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Today I wanted to explore a topic that I've thought about a lot recently when reviewing skincare: percentages of active ingredients. What do they mean, why do we want to know this information, when is it helpful and when might it trip you up...?


Strictly speaking, active ingredients are those that must be displayed on American products under the 'drug facts' section, however colloquially we kind of consider 'actives' as the ingredients delivering results to the skin. There are ingredients in your skincare products that are purely there to preserve the formula and stop mould from growing, you cleanser might have surfactants to clean the skin and potentially create a foaming effect, you moisturiser will likely contain ingredients that soften the skin or form a barrier to keep it hydrated and most products contain ingredients like thickening agents and penetration enhancers that help ingredients get through the skin barrier and into the epidermis (some of these delivery systems can be really advanced too). 'Active' is a bit of a loose term, and bear in mind that some people might consider hyaluronic acid an 'active' whereas others would just class it as a humectant that's not really 'active' as such.


For many years, the vast majority of consumers didn't really look at the INCI (ingredient) list of their skincare unless they had an allergy and were wanting to specifically avoid something. This likely led to many brands charging quite steep prices for what really amounted to basic ingredients + fragrance + a fancy bottle. With the advent of the Ordinary a few years ago (and them launching with single-ingredient active products) I think anyone remotely interested in skincare suddenly started paying a lot of attention to what was in their products and how much of it was in there. As more brands began to sell based on the actives in their products being displayed with percentages on the packaging, it began to seem like a non-disclosure not to give consumers this information.


Nope. I actually did an entire post on this topic in relation to niacinamide specifically here so I won't rehash the whole thing today, but - broadly speaking - most studies done on the ingredients being marketed with these high percentages as though they're going to be so much more effective - have studies showing they work at between 2% and 15% concentrations. However, the practice of displaying how much of an active ingredient is in there has kind of pushed this one-upmanship: how does a brand set itself apart in a sea of 10% niacinamide serums? (Which, by the way, is stronger than the scientifically-proven to be effective 2-5% concentration.) They release a 15%, then a 20%, and yes - we've now reached the milestone of a 100% formula! However, the thing is: the higher the concentration the more risk you're at of skin irritation and with no proven benefits for going higher beyond a certain (usually quite low) plateau, there's not much point in doing so.


Sometimes skincare percentages can lead you to compare apples to oranges. 2% of Retinoid A must be better than 0.05% of Retinoid B, right? Well, absolutely not if Retinoid B is Tretinoin (a prescription-strength retinoid) and and Retinoid A is Granactive Retinoid (a retinoic acid ester that likely doesn't stimulate results in the skin to the same extent). Likewise, ascorbic acid (pure form Vitamin C) at 20% would probably have me itchy, red and breaking out in hives, whereas 20% of ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (an oil-soluble Vitamin C derivative) is a lovely, gentle concentration I'd use daily. So, I would really question a product claiming to contain '15% Vitamin C' or '1% retinol', because it just really isn't that simple! 


For me, as a more advanced skincare user, it's useful to me to understand where I am on the scale. With some ingredients I actually prefer a lower percentage like with niacinamide and glycolic acid, because I want to avoid irritation. When it comes to retinoids, knowing where to start and how to step it up with your next purchase once you've used up and been fine with the product you're on, is helpful. Additionally, when it comes to acids, you might want to keep it gentle so it doesn't conflict with other ingredients in your routine or you might want to move up to something stronger if you feel you skin needs it.


As I've covered, I do see a relevance in knowing what the concentration is of an active ingredient, so with ingredients like acids, Vitamin C and retinoids, I can choose to start low and go slow. However, I do think there are other ways of communicating this information. For example, the Medik8 Crystal Retinal line* is all retinaldehyde (the most direct retinoid available not by prescription) and you start at 1 and can go all the way up to 20 if you want. I actually quite like that they use the numbers as opposed to the percentages to, and I think there's something to be said for perhaps not explicitly stating it in the product name but perhaps including it in the product description for those who want to know. Additionally, other language can work to convey information, for example 'gentle Vitamin C derivative daily serum' or 'pure Vitamin C weekly treatment' or 'gentle retinol' vs. 'high-strength advanced retinoid'. Even having a gentle, standard and strong formulation of the same thing, like the Dr Dennis Gross Peel Pads* can work nicely.

But let me know your thoughts - what do you think of advertising products based on what % of an active they contain?

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