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Today I'm doing a bit of a 'my thoughts on a topic' kind of skincare post, as opposed to something super product-focused. We've definitely seen a move in the skincare world towards single-active skincare (primarily serums, which is what I'll focus on today) and so I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of these sorts of formulas.
Why are we drawn towards single-active formulas?
I think the Ordinary definitely kicked off this trend; back when they launched, we were used to buying a 'brightening serum' and not giving much thought as to what was in it. They turned that on its head by offering several forms of Vitamin C, azelaic acid, lactic acid and so on. We suddenly all became scientists and began researching our skincare ingredients. The big pro of the Ordinary and the similar brands that followed was that they offered this approach at a really low price-point. I think we definitely also think 'well, if this is a hyaluronic acid serum as opposed to a hydrating serum then surely it's going to be more potent and effective'.
What are the drawbacks?
For me, the main drawback is that most people want to use multiple active ingredients in their skincare routine and there are many clashes you should avoid when mixing single-active products. You might be able to buy products that combine Vitamin C and niacinamide into an effective formula that allows you to get the benefits of both, but trying to mix two separate serums could lead to irritation and neutralising the benefits of both. It then becomes this complex game of figuring out what you can and can't mix in your routine and balancing all the different ingredients you want the benefits of.
Why are blends out of favour?
I think historically skincare that's vague about its ingredients has been full of filler and not much substance. I totally get wanting to know what's in a product and understand how much of the active ingredient a serum is formulated. A rule of thumb for me is that if an ingredient is listed below 'fragrance' or any preservatives on the INCI list, it's likely below 1% and not doing a lot. Often, brands will advertise that their product includes all these amazing actives, but you reference the INCI list and half of them are beyond this invisible <1% line. Therefore I think the transparency of knowing 'this is the active ingredient and this is how much of it is in this serum'. However, we now seem to have swung too far in the opposite direction; Lab Muffin Beauty Science raised a really interesting point in a recent post on the Ordinary's new 100% Niacinamide: we don't actually have much evidence that - beyond a certain point - higher percentages equate to better skin results. Therefore this trend of 'percentage chasing' (as she puts it) seems flawed.
What are the pros of using blended skincare?
As mentioned; having several actives in one serum can be a great way of getting all the beneficial ingredients you want to use into your routine. They're designed to work in harmony and the formulation could hit that sweet spot of a high enough percentage to give you the benefits of each ingredient without the need for potentially-disastrous layering of high-percentage single-active formulas.
This product is what really introduced me to niacinamide and its amazing skin benefits; it can help protect the skin, regulate oil production and calm redness. It's now an ingredient I watch out for when I'm looking at new skincare to try. It honestly hadn't been on my radar at all (which is one of the pros of single-active skincare; you're introduced to all these things you hadn't even heard of) and this is still one of my favourite formulas!
This is another product that introduced me to an ingredient I now really love. Q10 is a powerful antioxidant and it's worth noting that this isn't a true single-active, I guess because it has hyaluronic acid in there too, but it's a simplified formula that hydrates and makes my skin glow and look healthier.
This is probably my favourite affordable basic hyaluronic acid serum (on the high-end scale, my #1 is the Niod formula). It just works! It's definitely 'no frills' but it makes my skin look and feel healthy and hydrated, and for $6; I really can't complain.
Niod does single-ingredient skincare incredibly well; they aren't cheap but they use fantastic technology, quality ingredients and elegant formulations. Copper peptides don't have a ton of studies vouching for their efficacy, so approach at your own risk (especially given how expensive they can get) but personally I've experienced great results. They can help to repair the skin and also possibly promote collagen production. Personally, I find this serum gives me some of my best skin days ever.
This formula has a lot more complexity than your usual Vitamin C serum that you'd find from brands like the Inkey List and the Ordinary despite only containing Vitamin C as its active ingredient. Moisturising oils like squalane and fruit extracts (rich in antioxidants) help support this formula and overall the serum gives me brighter skin with a marked improvement in the appearance of hyperpigmentation.
I guess I'm not sure if ceramides are considered an active or not (I suspect maybe not!) but I love that this mixes different forms of this skin barrier strengthening ingredient alongside super-nourishing oils and extracts. This combination has meant I reach for the DeliKate collection (including this serum) whenever I experience irritation or inflammation.
Until I tried this serum, I honestly only ever really used individual hyaluronic acid serums, however this converted me and I've used up an entire bottle of the stuff already! Not only does it contain the HA, but it's also formulated with moisturising plant oils that really take the ingredient to the next level and ensure the water it attracts is locked into the skin and there's no sticky or tacky feel.
Dr. Sam Bunting Flawless Brightly Serum | £44 | full review coming soon
This skincare brand really simplifies down skincare and distills it into a line of essentials, which I really quite like. Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting's single day serum option combines niacinamide, ascorbyl glucoside (a form of Vitamin C), bakuchiol (a skin-smoothing and brightening ingredient, often branded as the 'natural retinol' for pregnant women and others who can't use the ingredient) and azelaic acid (to brighten the skin and banish blemishes). I will be reviewing this properly but, so far, it seems a fantastic all-rounder for achieving a clear and glowing complexion.
This overnight serum is formulated with hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid, alongside moisturising oils and turmeric, as an antioxidant. I don't recommend trying to mix acids on your own, so if you want the benefits of both AHAs and BHAs; this is fantastic. It gives an immediate glow-boost by morning but also helps with skin texture and uneven pigmentation over time.
The Ordinary do several simple blends, but this is their most complex formula. I've somehow not reviewed the original Buffet serum on my blog, so I've linked my post on the version with copper peptides. This serum is formulated with amino acids, hyaluronic acid and matrixyl (a peptide for anti-ageing) making it a hydrating, replenishing all-rounder.
Single-active skincare definitely has its place, and I honestly wouldn't have even known about some of my favourite skincare ingredients if I hadn't just taken a bit of a 'pick 'n' mix' approach with brands like the Ordinary. For me, however, the issue lies in people mixing and layering ingredients and products that aren't designed to be combined. By all means layer a hyaluronic or polyglutamic acid with something like a Vitamin C or acid serum; that isn't going to cause you any problems, it's just that I see a lot of people doing a lot on social media! An individual Vitamin C serum isn't meant to be applied after a BHA toner and then followed by a separate niacinamide serum. If you're finding yourself wanting to apply 3 different serums each morning; consider something like the Dr Sam serum I discussed, that covers off a lot of the skin-brightening bases in a single step with ingredients formulated to work in harmony.
Do you lean towards single-active skincare or products that cover off a few bases?