Beauty and skincare ingredients can read like another language if you don’t know what you’re dealing with, but it is really important to know what different skincare ingredients do so you can choose the products that best benefit your skin and will give the changes or protection, you’re hoping for.
In my opinion, the very best skincare ingredients are hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), retinol, chemical exfoliators and SPF.
1. Hyaluronic acid
Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a powerful humectant that can hold 1,000 times its own eight in water. So it is wonderfully hydrating and helps to keep skin plump and glowing. It occurs naturally in our skin cells, but it reduces as we age.
Almost none. It is called an ‘acid’, but it is a gentle ingredient. However because it holds so much water you need to make sure your skin is well hydrated so there is water around for it to grab. Apply to damp skin and make sure you’re not dehydrated.
How do I use it?
It is often in your serums already, but just not listed on the front so check the ingredients. If you want a dedicated serum or moisturiser, here are my faviurites.
BEST HYALURONIC ACID PRODUCTS
It is a water form of vitamin B3, also known as nicotinic acid. It is something our skin needs but cannot produce itself.
Niacinamide restores skin after damage and ageing — it can plump lines, reduce pores, even skin tone and texture and combats pigmentation. It also prevents loss of moisture, protects from environmental damage and has antibacterial properties.
It’s antibacterial properties and ability to balance your skin’s oil production has made it extremely popular across social media for treating acne and oily skin, but it’s a great ingredient for all skin types.
Seemingly none. There is debate over whether it shouldn’t be used alongside ascorbic acid, but the experts tend to disagree.
How do I use it?
It can be used morning and evening, before moisturiser and SPF or as part of it depending on the product. Most will contain around 5 to 10 per cent, but you should know that all studies have been on a percentage of 5% or less so there’s no evidence that high percentages work better.
BEST NIACINAMIDE PRODUCTS
Retinol is derivative of vitamin A, under the umbrella of retinoids but easiest to get and use. It increases skin cell turnover and encourages the production of collagen, therefore reduces wrinkles, acne, and pigmentation — making the face smoother and firmer.
Using a product with a high percentage can cause irritation. Start low — as little as 0.1 per cent — and slowly build tolerance. That means starting twice a week for a few weeks, then three times a week and then four, etc. After each product is finished, if you haven’t had problems, you can increase the percentage but you’ll need to go back to two days a week and start the process again.
You have your entire life to increase tolerance, so don’t feel like there’s any rush to use high percentages or use every night — take it slow and steady, over decades if need be!
It can increase photosensitivity, due to new cells producing more rapidly, so best to use at night and with SPF the next morning.
In dark skin tones it can cause inflammation, leading to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Again, start at a very low dose and use just once a week at first. You can also patch test it behind the ear a few times before using.
How do I use it?
Start using it in your 20s, once or twice a week and then increase the nights. You can gradually increase this overtime as your skin adapts, otherwise it can cause irritation.
If using other acidic products, make sure to check they can be used together. If you’re new to strong actives such as AHA and retinol, best not used them together but instead alternate nights.
BEST RETINOL SKINCARE PRODUCTS
4. L-ascorbic acid
This is the term for pure vitamin C. It is a powerful antioxidant that can reduce sun damage, protects from pollution, stimulate collagen and is most famous for brightening your complexion.
It can be drying and is easily oxidised — this doesn’t do any harm, but if vitamin C serums go brown then they’ve lost efficacy and can stain skin a little so best thrown away. Products should have no more than 20 per cent, and even that much is only needed if you’re in very polluted areas or have pigmention, and try to keep the pH level below 3.5.
How do I use it?
It can be used at night but is best used in the morning. It is very popular, so can now be found in many forms — but serum is the best. Here are my faves…
BEST VITAMIN C SERUMS
5. AHA & BHAs
Alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, citric, malic etc.) and beta hydroxy acid (salicylic acid) exfoliate the skin far better and safer than a physical scrub ever will.
AHAs are larger in size and cannot penetrate oil so they work on the surface of the skin — glycolic is the smallest molecule size so goes deepest and can be drying, lactic is the biggest and so less irritating as it works on the very top of the skin. BHA, on the other hand, is small and oil-soluble so can penetrate pores and dissolve oil to reach deep and clear skin.
Both kinds are good for treating spots and acne (as they eats away at dead skin cells blocking the pores) and overall the help to brighten and even skin tone. They may cause tingling so beware if you have sensitive skin — use at night and make sure to being using SPF daily.
As with many of these acidic products, don’t dive into everyday use but build up to it. People with skin of colour need to be warier, especially if they’re prone to inflammation and pigmentation, so best not to go above 5% and always patch test behind the ear.
How do I use it?
It depends on the product. You can use it as part of your cleansing routine if in a face wash, or as an overnight treatment in a toner.
BEST AHA/BHA PRODUCTS
DON’T FORGET SPF
I guess I don’t need to explain what it is but let me tell you why it is so important.
The British Association of Dermatologists recommend always using a minimum of SPF 30, which blocks 97 per cent of UVB. I have fair, freckly skin and I was advised by a specialist to wear SPF 50 every single day, even during the winter.
UVA penetrates deep into the skin, doing damage that cannot be seen straight away but it will come to light in time. UVB rays are shorter, these are what burn the skin.
Over time sun damage causes skin to look dull, lose firmness, wrinkles will develop, and skin may even lose colouring or softness. Pigmentation will develop underneath and make its way to the surface, e.g. freckles and dark patches.
Much of the damage cannot be seen straight away, but shows in time, so SPF should be used daily from your 20s.