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Popular Skincare Ingredients—A Guide for Your Product Line

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

There is a myriad of skincare ingredients used in functional skincare. As the beauty industry evolves rapidly, it is important, especially for beauty entrepreneurs, to stay in the know for their brand success.

Drug stores have a large selection of skincare products that share one thing in common, the active ingredients that make up their formulas. In recent years, there have been a handful of popular skincare ingredients we encounter more than others.

As an entrepreneur, it is important to pick ingredients that receive high demand from contemporary consumers. A fortiori, the need to innovate beauty products that resonate with audiences is increasingly indispensable. This is because shoppers are more and more educated on the subject of cosmetic raw materials and their role.

The skin actives in your products are the hero attributes of your line. They will set you apart from other branded products next to yours on shelves. This guide is for you if you are considering including popular skincare active ingredients, but are not knowledgeable of how they work.

Without any further ado, the list of popular skin care active ingredients read in alphabetical order as follows:

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is the smallest alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and simplest in structure. Derived from sugarcane, it is a water-soluble acid commonly used in skincare products for its ability to exfoliate the skin. It does so by loosening the bonds between the outer layer of the skin, including dead skin cells, and the next layer of the skin. This mechanism results in clearer and smoother skin. Glycolic acid is best suited for normal, oily, and combination skin types.

Dermatologists, aestheticians, and other skincare specialists recommend glycolic acid not only for its exfoliation property but for a plethora of other reasons as explained below:

  1. Unclogs pores: Glycolic acid can help to unclog pores by removing dead skin cells and other debris that can contribute to acne and other skin issues.

  2. Stimulates collagen production: Glycolic acid can help to stimulate collagen production in the skin, which can improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  3. Brightens skin tone: Glycolic acid can help to brighten skin tone by reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots.

Lactic acid

Lactic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that is derived from milk or other dairy products. Similarly to glycolic acid, it is a water-soluble acid used in skincare products to slough off the skin to improve its texture and appearance.

Lactic acid is a bigger molecule than glycolic acid. Due to their difference in size, lactic acid does not penetrate the skin as deeply as glycolic acid does. Consequently, it is a milder exfoliant and may be better tolerated by dry and sensitive skin types.

Compared to glycolic acid, lactic acid presents about the same benefits, however, overall at a slower rate.

Warning On AHAs

AHAs are phenomenal ingredients to improve skin texture and safeguard the integrity of the skin; however, they should be used with caution. They pose skin sensitivity concerns in consumers.

Dermatological reports have indicated adverse experiences such as burning, dermatitis or rash, swelling, pigmentary changes, blisters or welts, skin peeling, itching, irritation or tenderness, chemical burns, and increased sunburn.

It is recommended to start with a low concentration and gradually increase usage over time. In addition, as per the FDA guidelines, ensure the use of sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and limit sun exposure.

L-ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)

Vitamin C, also known as L-ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant. It acts as a defense against environmental stressors such as sun ray-borne free radicals, the premise of skin aging. To understand the vogue of vitamin C, its science-backed facts have to be enumerated. Vitamin C has the following functions:

  1. Brightening: Vitamin C can help to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots, leading to a brighter, more even complexion.

  2. Anti-aging: Vitamin C can help to stimulate collagen production, which can improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  3. Protection against environmental stressors: Vitamin C can help to protect the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation and other environmental stressors, such as pollution and cigarette smoke.

  4. Reduces inflammation: Vitamin C has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help to soothe and calm irritated skin.

  5. Wound healing: Whether in capsules or applied topically, vitamin C promotes wound healing. This is due to its effect on collagen production, which is necessary for the skin to resolve this injury.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). It occurs naturally in many plants, such as willow tree bark, wintergreen oil or sweet birch. Salicylic acid is well-known to the public as a chemical exfoliant. It helps to remove dead skin cells from the skin's surface by dissolving the “glue” that holds old skin to new skin underneath it. In addition, salicylic acid is a popular skincare ingredient for multipurpose use, notably:

  1. Acne treatment: Salicylic acid can help unclog pores and remove dead skin cells, which can prevent breakouts from occurring. It also helps to prevent the growth of bacteria that causes acne.

  2. Skin appearance: Salicylic acid has been shown to help reduce wrinkles and fine lines on the face when applied topically as part of a daily skincare routine.

  3. Anti-inflammatory: Salicylic acid helps soothe inflamed areas on the skin like redness.

  4. Skin brightening: Due to its powerful exfoliating properties, the skin complexion is left looking brighter and smoother.


Glycerin, the common name for glycerol, is a simple water-soluble molecule that is odorless, viscous, sweet-tasting and non-toxic. It works as a humectant. It draws moisture from the air to the top layer of the skin, keeping it hydrated and dewy-looking. Thanks to its low molecular weight, it n penetrate the skin and deliver its actions to deeper layers of the skin.

Glycerin may not come across as an essential skincare ingredient, but it is highly prevalent in water-based formulations on the market for its multifunctional attributes. From moisturizers to serums, glycerin is used to provide some of the following benefits:

  1. Strengthens the skin barrier: Glycerin is used to treat extreme dryness and restore skin elasticity to repair the skin's natural barrier function. Thereby, preventing moisture loss and protecting the skin from environmental stressors.

