Everyone has a different approach to their skincare regimen. For some people, a basic routine that consists of a cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF is all you can wrap your head around. For others, you might have your aesthetician and dermatologist on speed dial (along with a color-coordinated shelfie of skincare products). No matter which camp you fall in, your products won’t bring out the best in your skin if it doesn’t have the right active ingredients. In our book, those superstars are retinol, vitamin C, and an exfoliating acid, like an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta-hydroxy acid (BHA).
Let’s back up a second: What are active ingredients? Sometimes referred to as actives, they are ingredients that basically help your skincare product do what it says it’ll claim to do. In other words, actives address the concern (wrinkles, acne, dryness, etc.) they’re trying to target. It doesn’t really mean that all the other ingredients are inactive — they help deliver those active ingredients (a.k.a. they play a supportive role and actives are the stars). You can find active ingredients in both over-the-counter products as well as prescription medications from your derm. Whether or not they’re specifically labeled on your ingredients list as “active ingredients” is up to how the company or brand wants to market them (and if they’re regulated by the FDA).
There are tons of ingredients that promise healthy, glowy, and younger-looking skin. But if you don’t have the time to get a science degree to figure it all out, here are the three active superstars that pack the biggest punch for any skin type:
Retinol is a synthetic form of vitamin A and is a type of retinoid. (You may have also heard of Retin-A, which is prescription-based retinol, otherwise known as tretinoin). In simple terms, retinol works by gently exfoliating and encouraging skin renewal to reveal younger-looking skin. “It reduces the appearance of wrinkles and imperfections while evening skin tone and improves moisture retention,” says Abi Oleck, celebrity facialist and skincare expert. However, this doesn’t mean younger or spot-prone skin can’t also benefit. “It can also regulate oily skin and reduce breakouts,” says dermatologist Dr. Wassim Taktouk. Expect to see the improvement in the appearance of wrinkles, redness, and pores as well as visibly younger-looking skin.
Tip: Most dermatologists believe that retinol should be applied at night when you’re least exposed to the UV light. Especially for the first few weeks of use, it’s possible retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Retinol itself is also prone to breaking down when it’s exposed to sunlight, making it less effective.
Vitamin C is a powerhouse antioxidant that can be applied topically to stimulate the production of collagen (the main protein in our skin). “Vitamin C thickens the dermis, diminishes fine lines and is essential for firm, youthful skin,” says Taktouk. Secondly, as an antioxidant, “it protects skin cells from damaging free radicals caused by UV exposure,” he says. Thirdly, it inhibits melanin production in the skin. “It helps to lighten hyperpigmentation and brown spots by evening out skin tone and enhancing your skin’s radiance,” he adds. Consequently, including vitamin C in your routine will give you glowing, bouncy and healthy skin.
Tip: Depending on the product, it’s possible that vitamin C is destabilized when it is exposed to air or direct light. Sunday Riley’s CEO 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum uses THD Ascorbate that’s stable and doesn’t degrade for years. To be safe, keep your products out of sunlight. And, ideally, “you want a product that is in an airtight and in an opaque container,” says Taktouk.
As mentioned earlier, acids can be broken down into two main categories: alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). Both categories are types of exfoliants, but they work slightly differently and suit different skin types.
AHAs include glycolic (which comes from sugar cane) and lactic acids (which traditionally come from lactose). AHAs are water-soluble and suit normal or dry skin. “They help a wide range of skin conditions including pigmentation, rosacea, dehydration, sensitivity, acne and congestion problems,” says Oleck. They work by breaking down the bond between layers of dead skin cells, speeding up the process of cell renewal. The result? Visibly clearer, brighter and plumper skin. “Glycolic is the smallest molecule size of the AHA group meaning it can penetrate the skin easily but can also irritate. Lactic acid, which has a larger molecule than glycolic, is a milder alternative,” Oleck adds.
The most well-known BHA is salicylic acid. BHAs are great for oily or acne-prone skin and much like AHAs, work to break down the bond between layers of dead skin cells. The difference here? They also get inside the pores themselves because BHAs are oil-soluble. “They can get deeper into the pores and remove dead skin cells and excess sebum,” says Taktouk.
How to Incorporate Them Into Your Routine
At Sunday Riley HQ, we know it could be confusing how to layer your products and when to use them. Despite popular belief, you can use ingredients like vitamin C and retinol at the same time without decreasing their efficacy — all thanks to our innovative formulas. Here are three ways to infuse these three superstar actives into your routine:
In the morning… Cleanse and dry skin, for your vitamin C dose, follow up with C.E.O. Glow oil and a couple of pumps of C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum by massaging it into your skin. Then apply one or two pumps of Good Genes Lactic Acid Serum as your AHA to the face and neck. Top it off with your moisturizer and sunscreen, especially if you’re new to exfoliating acids, which leave your skin feeling a bit sensitive.
For acne-prone skin, substitute C.E.O. Glow Vitamin C+Turmeric Face Oil for U.F.O. Acne Treatment Face Oil.
At night… After cleansing and drying off your skin, apply one or two pumps of A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum. Allow it to absorb into your skin for a few minutes, then massage in your CEO Vitamin C + Turmeric Face Oil (your second dose of vitamin C of the day, which is great for glowy results). Or let A+ sink in for a few minutes, then follow with 1-2 pumps of Good Genes to face and neck. Finish your routine with moisturizer, which you might not need if you have oily skin.
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