Target Your Specific Skincare Concerns With These 5 Active Ingredients

by Michelle Rostamian

A closeup of a woman's face with red lipstick and glittery lipstick
Photographed by Marilyn Minter for W magazine.

During a time when skincare launches are booming, it can be easy to blindly use whatever product is trending on TikTok. Although using products with active ingredients can make all the difference when it comes to your skin’s health, using the right one is key. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Geeta Yadav, while active ingredients are ones that have been clinically proven to treat targeted concerns (meaning they’re designed to prevent, treat, or change something in your skin), inactive ingredients act as the delivery mechanism. Wondering what the best skincare active is for your skin? Below, we’ve rounded up common skincare concerns, plus the active ingredient experts recommend you use to treat it.

Dullness: Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid—typically derived from sugar cane–is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that targets dull, lackluster skin. “AHAs are active ingredients that work on the surface of the skin to break down the bonds that prevent your dead skin cells from shedding,” Yadav says. “By exfoliating away those dead skin cells, you reveal the fresh, healthy and new skin underneath, which makes your skin appear more radiant.” And, regular use of this AHA can stimulate cell turnover, which means your skin will appear luminous, smooth, and even overall.

Dr. Richard Bottiglione of Alliance Dermatology and Mohs Center says that, generally speaking, glycolic acid is well-tolerated across all skin types, though depending on the concentration of the glycolic acid used, a reaction can vary from nothing at all to dryness and redness. For someone with dry skin, a lower or mild concentration of active glycolic is the best place to start, but if you have oily skin or have experience with active acids, you may be able to tolerate a higher, more potent concentration, says Bottiglione.

Fine Lines and Wrinkles: Retinol

You’ve seen retinol touted as being an antiaging hero on every social media platform—and for good reason. Yadav says retinol works by stimulating cell turnover, shedding the damaged skin cells at the surface that contribute to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. “It also prevents collagen breakdown in the lower layers of the skin, which causes those lower layers to thicken for a firmer, smoother, and more youthful-looking appearance,” she says.

Despite its slew of benefits, retinol is a bit finicky when it comes to the other ingredients it likes to hang out with. “Retinol should never be mixed with AHAs or BHAs, as these ingredients can also irritate the skin and you don’t want to risk over-exfoliation, which can not only be incredibly painful, but takes time to recover from,” says Yadav. When it comes to incorporating retinol into your skincare routine, slow and steady wins the race. “In addition to using the ‘retinol sandwich’ technique, which consists of layering retinol between two layers of your favorite gentle moisturizer, I recommend starting by applying the ingredient once a week, then working your way up slowly to daily application over several weeks,” Yadav adds. “Doing this helps offset the irritating side effects of retinol, which include redness, flakiness, dryness, and overall irritation.”

Dryness: Hyaluronic Acid

Those who suffer from dry skin will benefit from hyaluronic acid—one of the most powerful skin hydrators you can find. It can attract and hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, drawing moisture into skin, says Yadav. And, when it’s layered under an emollient or occlusive formula, it can replenish your skin’s moisture barrier—aka the layer of skin that protects it from drying elements like pollution, irritants, and other environmental aggressors. You can find hyaluronic acid in several types of skincare products, from serums to face creams and even makeup-setting sprays.

Acne: Salicylic Acid

If you’re dealing with a mild case of acne (think: blackheads and whiteheads versus cystic acne), salicylic acid can help clear your pores for a smoother complexion. “Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that goes within the pore—rather than working at the skin’s surface—to help decongest excess sebum, dirt, and bacteria,” notes Yadav. “I like using salicylic acid as either an all-over toner or as a targeted spot treatment.” Prone to dryness? Use a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer after applying the active ingredient to keep your skin hydrated.

Hyperpigmentation: Vitamin C

Hyperpigmentation can occur for a number of reasons. It can be a parting gift from acne, a result of hormonal influences, or stem from sun exposure. Thankfully, vitamin C is an effective active ingredient that can help alleviate symptoms of hyperpigmentation. “Vitamin C is one of nature’s most potent antioxidants and is an invaluable ally in the fight against hyperpigmentation,” Yadav says. “In addition to providing free radical defense, which contributes to signs of aging, vitamin C is a tyrosinase inhibitor, meaning it prevents your skin’s melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) from going into overdrive, thus cutting back on hyperpigmentation.”

Using a formula with 20 percent vitamin C is the most effective way to reap the benefits of the ingredient, but if you’re using an active ingredient in serum form (which are thinner than a cream and often more potent), Bottiglione says that it may cause more irritation depending on your skin’s tolerance. For this reason, it’s best to start with a vitamin C in a lower concentration (10 percent) and increase as your skin builds up the tolerance for it.