Skincare Actives - the more + the highest concentration, the better?

Let's admit it - when browsing for skincare, products with a long list of active ingredients and high percentages of actives are super tempting.

And what about beauty bloggers, with their flawless skin suggesting impossible beauty routines with skincare made with a high concentration of Active Ingredients? 

In a world where information (and disinformation) is easy to access, we want to share some skincare science based on facts rather than myths, hoping to help you pick the correct skin care products for your skin type and condition and avoid expensive mistakes.


In this article, we cover:

The Rule of the Order of Ingredients on the Label

Active Ingredients - how to identify them on the Label

Skin Tolerance to Active Ingredients by Skin Type

Table of Safe and Effective Concentration of Skincare Active Ingredients

Buying new products with a higher concentration of actives


The Rule of the Order of Ingredients on the label


Skincare labels list all ingredients in order of concentration or descending order of predominance. In other words, the ingredient present at the highest percentage is listed first, the next highest percentage second, etc.

Correct labels follow the INCI classification (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient), a system internationally recognized to identify cosmetic ingredients. It is a legal requirement of the majority of the countries to have a complete ingredients list, although some countries may not require to list anything less than 1%. 


Active Ingredients - how to identify them on the labels


Unfortunately, identifying all  active ingredients for the non-expert consumer is quite tricky. Some Vitamins may be easy to spot, but this is almost impossible for more technical actives. Here are some useful tips:

Tip 1 - actives are expensive ingredients and they define the function of the product you are buying; they are usually mentioned on the front of the label as a selling point.

Tip 2 - look at the INCI list (ingredients) of the label: active ingredients are usually listed from the middle to the end of the list.

Tip 3 - Not all Vitamins are listed as vitamins and acids are not 'acids' as we think but active ingredients.

Tip 4 - Some actives are complex blends of natural and lab-made ingredients under a trademark name.


 Here is an example of a label and how to spot active ingredients:

Skin Tolerance to Active Ingredients by Skin Type


In essence, active ingredients are what make a skincare product effective.

One big misconception is that active ingredients, especially anti-ageing ones, are tolerated in the same way by all skin types.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. While Normal to Oily skin tends to have a higher active ingredients threshold tolerance,  Dry, Acneic and Sensitive Skin may not tolerate some actives at all or can tolerate a lower concentration.

The reason behind this is that the protective skin barrier is compromised, and / or there are conditions like inflammation, acne, rosacea that impair the regular repair and renew the cycle of the skin.

And let's not forget the importance of good formulations, where a correct and synergistic combination of active ingredients can make the difference from an average skin conditioning product to an outstanding skincare treatment.

Table of Safe and Effective Concentration of Skincare Active Ingredients


Single-Active ingredients are extracted and produced in many ways, and their ideal concentration for skincare products may vary quite substantially.

The chart below is a general guide of some single skincare ingredients commonly used in commercial products (naturally derived and synthetic) and their safe concentration for over the counter cosmetics. 



Adenosine 0.1% 1%

Allantoin 0.20% 2.00%

Alpha Arbutin 0.20% 2.00%

Argireline 3.00% 10.00%

Azelaic acid (Potassium azeloyl diglycinate) 1.00% 10.00%

Bakuchiol (natural retinol) 0.50% 1.00%

Bisabolol 0.50% 1.00%

Caffeine 0.10% 0.50%

Caffeine (encapsulated) 1.00% 5.00%

Ceramides 3 (NP) 0.01% 0.20%

D-alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E) 0.50% 2.00%

d-Panthenol (Vitamin B5) 0.70% 2.70%

Ectoin 0.50% 5.00%

Ferulic acid 0.10% 1.00%

Gluconolactone (PHA) 1.00% 15.00%

Glycolic Acid (AHA) 1.00% 30.00%

Hyaluronic acid (HMW) 0.05% 3.00%

Hyaluronic acid (LMW) 0.01% 1.00%

Lactic acid (AHA) 1.00% 10.00%

L-ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) 1.00% 5.00%

Mandelic acid (AHA) 1.00% 50.00%

Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) 0.20% 5.00%

Oryzanol 0.10% 1.00%

Peptides (depends on the complex) 0.50% 2.00%

Resveratrol 1.00% 3.00%

Retinal 0.01% 0.10%

Retinyl palmitate 0.10% 1.00%

Retinyl retinoate 0.01% 0.10%

Salicylic Acid (BHA) 0.10% 3.00%

Sodium ascorbyl phosphate (Vitamin C) 0.20% 3.00%

Ubiquinone Q10 (depends on the complex) 0.01% 0.50%

Urea 2.00% 15.00%



Do your research before buying products with specific actives

Our skin changes over time, and the products that maintained it healthy and fresh in the past may not be the best thing anymore. Unfortunately, changes in health, lifestyle, ageing, and hormonal unbalances may increase the skin's sensitisation to some active ingredients that previously used to 'work fine' and trigger irritation.

If you have sensitive skin and want to try, for instance, a new Vitamin-C serum or if your normal skin is now suffering from occasional rosacea acne or mild dermatitis, the first thing you should do is to patch test on the palm of your hand.

Even if the patch test does not show any particular reaction, we recommend when trying new skincare:

Any new skincare product should be used gradually; first, 2 times a week, then 3 times and if no major reactions, you can use it more often.


You can decrease the concentration of the product with the 'sandwich' technique: half part product with the active ingredient, half part plain moisturiser.

Consider more gentle alternatives (for Vitamin-C for instance, you can consider Niacinamide or natural oils like Rosehip when both seeds and pulp are expressed). 

Plant-based waterless products such as a facial oils or balms tend to have lower concentrations and a limited number of active ingredients than water-based products (serums, moisturisers) and they work more on the top layer of the skin, the epidermis.

The majority of active ingredients are soluble in water and they work by reaching the dermis (second layer of the skin) and interacting with the skin cells. Typically, serums have the highest concentration of actives when compared to moisturisers, essences, toners.

Essential oils are very active ingredients that penetrate the dermis; they should only be used in very low concentrations depending on the type of oils and formulation. It is best not to buy any skincare formulated with essential oils if you have very sensitive skin



Always think of your skin type and tolerance before buying skincare with a high concentration of Active Ingredients.

In doubt, always patch test on the palm of your hand any new skincare before buying it.

Be careful when trying skincare with very high concentration of  AHA / BHA / PHA, Retinoids and Vitamin-C, even if your skin is normal.

If your skin is dehydrated, before starting any new skincare with high Active Ingredients, focus on rebalancing the lost hydration and strengthen the skin barrier with topical probiotics, ceramides-rich moisturizers and face oils.

If you suffer from occasional dermatitis, acne rosacea, hormonal skin, choose skincare with the lowest active concentrations. Avoid skincare formulated with AHA / BHA / PHA, Retinoids, Vitamin-C and essential oils at least until your skin is normalized.

Any product listing at least 5 active ingredients or that have on the front of the label the percentage of the main active ingredients higher than the chart above, may not be for everyone. 

When using a new skincare product with high concentration of active ingredients, use it gradually; use the 'sandwich technique' and / or use it first 2 times a week, then 3 times and if no major reactions, you are good to go more often.

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