hydroquinone. “[Kojic acid] is effective at lightening pigmentation and brown spots,” says Gronich. “It can be a great addition to peels and at-home lightening products.”

A chemical derived from mushrooms, kojic acid (KA) has been shown to be effective at slowing production of melanin and improving overall skin tone. It also contains some antimicrobial properties that can help fight off common types of bacterial strains and treat acne caused by bacteria.

The Science Behind Kojic Acid

In addition to its skin lightening action, KA has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving actions, but its seldomly used on its own. Generally, kojic acid combined with glycolic acid produce the best results.

Studies have also shown its efficacy in treating acne caused by bacteria (even in small dilutions), and has also been shown to beneficial in lightening acne scarring.

L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)

L-ascorbic acid is the only useful form of vitamin C that you should look for in skin care products. Many skin care products tout vitamin C in their ingredients but they are often derivates and less effective.

One of two forms of vitamin C found in nature, L-ascorbic acid is the most biologically active, but humans can’t produce it ourselves. When found in skin care products, it is synthetically sourced in order to offer enough benefits to affect the skin in a significant way.

L-ascorbic acid helps to stimulate the synthesis of collagen and minimize fine lines, wrinkles, and scars. To get the best results, use products with a 10-20% concentration level of L-ascorbic acid. Having more than 20% has been shown to lead to irritation and decreases its benefits. 

The Science Behind L-Ascorbic Acid

Research has shown that using vitamin C for at least three months can improve the skin’s overall appearance while minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Vitamin C can block the production of pigment in our skin to reduce the appearance of dark spots. Though more studies are needed to confirm its brightening effects, some clinical trials found that topical vitamin C improved participants’ dark spots with very little irritation.

Further some clinical studies found that when combined with other topical ingredients such as vitamin E and ferulic acid, L-ascorbic acid can diminish redness and help protect the skin from long-term sun damage.

Finally, topical vitamin C has been shown to reduce acne lesions due to its anti-inflammatory properties in clinical trials.

Retinoids

If you’ve ever researched skin care products for acne, you’re probably already familiar with retinol which is a type of retinoid. Retinol, derived from vitamin A, is used in many anti-aging creams to combat acne and acne scarring, improve skin tone and color, and boost the skin’s hydration levels.

Typically, retinoid products can only be purchased with a prescription. On the other hand, retinols are found in many over-the-counter products and work similarly to retinoids but require more time and consistent use. 

Our skin responds well to retinoids because vitamin A’s molecular structure is able to get into the lower layers of skin to neutralize free radicals. The most common retinol topical cream is Retin-A, which was used to treat acne in the ‘70s and was later found to improve hyperpigmentation.

Although retinoids are considered skin care royalty for treating aging skin, it’s recommended that users begin with OTC retinol before consulting your dermatologist about stronger retinoid creams which can have some negative side effects.

While using these products, Gronich stresses that, “You [should] not combine retinol with any other active, as retinol is already irritating.”

The Science Behind Retinoids

Retinoids have been vastly researched, and over the years, studies have continued to prove their effectiveness at changing how our skin cells function and its ability to stimulate collagen and help treat acne.

Studies also show that topical application of retinoids can provide a significant reduction in facial wrinkles and increased skin thickness to give users a more youthful glow. Topical retinol is also associated with boosting collage and elastin production while inhibiting the breakdown of collage that already exists.

Further, retinoids can block several inflammatory pathways that worsen acne, pimples, and even psoriasis.

How to Start Your New Skin Care Routine

Before beginning any new skin care routine, it's important to introduce new products slowly into your regimen. Some may be more irritating to others and you'll want to try one product at a time so you're aware of which may be causing any skin issues.

For anyone new to building a skin care routine, there are only three simple products that you'll need to get started:

  • Cleanser: Begin by washing your face in the morning and evening with a gentle cleanser such as CeraVe or Cetaphil.
  • Moisturizer: Keep your face hydrated and soft with a daily moisturizer. Try a cream that is a little bit thicker than your daytime moisturizer in the evenings if you struggle with dry skin. 
  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen may be the most important factor in keep your skin looking young, healthy, and free of sun damage.

Once you've created this foundation and found products that work for your skin type, begin to play around with different actives that may help with your specific skincare needs.

For a more advanced skin care routine, your products should be applied as follows:

  • Cleanser
  • Toner
  • Serum
  • Eye Cream
  • Spot Treatments
  • Moisturizer
  • Sunscreen

Finally, consult with your dermatologist to come up with the best plan of action for your needs if you aren't seeing results with over the counter products.

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