I just want to say that I *really* wanted to title this guide “Doing Acid for the First Time,” but thought that might not be the absolute greatest idea in history. So I’m going to settle for mentioning it here. This post is about drugs, but they are only recreational in the sense that skincare is skintertainment. Having only recently embarked into the world of Rx-strength actives, I figured that a general how-to guide to map out the world of these potent ingredients would be beneficial to everyone involved. Serums and sheet masks are the gateway drugs into the hard stuff like vitamin C and niacinamide after all…
What is an active and how do they work?
Actives are the heavy-hitters of skincare routines, hands down. They are most often used in the treatment of acne, fighting signs of aging, and correcting skin tone made uneven through post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and sun damage. While they make take some time to begin showing results, about 6-8 weeks, the results are often worth the wait. Active ingredients bind to skin cells, working like 24/7 therapists for skin cells, telling them to behave in a “more normal and healthier manner.”
Why should I use one? How do I know if they are right for me?
Like with anything, your mileage may vary-especially with these ingredients. Many actives are prescription-only if that helps tell you anything about their working power. Even when using one that isn’t prescription-grade (like an AHA), it can cause serious damage to your skin’s moisture barrier. Before adding any sort of active ingredient into your routine, make sure you have your moisturization game on lock down. Actives can be very irritating, drying out the skin and causing red, dry, flaky patches (not to mention purging), plus they require religious sunscreen application as almost all make skin extremely photosensitive (which if you are forking over precious time and money for these products, why would you ruin your results by sun damaging extra-vulnerable skin?).
If you feel like you can handle them, actives are useful for a huge number of skin conditions, but mostly for treating acne, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and evening out skin tone (uneven skin tone caused by PIH and/or sun damage). They are also helpful when trying to lighten/brighten skin tone and minimizing pore visibility. Sometimes actives can also help with chronic skin conditions like keratosis pilaris.
Commonly known actives:
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s): AHA’s work as chemical exfoliators to increase cell turnover. These are also fall into the category of humectants (but that doesn’t mean you get to skimp of moisture!). This is determined by the percentage of product and pH level of skin when applied. For non-humectant uses, a concentration of 8-10% is most effective. Some common AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and malic acid.
Azelaic Acid: used to treat acne because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Can also help with PIH and other pigmentation issues.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA’s): another chemical exfoliator that helps with both cell turnover and treatment of acne. Concentrations for these purposes are between 1-3% (higher concentrations can take off warts so yeah, be careful!) This category is pretty much exclusively salicylic acid, but a gentler alternative is similar betaine salicylate.
Niacinamide: vitamin B3. Helps treat acne, lightens PIH, maintains skin elasticity, and is a redness-reducer. (A personal favorite of mine)
Retinoids: all in this group stem from vitamin A. They help regulate cell turnover as well as provide anti-acne and anti-aging benefits. Some commonly known and used ones are Retin A and Isotrentinoin.
Vitamin C: a powerhouse active ingredient and antioxidant that is both anti-aging and anti-acne. It is also known for its brightening and evening of skin tone. Vitamin C can be tricky to as it is very sensitive to light and can oxidize quickly. Finding a stable form is really a must if you don’t feel like keeping a mini-fridge in your bathroom (but if you do want to do that, please buy a second fridge for me because I am so SO ready to take it to that level! XD) Two forms you may want to look at first are ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (stable), L-ascorbic acid (common and stable form).
This list is by no means exhaustive in terms of ingredients, ingredient names, or their benefits. This is just a general rundown. If you know of an obvious one I’ve missed (or just have a question about these), please leave me a comment down below! You can also use the “contact” feature as well if you’re shy (^.^)…
How to use one in your routine
Ok, I’ve got my active ingredient bearing product. Now what?
To those new to the actives game, there are two main things to remember about application: pH and wait times.
Actives do an amazing number of things, but generally require taking your skin’s pH slightly below its normal “resting pH” (somewhere between 4.7-5.6) in order to work. Actives are generally between 3-4 in terms of pH.
Bonus Knowledge: this is how chemical peels work! The lower the pH of the skin, the more exfoliation that will occur! (so yeah, don’t be doing this at home or (only semi-figuratively) you’ll peel your face off!).
To ensure your skin is ready to receive the goodness of your active(s) of choice, the easiest way is to use a low pH cleanser (like CosRX’s good morning low pH gel cleanser) followed by a pH adjusting cleanser (I LOVE the AHA/BHA toner which is also from CosRX). Once the toner has absorbed, go ahead and apply your product. Follow the instructions on the bottle, but if they don’t say how much to put on, assume a pea-sized to a penny-sized amount. You want just enough to cover your face/neck/décolletage.
AND NOW YOU WAIT.
Thou shalt not go out into the sun. Thou shalt not apply another product. Thou shalt go find something relaxing to do for about 20-30 minutes and let the product do its thing. *Sip some tea while your new AHA kicks some dead-skin-cell ass.*
Once 20-30 minutes have passed, now you can go and resume the rest of your skincare routine. You’ll probably find that you might need a little more moisturizer than usual, so be prepared to add some extra layers. Be sure to gently pat in the non-active moisturizing products so that they fully absorb and deliver full benefits.
Quick Recap: cleanse, tone, ACTIVE (keep on, by itself for 20-30 min), continue rest of routine.
Due to their photosensitizing nature, active ingredients should be applied at night, followed by plenty of moisture .Then put on lots sunscreen come morning time.
You’ve probably heard about “purging” both in skin and non-skin related senses of the term. When it comes to skin purging, it is a time of self-esteem limbo where your skin time-travels back to the worst of your high school year book photos. Put down the Windex! Before you go buy a gallon of Stridex to pour on your face, know that this too, shall pass. Purging is brought on by actives and is essentially your pores spring cleaning/ getting whooped in the behind to release all the crap they’ve been tucking away down in their shady depths.
All actives have this ability to make your skin look like crap, starting 1-4 weeks from the start of the applications, and this can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. It all depends on the pre-application starting state of your skin. It is sort of a break out to end all breakouts. A facial intervention if you will.(I try to see it as “eww, look at all this garbage my pores were hoarding. Keep cleaning little guys!” It’s the same sick perverseness I KNOW we all feel when we pop) a (juicy) pimple or rip off a pore strip. I know you spend 5 whole minutes looking at what was residing on your nose! Don’t even try to lie to me…)
While purging will most likely happen to you, and it will suck greatly, if things don’t improve after 8 (long, horrible) weeks, go talk to your favorite derm or switch up your products especially if you weren’t breaking out this badly before starting treatment. (if you were, go look at your lifestyle habits-stress? Bad diet?)
Tips and tricks:
-sometimes actives (notoriously vitamin c) can dry rather sticky. Most of the time this can be remedied with the application of the rest of your skincare routine (ie some lotion). If not, it *can* be washed off. After about 20-30 minutes, the pH level “normalizes” to where the active product can no longer be effective.
-actives should be slowly introduced into your routine. Going too hard, too soon with actives will not give you faster or better results. All it will do is increase negative side effects (like dryness, redness, flaking, and purging). Use as little as recommended and just be patient. Big results do take time. You’ll get there!
-SPF is super important when using these ingredients. Actives essentially reveal brand new, baby-skin that hasn’t built up any defenses (aka melanin) against those mean bully UVA and UVB rays. So sun damage is even more damaging to this new layer of “fresh” skin (ugh, that sounds so weird). Don’t kill your baby (skin) people!
-while *some* side effects may occur (generally signs of dryness, a good amount of old-fashioned purging, and sometimes increased oiliness), be sure to watch your skin if these effects occur in an unbearable amount or if your skin is showing signs of a damaged moisture barrier. Its you and your skin’s personal call to either continue application and add more moisture, more often, or if this product is something to reduce application frequency/percentage. There are so many different options, concentrations, and ingredients out there, if you aren’t seeing any results after about 8 weeks, move on.
-if your main reason for using actives is for the treatment of acne and after 6-8 weeks you are not seeing any improvement, you have a few options. Diet (especially dairy or just generally super unhealthy habits) can cause breakouts, along with things like hormonal birth control, other prescription medications, and stress. Occasionally, “acne” is caused by certain fungal or other types of bacterial infections. Dermatologists can prescribe both oral and topical antibiotics to help assist with your efforts.
-with actives, take your time introducing them to your skin. Even for actives “veterans,” 7 days a week is a bit much. Start off on an every other day (like M/W/F) application schedule and increase/decrease as necessary. Don’t be afraid to alternate products and/or take days off from actives. Regular, consistent use is key, but if you damage your skin’s moisture barrier, or suffer from bad side effects, how is it helping? Listening to your skin, especially when it has no tolerance to these heavy-hitting ingredients is going to be just as key to your success with them as actually applying them properly.
-if your skin starts to “act up” (ie purge, dry out) you can let your skin dry before you apply your application. After cleansing, wait about 15-20 minutes to let the water evaporate. Add your toner, then your product. If the skin is damp, it will absorb the product faster/take it deeper inside the pores like a damp sponge vs dry sponge trying to take in water. Like I said before, more is not better with actives. Slow and steady wins this race.
PHEW! So there you have it. While this is by no means an exhaustive guide to the world of actives, I sincerely hope that it has been informative and will help you navigate the world of this amazing class of ingredients. I am constantly researching and fine-tuning my knowledge of these products so I will try to keep this page as up to date as possible.
If you have any questions, concerns, or, well, comments, please leave them down below! I’d love to hear about what you’ve learned or what you like to use. You can also contact me (the button is up above on the navigation bar) with more detailed/specific questions, etc.
While I will earn a 10$ credit, you can use my Curology invite link to snag yourself a free month there and get started using Rx-grade actives with your own personal derm!
Thank you for reading! Don’t be afraid to reach out 🙂