6 Skincare Actives We Love
Actives tend to hog the skincare spotlight, and for good reason: They’re the ingredients that make it possible for a product to deliver on its promised effects. Inactive ingredients are important too (for instance, some act as delivery mechanisms for actives; make a product look, feel or smell a certain way; or help ensure a reasonable shelf life), but they are supporting actors, not the stars.
Here’s a quick guide to the actives BalmLabs’ chief dermatologist, Dr. Robin Schaffran, chose for the ClearBalm 3-Step System — where they come from, why they’re included and how they gently and effectively work to improve the look and feel of mature, acne-prone skin.
Hyaluronic Acid: The Hydration Superhero
What is it? This compound, which is already present in your skin, is a megahydrator. It’s especially good at bonding with water molecules and can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. In simple terms, that means it locks in moisture, creating a kind of force field around your skin barrier (a.k.a. your lipid barrier) that protects against dryness and fine lines. “If you are overexfoliating or using peels, or have too many steps in your routine, you’re likely damaging that barrier,” says Elyn Kirby Arscott, BalmLabs’ beauty director. “It protects everything — if it’s damaged, it’s like the force field around your skin is down.”
Fun fact: Hyaluronic acid is naturally present in the skin, but we produce less of it with age (okay, that last part is more “fact” than “fun”).
Squalane: The Skincare Ninja
What is it? Squalene (spelled with two “e”s) is an oil present in the skin’s own lipid barrier. Squalane (spelled with two “a”s) is essentially a more stable version, with a similar molecular structure that allows the skin to absorb it easily. If hyaluronic acid is a skincare superhero, squalane is more of a ninja, protecting the skin barrier from environmental irritants, moisturizing the outer layer and helping minimize an overabundance of sebum on the skin’s surface, all while being so lightweight it barely leaves a trace. “It’s all about having a molecular structure that’s small enough to penetrate your skin,” says Kirby Arscott.
Fun fact: The squalane in ClearBalm is 100% plant-derived and noncomedogenic (it won’t clog your pores).
Niacinamide: The Tracy Flick of Skincare
What is it? Niacinamide is a true overachiever. It’s a form of vitamin B3 that has been shown to reduce inflammation and the appearance of redness due to dryness, and helps renew the surface of the skin. “Research continues to show that Niacinamide has a multitude of benefits for the skin and is uniquely compatible with a multitude of other ingredients,” Dr. Schaffran says. It’s also thought to assist the body in creating NAD+, a biochemical co-factor cells need to rebuild and function normally. “It essentially helps your own body repair skin cell damage,” says Kirby Arscott.
Fun fact: Niacinamide also helps build keratin, a key protein that strengthens the outer layer of the skin.
Natural AHAs: The Movers and Shakers
What are they? Natural alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are found in plant-based substances like fruits and sugars, and act as gentle exfoliants on the skin. ClearBalm’s AHAs are sourced from oranges, lemons, sugarcane, sugar maple and bilberries. They promote cellular turnover by breaking down the glue that holds old skin cells together. This helps your skin feel smooth, keeps pores clear and helps to even skin tone.
Fun fact: Bilberries in skincare products are known to calm the skin and reduce redness. In nature, they look almost exactly like blueberries (and share their antioxidant properties).
Bixa Orellana Seed Extract: The Next Big Thing
What is it? Bixa orellana is a shrub typically found in South America that produces annatto seeds, which are rich in carotenoids (a powerful antioxidant). It has been shown to be a potent purifying and pore-refining agent. “It gives the skin a natural, sunny glow,” says Dr. Schaffran.
Fun fact: The plant is also called the “lipstick tree” because of the bright red color of the annatto seeds.
Full Spectrum Hemp-Derived CBD: The New Kid
What is it? Hemp-derived CBD (or cannabidiol) is the nonintoxicating component of the hemp sativa plant. “Full spectrum” means the extract includes terpenes and other beneficial, naturally occurring plant material. Early research suggests it may have a calming effect on irritated skin. “I was encouraged by the research that showed the potential benefits CBD could have on the skin,” Dr. Schaffran says. “It’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties . . . I thought it would be an ideal ingredient to include for anyone who’s concerned with the look of acne-prone or mature skin.”
“Bixa and CBD complement each other,” adds Kirby Arscott. “They work as a tag team to help rebalance hormonally-charged, stressed skin.”
Fun fact: Cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the body (including skin cells) as a part of our endocannabinoid system, which is thought to regulate many of the body’s processes, including sleep, mood and memory.