What Is An Active Ingredient

Updated: Mar 3

Using products that contain active ingredients can be the difference between achieving your skin goals and falling short. But what ingredients are actually classified as active? I explain below.

The term “active ingredient” is thrown around a lot in the skin care sphere but, in many cases, it isn’t being used correctly. Considering just how much there is to know about skin care products, formulations, and ingredients at large, I wanted to take the time to outline what active ingredients are, how to determine whether a product contains an active ingredient, and why inactive ingredients still matter.

What Is an Active Ingredient?

Simply put, the term “active ingredient” refers to a chemical that actively targets a specific skin concern — such as acne, pigmentation, or fine lines — and creates a physical change in your skin.

These ingredients have scientific data showing their efficacy so there is a good chance you’ll benefit from including them in your skin care regimen. This makes sense because otherwise we wouldn’t have concrete proof an ingredient caused a physical changes in the skin. 

In the US, active ingredients are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are technically considered “drugs.” We recognize that not all countries abide by the same rule set, which means the definition of an active ingredient varies across the board. That’s partly why the term has become so confusing, and why it’s been adapted colloquially to mean any ingredient that has a notable effect on the skin.


A List of Common Skin Care Actives

The most common active ingredients found in skin care are as follows: 

  • Zinc Oxide (found in sunscreen): This is one of the best sunblock ingredients available because it blocks 100% of U