  2. Soothes and calms irritated skin: Thanks to its cooling effect, glycerin helps soothe and calm irritated skin.

  3. Enhances skin texture: Glycerin helps improve skin texture by smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles and leaving the skin looking smoother and more radiant.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in our skin, connective tissues, and joints. It is a type of glycosaminoglycan, a complex molecule of repeating disaccharide units. HA is highly hydrophilic, or water-loving, which means it attracts water and is a vital component for maintaining healthy skin hydration.

There are three types of HA used in cosmetic formulations: high, medium, and low molecular size HA. The high and medium molecular weight HA remains on the outermost surface (the epidermis) of the skin and works to boost hydration there. By contrast, the low molecular weight HA penetrates the skin’s deeper layers of the epidermis, where it boosts the skin’s HA production and reloads the moisture.

Whether present in serums or moisturizers, HA is well-known and coveted among consumers. This is what makes HA a powerhouse for all-round skin care needs:

  1. Improved hydration: HA can bind to water between 1000 and 10,000 times its weight (i.e. 1 gram of HA can hold between 1 and 10 liters of water). This characteristic makes it an excellent hydrating ingredient for the skin. HA helps plump up the skin and improve its texture, leaving it looking smoother and more youthful.

  2. Increased elasticity: As we age, our skin loses its elasticity, leading to sagging and wrinkles. HA can help boost skin elasticity, making it firmer and more supple.

  3. Anti-aging properties: Because of its ability to improve hydration and elasticity, hyaluronic acid can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  4. Healing properties: HA has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and can help to soothe and heal the skin. It is often used in skincare products designed to treat acne or other skin conditions.

Niacinamide (vitamin B3)

Niacinamide, the active form of vitamin B3 (niacin), is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a crucial role in many biological processes in the body. In skincare, niacinamide boasts an array of properties beneficial for topical application. This versatility explains its popularity in the ingredients list of beauty and personal care products. Notable attributes of niacinamide include:

  1. Hydration: Niacinamide helps to strengthen the skin's natural barrier, which can help to prevent moisture loss and improve overall skin hydration.

  2. Skin brightening: Niacinamide can help to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots, leading to a brighter, more even complexion.

  3. Anti-aging: Niacinamide can help to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production and improving skin elasticity.

  4. Anti-inflammatory: Niacinamide has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help to soothe and calm irritated skin. It is often used to help treat conditions such as acne, rosacea, and eczema.

  5. Oil control: Niacinamide can help to regulate sebum production, making it a useful ingredient for those with oily or acne-prone skin.


Peptides are shorter chains of amino acids. While longer chains of amino acids make up proteins, the fundamental building blocks of connective tissues such as the skin.

Peptides are fragments of connected amino acids needed to make certain proteins the skin requires. This is especially true for collagen, the primary protein of the skin’s structure. As such, adding peptides may boost collagen production in the skin. Consequently, more collagen leads to more firm and youthful-looking skin.

Peptides' topical actions vary based on their nature. However, in general, peptides are recorded to have the following advantages for the skin:

  1. Improved skin barrier: Peptides help collagen in the skin, making it firmer and more resilient. This, in turn, gives the skin a stronger shield against environmental stressors and toxins.

  2. Skin elasticity: In addition to elastin, peptides can help to improve skin elasticity by promoting the production of elastin, which is important for maintaining the skin's structure.

  3. Anti-inflammatory: Some peptides have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help to soothe and calm irritated skin.

  4. Enhances hydration: Peptides can help to improve the skin's natural moisture barrier, which can prevent moisture loss and improve overall skin hydration.

  5. Skin’s microbiome: Some peptides demonstrate antimicrobial properties which ameliorate the skin’s microbiome, also known as the skin’s antimicrobial barrier.


Retinol is among the most famous skincare active ingredients on the market. Derived from vitamin A, it is an over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid primarily intended to treat mature skin concerns and acne. Although not as powerful as prescription retinoids, retinols maintain the most potent profile of OTC retinoids available.

Retinol does not have exfoliation properties. However, it performs its action beneath the skin. When it reaches the dermis, the middle layer of the skin, it combats free radicals and boosts collagen and elastin. In a nutshell, this is what makes retinol a winning ingredient in skincare:

  1. Skin plumping: Retinol can help to stimulate collagen production in the skin, which can improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  2. Fights acne: Retinol can help to regulate sebum production, making it a vital ingredient for those with acne-prone skin.

  3. Reduces hyperpigmentation: Retinol can help reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots. This leads to a brighter, more even complexion.

  4. Improves skin hydration: Retinol can help to improve the skin's natural barrier function, which can prevent moisture loss and improve overall skin hydration

Beauty Entrepreneurs Starting a Skincare Line

Consumers are constantly looking for the next skincare line made with functional ingredients that address the concerns for beautiful skin.

Are you ready to start your skincare company and need an expert formulator to bring your idea to life? You have landed where you need to be. Freelance Formulations helps entrepreneurs like you get their “Concept to Cash” in no time through a more attentive and premium care process.

Simply fill out this form and we will call you right back. We can’t wait to meet you!

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