Differences between active and non-active products in skincare. We walk you through the key points.


How often do you spend time discussing the benefits of specific skincare products with a cosmetic representative or clinician but seldom do they explain just what an active ingredient is? We demystify the differences and explain how you can find a suitable product that can address your particular skin issues.

Non Active Ingredient vs Active Ingredient

Deciphering an active ingredient that’s at the forefront of a skincare product can be quite confusing to the uninitiated — even more so when you’re told about its core function without you even testing it. So what exactly is an active ingredient from a non-active one?

The first thing to note that any active ingredient is always documented and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any targeted use within a framework of regulations, which includes outlining the exact percentage and function. So essentially, active ingredients have proven data behind it to change the skin in some way. This could be for skin-lightening ingredients such as hydroquinone, retinol found in anti-wrinkle serums and anti-acne ingredients including sulphur and benzoyl peroxide.

By differentiation, inactive ingredients are any ingredients that the FDA does not consider to be active. Though they still must have a track record in safety, the regulation of non-active products is not as stringent. Instead, the product is required to feature a list of “inactive” ingredients from the largest concentration to the smallest if there’s a minimum concentration of 1% in the product. Anything less does not require a particular pecking order.

Start by making sense of the ingredient in the serum’s formulation.

It’s all in the formula

In today’s cosmeceuticals, there is an incalculable number of ingredients that are formulated to address a targeted skin condition. Together with the complexity of chemical ingredients, molecules and natural plant extracts are added with names and specific functions that can mislead patients. It is this reason why patients often don’t benefit from serum as it’s simply too potent or lacks the punch that’s needed. The active ingredient is simply not doing what it’s formulated to do.

On the other end of the spectrum, any product that doesn’t feature an active ingredient doesn’t necessarily imply that you won’t benefit from the treatment. For patients with chronic skin conditions, inactive ingredients are often beneficial in helping your cleanser and moisturiser deliver the best results to your skin. This includes water and rosehip extract.

In fact, rosehip oil is excellent when addressing a number of skin issues as it not only promotes healing but also moisturises your skin, helps fight acne and signs of ageing. It also brightens the skin and can help reduce skin pigmentation and other skin inflammations such as rosacea.

Additionally, rosehip oil contains vitamin C and essential fatty acids. These include:

  •  oleic acid.
  • palmitic acid.
  • linoleic acid.
  • gamma-linolenic acid.

On the flip side, inactive ingredients containing botanical extracts can inflame the face and cause a number of skin irritations so you should take note on what plant is used.

So what are the most popular active ingredients that address specific skin issues? Here are some for starters.

Anti-Ageing | Vitamin A | retinoids, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and any SPF-boosting ingredients [eg. zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, oxybenzone],

Dryness | Hyaluronic acid, Vitamin E, Aloe Vera and lactic acid

Pigmentation  | Vitamin C, Kojic acid, AHAs, BHA, hydroquinone, vitamin C.

Acne | Vitamin A/retinoids, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid, vitamin C, Hyaluronic acid. But the salicylic acid is the true superstar.

Rosacea | Azelaic acid, hyaluronic acid, shea butter

Psoriasis | Vitamin A/retinoids, vitamin D, lactic acid,

Eczema: | Hyaluronic acid, shea butter, niacinamide.

Some skin products may also require prescribed medications for immediate treatment such as antibiotics and steroids while specific ingredients such as salicylic acid are often used as a specific formula to treat the underlying condition.

Another game-changer to skincare is our direct access to cosmeceuticals, which are sold in skincare clinics. But for many patients who seek out a number of non-invasive treatments, they carry the belief that the procedure alone will suffice, however, they are in fact not optimising the benefits of what a science-based serum or cream can do.

What is the difference between over-the-counter cosmetic skincare and cosmeceuticals?

A cosmetic skincare product can be bought anywhere from an in-store or online retailer and is applied to your skin’s outer surface. However, the non-active ingredients do not penetrate through the epidermis layer to the dermis layer where many of our cell types are found including stem cells and fibroblasts  — the principal cells that synthesise the extracellular matrix and collagen. Nevertheless, the creams and serums can still hydrate and moisturise the surface skin.

By contrast, medical-grade cosmeceuticals are able to penetrate through to the epidermis due to the active ingredients that have been formulated to help improve and treat any skin conditions. Also results-driven, you will enjoy the benefits of those ingredients within a few weeks. The visible changes may include brighter and more radiant skin, reduction of fine lines, smoother and more even skin texture and a reduction in pigmentation, sun-damage, dryness and inflammation.

They are always used by skincare professionals and are available for purchase with skincare clinics, cosmetic doctors and dermatologists. But before you open your wallet, consult with the clinic on the best skincare regime to apply at home and ensure that the concentrated formulas are suited to your skin.

To achieve the best results, ensure that you discuss the active ingredients in-depth as well as their concentration levels within the serum or cream’s formulas.

Book in consultation for $65 [30 minutes] with our senior dermal therapist, Michele Hetherington, who will discuss and tailor the best and most affordable skincare solution for you. This may include a non-invasive skincare treatment. After your consultation, enjoy a complimentary Red Light Therapy, which uses low-level red wavelengths of light to calm and restore your skin’s health.                

Please view our blog on Protecting The Natural Skin Barriers, Microneedling with Skin Pen and Chemical Peels. Also, view our blogs on the benefits of IPL and Laser Rejuvenation treatments.