The Dos and Don'ts of Formulating Skincare with Active Ingredients

The Dos and Don’ts of Formulating Skincare with Active Ingredients

There’s a great deal of misleading information going around regarding the composition and uses of active ingredients. And because it’s been such a buzzword in the realm of skincare for quite a while now, the market is swamped with products containing retinol, hyaluronic acid, or other “miracle ingredients.”

However, conclusive evidence as to the long-term safety and efficacy of active ingredients is lacking — and while a vast majority of cosmetics can only legally work on the epidermis (which has five layers), some claim to penetrate deeper than 10 to 15 layers. In actuality, those would have to be considered a drug and would need to undergo FDA testing to substantiate claims. The brands themselves often fund or conduct their own research, so there is always the possibility for bias.

formulating skincare with active ingredients

Moreover, some formulators even resort to incorporating excessive quantities and higher-than-recommended concentrations of active ingredients to trigger visible results. The client thinks this means the products are working, but the effects are temporary, so they need to keep buying the products to keep the results coming, without regard to long-term safety. We often see this in products marketed as “professional,” “clinical,” or “medical.”

When it comes to formulating skincare products with active ingredients, your best bet would be to use ingredients that are actually proven to work safely and effectively, within their recommended usage ranges. As it entails careful planning, we’re here to break down the process to help you out.

The truth about active ingredients

Lots of brands use the term “active ingredients” to describe certain extracts, vitamins, antioxidants, ceramides, and other popular ingredients in place of the correct cosmetic term “performance ingredients.” The latter refers to ingredients that benefit the skin without necessarily making structure or function claim, and aren’t usually FDA-approved.

Active ingredients, on the other hand, are ingredients that have gone through FDA testing and have proven their claimed effects on the structure or function of the skin. This makes it less of a cosmetic term and more of a medicinal drug term, as active ingredients are related to the treatment of skin and health concerns.

Does this mean active ingredients are always beneficial in skincare products?

The answer is maybe. Skincare companies, formulators, and cosmetic chemists like to incorporate a high amount of performance ingredients to produce a visible effect and make the product marketable.

The issue is that everyone’s skin is different, and reacts differently to different ingredients and products. While harm might not be intended, overly complex formulations with high concentrations of performance ingredients can overstimulate the skin, leading to irritation and inflammation. Furthermore, if someone has an allergic reaction to the product, they won’t know which ingredient or combination of ingredients they are reacting to. They also won’t know if they are reacting to the ingredient itself, or to a high concentration of that ingredient.

skin allergy testing

Further adding to the confusion in the marketplace is the usage of the term “cosmeceutical,” which implies that the products are either more strongly regulated in some way, or are more efficacious in some way. The Food and Drug Administration makes clear, however, that the term does not have meaning under the law, as cosmetics are targeted to beautify only the surface level, and aren’t intended to change the structure or function of the body.

Don’ts of active ingredients

If you are a skincare formulator or a brand owner, take a look at the ingredients in your products. You should be aware of the manufacturer’s recommended usage range, potential contraindications, or adverse ingredient synergies that might occur. Never exceed the manufacturer’s maximum recommended maximum for any concentrated active ingredients or performance ingredients, always follow their formulation guidelines, and be aware of how you’re marketing them.

formulating with active ingredients

Nowadays, retinoids and peptides are commonly found in products like under-eye creams or serums that claim to target signs of aging. However, such ingredients tend to interfere with the skin’s natural processes rather than boost them.

There’s a reason that some of the strongest retinoids are only attainable through a doctor’s prescription; as they can actually cause irritation and inflammation, especially for people with more sensitive skin. In the worst-case scenario, they even cause long-term allergies, sensitization, and other alarming skin and health conditions. It should also be noted that retinol and retinoids make your skin more sensitive to harmful UV rays, which increases your risk of skin cancer.

Skincare products containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) have also become highly accessible in recent years, and brands have been selling them at increased concentrations. Alongside AHAs, ingredients such as kojic acid, hydroquinone, and salicylic acid are known to cause effects like irritation and sun sensitivity, which is why gentler alternatives should be procured in their place.

Dos of active ingredients

In our blog post on ‘Defining Clean Beauty Products with a Health First Mentality,’ we recommend oils like rosehip and argan oil as great natural sources of vitamins and antioxidants — ingredients that can actually nourish the skin and target skin problems without collateral damage.

definition of antioxidant

Antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E in the right quantities are also amazing at brightening and repairing skin, while niacinamide and some of the other B vitamins are essential for strengthening the skin barrier. Look into the right ingredients for the right products, and ensure that they’ll be tested for pH, microbes, safety, and stability first and foremost.

When it comes to formulating skin products with active ingredients, there’s a lot to take into account. In addition to the “actives,” there are also functional ingredients such as emulsifiers, preservatives, solubilizers, stabilizers, etc. to consider to maintain ingredient integrity, hold the products together, and keep them safe and stable.

Do you need professional help creating high-performing natural skincare products?

Rachael Pontillo in an office setting

If you are looking for professional consulting as a brand, aesthetician, doctor, or simply as a skin wellness practitioner, you can visit Create Your Skincare to make your first appointment.

Written for by Reese Jones, edited by Rachael Pontillo.


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