Whether you’re reducing signs of aging, combating acne, or improving your hydration levels, the right skin care ingredients can make all the difference. But it can be difficult to decipher skincare ingredient lists, and even harder to know which ones are actually effective.
Thankfully, there are certain tried-and-true ingredients that truly deserve a place in your regimen. From niacinamide to retinol, read on to discover our top 10 ingredients for effective skin care.
1. Glycolic Acid
Glycolic acid is a dermatological skincare ingredient that’s often recommended in face cleansers, serums and at-home or in-office peels. It’s a powerful exfoliant and also helps fade dark spots, such as age spots and melasma, for brighter skin, as well as reduce fine lines and wrinkles for smoother complexion.
Derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is the smallest molecular structure among all AHAs and easily penetrates the outermost layer of skin, explains board-certified dermatologist David Kim, M.D. It’s keratolytic, meaning it loosens the glue-like substance that holds dull, dead skin cells on the surface of your complexion. This allows other anti-aging ingredients to penetrate more readily.
Aside from its exfoliating properties, glycolic acid is a humectant and attracts moisture to skin cells. It also helps boost the production of glycosaminoglycans, which are special molecules that lubricate connective tissue and keep skin soft and supple.
Retinol is a powerful skincare ingredient with proven benefits. It reduces fine lines, evens skin tone and helps fight acne. This vitamin A derivative also promotes cell turnover and increases collagen production. It can be found in many over-the-counter (OTC) products, including creams and lotions.
While retinol and its cousin, the prescription-strength retinoid, are both excellent anti-aging ingredients, Garshick says a person’s tolerance for it can play a big role in what type of product to use. Those with acne-prone skin should choose a gel formula to prevent breakouts, while those with normal or dry skin can benefit from a cream with a lower concentration of the active ingredient.
Because retinol accelerates cell turnover, it can cause dryness. The trick is to make sure you’re using a rich moisturizer and layer it with sunscreen during the day.
3. Lactic Acid
Originally a byproduct of plant and dairy fermentation (it’s widely believed Cleopatra bathed in sour milk to keep her skin looking young), this gentle exfoliator helps promote the natural skin cell turnover process. It’s an excellent option for those with sensitive skin, as it is less harsh than other alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid and mandelic acid.
Lactic acid is commonly found in OTC chemical exfoliants and professional chemical peels. It’s also suitable for vegans, as it can be produced through a fermenting process that does not require animal products.
Celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau recommends incorporating lactic acid into your skincare regimen on a three-on/three-off schedule, meaning you apply it for three nights in a row, then take a break. She says it’s a great ingredient to add if you struggle with rosacea or psoriasis.
Glycerin is an effective ingredient for all skin types, especially those with dry and damaged skin. This skin-restoring molecule is found naturally within the skin’s second layer and acts as a humectant by drawing water into the skin from both deep levels of the inner layer of the skin and the surrounding air.
It also helps prevent the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface, keeping it hydrated for longer. Typically paired with occlusive ingredients, like nourishing botanical oils can provide extra moisture for skin that needs it most.
This multi-tasking hydrator can also reduce sensitivity and redness, as well as improve skin function, accelerate healing and increase collagen production. And it does all this without clogging pores or making your skin feel oily!
5. Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid is a powerful skin care ingredient that is known for its ability to boost hydration, improve skin elasticity and protect the skin barrier. The ingredient is also available as an injectable to help plump areas of the face and reduce wrinkles, but for most of us, the best hyaluronic acid products are found in skincare serums and moisturizers. Pam’s skin care tips can also be a good guide for you to achieve flawless and radiant skin.
Hyaluronic Acid is a humectant, meaning it attracts many times its own weight in water molecules, making it a great ingredient for hydrating your skin. You’ll find it in moisturizers and even as the star of a hyaluronic acid serum, which is a good way to layer extra hydration underneath your foundation.
Another benefit of hyaluronic acid is that it helps reduce hyperpigmentation by brightening and evening out the skin tone. You’ll notice the difference when you use it, especially if you have sun spots that seem to never go away!
6. Copper Peptide
Copper Peptide is a powerful anti-aging ingredient that works to promote youthful and radiant skin. Its popularity stems from the ability to stimulate collagen production, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, as well as boost hydration.
It is also a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that can help with hyperpigmentation, redness, and inflammation, especially on acne-prone skin. It also helps regulate the bacterial concentration on the skin, making it suitable for those who struggle with breakouts.
It’s important to note that copper peptide should be used in conjunction with other skincare ingredients, such as Retin-A, AHAs, and vitamin C. This will ensure that your skin is able to absorb the most benefits of the ingredient. Additionally, it should be paired with products that are designed for your skin type. For example, it is best to use a serum that contains copper peptide on dry skin.
7. Jojoba Oil
Jojoba oil is a liquid wax that is 98% pure. It has a similar composition to sebum, the natural oils that your skin produces and was first used by Native Americans in the Sonora desert for hair and skin care. It’s also nearly identical to sperm whale oil, which spurred a major shift in cosmetic industry practices when activists pushed for the end of sperm whale hunting for its blubber.
Aside from being an effective hydrator, jojoba oil controls sebum production and reduces acne. It’s also a great ingredient to use for dry skin since it moisturizes without being greasy. However, it is essential to purchase organic jojoba oil because conventional jojoba is often grown and harvested using chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Always do an allergy test with any product containing jojoba oil before applying it to your face or body.
Squalene is a lightweight oil that works to smooth the skin and restore hydration. It can also help prevent fine lines and wrinkles. It is naturally produced in our bodies, as well as in animals and plants.
Because it is so similar to our sebum, squalene is highly moisturizing and helps soften dry skin. It is also a natural antioxidant and helps fight free radical damage.
While your body can produce squalene, it decreases as you age. For this reason, it is a key ingredient in anti-aging products.
Plant-derived squalene is also a popular choice for skin care products. It is usually made from olives or sunflower seeds. It is important to choose products that indicate the source of their squalene. Plant-based squalene is more stable and shelf-stable than animal or shark liver oil, which can become rancid in products.
9. Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that’s an effective exfoliant. It breaks down keratin, which is the protein that makes up your skin barrier. This enables dead skin cells to slough off easily and helps keep pores unclogged, which reduces the appearance of blackheads and whiteheads. It’s also a great ingredient for clearing dandruff and can be found in face washes, serums, toners, leave on spot treatments, and skin patches.
Unlike AHAs, which are water-soluble, BHAs like salicylic acid can penetrate deep into the pores to unclog them at the source. It’s also an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, which can help calm red pimples and breakouts. It can also help control sebum production and improve the appearance of dull skin. Ultimately, it’s the perfect ingredient for oily and acne-prone skin types. It’s also gentle enough to use on dry skin, but only in formulas that are specially formulated.
10. Vitamin C
A powerful antioxidant, Vitamin C is found in abundance in fruits and vegetables. Topical application bolsters skin’s concentration of this water-soluble vitamin, and may reduce dark spots, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation.
Like retinol, it’s most effective in serum form, though it can be added to moisturizers, face masks, and toners too. It helps reduce redness, brightens the complexion, and fades hyperpigmentation.
A fragrance-free, lightweight oil derived from plants, it helps refine the appearance of pores, boosts collagen production, and improves skin’s texture. It also hydrates without clogging or leaving a greasy feeling behind. It pairs nicely with ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid.