You may have heard the word “actives” floating around in the skin care world recently. If you guessed that this term is just shorthand for “active ingredients,” you’re right. “Active ingredients” has a wide range of definitions.
But once you get a handle on the term, you’ll have a better understanding of the skin care options available to you. And you’ll see which ones are important for your skin, and how to save money on your skin care regimen.
There are a lot of products on store shelves that contain questionable ingredients. The FDA, as its name suggests, oversees food and drugs – not cosmetics.
But when is a product a drug, and when is it a cosmetic? Understanding the difference – at least according to the FDA – will help you understand actives.
Two general guidelines help the FDA categorize products as drugs or cosmetics. One, does it claim to change the skin’s structure? Two, does it claim to treat the symptoms of a skin issue, such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea?
If the answer to either question is yes, the FDA will call the product a drug. And it will require the product to follow its guidelines and go through an approval process. This likely means that the manufacturer will have to send the product through some clinical trials to confirm it actually does what it claims.
Many products that the FDA considers drugs require a prescription. But plenty are available online or in your local supermarket too. Typically, a product that calls an ingredient out as an “active” falls in the drug category.
What Makes an Ingredient a Drug?
It may surprise you that it isn’t the ingredients themselves that determine the drug vs. cosmetic distinction. Read the questions above again carefully. The FDA makes this distinction based on the claims the manufacturer makes about the ingredient.
This means two products could contain the exact same ingredient in the exact same amount. One could claim to make wrinkles “less noticeable.” And the other could claim to “treat the underlying cause of wrinkles.” The FDA would call the former a cosmetic. And it would call the latter a drug.
This might sound like bad news. And in some cases, it can be. It means that you can’t assume “cosmetic” products are safe. The FDA passes that responsibility on to the manufacturer, for better or worse. If you don’t know how to tell the difference between a “cosmetic” and a “drug,” you may assume the FDA has vetted all the products on the store’s shelf. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.
I spend a lot of time warning my readers about the dangers lurking in personal care products. The FDA categorizes many of these products as cosmetics and turns a blind eye to their toxic ingredient lists. So you need to do your homework.
How to Save Money on Your Skin Care Products
But there’s good news. As I mentioned, getting FDA approval for a product categorized as a drug requires clinical trials. Those trials can be expensive. And manufacturers often pass those costs along to consumers.
So let’s say product X wants to claim that ingredient Y treats wrinkles. That makes the product a drug. The manufacturer spends the money, gets FDA approval, and creates a $150 cream.
Another manufacturer also wants to use ingredient Y. But it doesn’t want to spend the money for FDA approval. So product Z simply claims that ingredient Y makes wrinkles less noticeable. According to the FDA, product Z is a cosmetic. And the manufacturer can sell it for $25 a pop.
So what does that mean for you as the consumer? You may look at the claims and be intrigued by product X. But if you read the ingredients lists carefully, you can save yourself $75 and get the exact same results.
Does Concentration Matter?
It’s true that sometimes there are differences in the concentration of the ingredient. And this can make a difference. There’s a reason that certain strengths of vitamin A, for example, are available over the counter, but others require a prescription.
Many people experience redness, dryness, irritation, and even peeling after using vitamin A in retinoid or retinoic acid form. These forms usually require a prescription. You need to use these products sparingly and with a doctor’s guidance.
They can really get the job done. But they can also do a number on your wallet. If you’re interested in vitamin A’s benefits, but don’t want the harshness or price tag of a retinoid, you have some options.
You can look for a “drug” or a “cosmetic” product that contains retinyl palmitate or retinol. The drugs will probably still be a bit more expensive. The cosmetics won’t make bold claims or list vitamin A as an “active,” though you can find it on the ingredient list. But now you know why. You’ll still likely find that cosmetic products “actively” improve your skin.
Delivering the Best Results
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with choosing “drugs,” or products that emphasize active ingredients. These ingredients have been carefully chosen in specific concentrations to help deliver the advertised result. But even if you choose a product with an FDA-vetted active, you still need to read the ingredients list.
That’s because mixed in with the active ingredient are plenty of other “inactives.” And to further complicate things, if the manufacturer doesn’t make a claim about an ingredient, the FDA doesn’t need to approve it.
Unfortunately, you may find some of these “inactive” ingredients to be counterproductive to your skin care goals. Even if they’re considered inactive, they can still affect your skin. Certain ingredients can be irritating or, in my opinion, toxic.
I’ve written quite a bit about dangerous ingredients in the past. In particular, I suggest staying away from parabens, formaldehyde, fragrance, and oxybenzone. Ethanolamines like DEA/TEA/MEA, sodium lauryl (ether) sulfate (SLS/SLES), and diethylene glycol are bad news too.
Even if the active ingredient in your product does what it claims to do, I’d find a replacement if the ingredient contains any of the above toxins. I don’t think treating wrinkles is worth the trade-off of having my hormones disrupted – especially when there are other options out there.
Of course, you could find a product with an approved active and clean inactives, and you still might not get great results. That’s because finding the right skin care routine is personal. Even if an active ingredient got great results in clinical trials, it probably didn’t work for 100% of the participants 100% of the time. So you may need to do some experimenting of your own to find out what will work for you.
Why the Ingredients Say More Than the Marketing Claims
Product labels can help guide your quest. If you’re trying to treat a particular issue, it’s easy to start with products that claim to treat that issue. But the bottom line is that the ingredients list is a lot more important than what the label claims say.
Once you know what works for you, you’ll be able to be a savvy shopper. Let me tell you about some popular actives for a variety of skin issues. Look for products that contain these ingredients. Whether or not the manufacturer has received FDA approval, products that have these are likely to help.
For sun protection, look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. To fight signs of aging from when you weren’t so careful about sun protection, seek out forms of vitamin A like retinoid as well as vitamins C and E.
If dryness is plaguing you, look for hyaluronic acid and vitamin E. Kojic acid, alpha or beta hydroxyl acids (AHA/BHA), hydroquinone, and vitamin C are good for pigmentation problems.
For acne, once again the retinoids can help. Salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and azelaic acid are good as well. For rosacea, azelaic acid, or sulfur can help.
If you’re suffering from psoriasis or eczema, you may need the help of a dermatologist. Sometimes prescription-strength products such as steroids are necessary. But if you’re interested in trying some over-the-counter products first, look for vitamins A and D, salicylic acid, urea, lactic acid, or anthralin for psoriasis. Both eczema and psoriasis patients may benefit from tacrolimus and pimecrolimus as well.
Don’t worry too much about what the front of your products say. Look at the back. Finding out what’s actually in the jar will tell you the most about what the product will do for your skin. And don’t be afraid to do your own “trials” to see what works best for you.