In this round of Ask Us Anything, we’ll be tackling the question: How should those in their mid-20s navigate the use of actives in skincare? (@Chloefuwy)

So we recently touched base on how active ingredients can be the much-needed addition to your skincare routine. But the potency of these skin-workers is a double-edged sword: it creates marvels for your skin, but can have the opposite effect when you layer these active ingredients incorrectly. It’s kind of like when you concoct the perfect outfit in your head, only for them to look disastrous together when you put them on. Except it’s for your face, and the aftereffects are not as easily reversible as taking off your clothes. 

But, contrary to what it may seem, I’m not here to scare you off actives. In fact, knowing how to create the perfect combination of active ingredients will jet-set your skincare exploration to greater, clearer heights. And your mid-20s is the perfect time to start!  

Why Can’t They Mix?

As the idiom goes, “too much of a good thing is a bad thing”. Our skin is a very sensitive and delicate organ that is easily stressed by… Well, anything really. Too much moisturiser and our skin starts having bumps,  too little and our dehydrated skin is basically the dictionary definition of a desert. That’s why it’s no surprise that actives, which are just as volatile as they are potent, need to be added discreetly into our routines. 

These are actives that, generally, should not meet on your skin: 

Retinoic Acid + Benzoyl Peroxide

Retinoic acid is a form of vitamin A that can be found in many anti-ageing products. This active has the ability to treat various forms of ageing that we dread in the impending 30s:  wrinkles, photoaging and roughened skin. They also help to bolster skin’s elasticity, slow down the loss of collagen and lighten brown spots caused by UV rays. 

On the other hand, benzoyl peroxide is an active commonly used to treat acne. It kills bacteria underneath the skin while helping pores to rid of dead skin cells and oils. In particular, this ingredient works wonders on inflammatory acne (the kind that is red and filled with pus!). 

Both reap amazing benefits, and we are definitely tempted to mix them together. However, these two actives are unstable. When used together, it can cause unwanted irritation to your skin that nullifies their anti-ageing and anti-acne goodness.

Vitamin C + Benzoyl Peroxide

Yes, it’s benzoyl peroxide again! The reason why this active doesn’t mesh well with Vitamin C (or also known as L-Ascorbic Acid) is simple. Benzoyl peroxide works by oxidising, but Vitamin C is a known powerhouse of antioxidants. While using them together would not necessarily harm the skin, they just cancel each other out. This means wasted product and money! 

So What Actives Should I Layer In My Mid-20s?

At this age, your skin is at the cusp of deterioration: it starts to lose its natural rejuvenation and requires an extra boost to maintain its ability to protect itself. You might start noticing that your skincare doesn’t seem as effective, or new problems such as fine lines or sensitivity. That’s where active ingredients come in — they can vamp up routine to address these maturing effects. Here’s some actives that work together to target your skin concern: 

Anti-Ageing = Retinoids/Retinols + Moisturiser

Try: Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster, $74
VICHY Aqualia Thermal Rich Cream, $48

Under the same family tree as the previously mentioned retinoic acid, retinoids are also a form of Vitamin A that is great at fighting ageing.  It is amazing for cell turnover, which essentially means that they can help your skin repair itself at a faster rate. While our skin does this naturally, this process starts to (unfortunately) slow as we age. Skin damage reversal is also possible with this effective active! 

However, the one downside is that retinoid can be drying on the skin. That’s why it’s always important to pair any vitamin-A product with a good, hydrating moisturiser to replenish any water-loss. 

Note: Pregnant ladies should not implement vitamin A ingredients into their skincare routine.  It could interfere with your child’s development and potentially cause birth defects! 

Glowy, Hydrated Skin = Vitamin C + Hyaluronic Acid

Try: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum, $114
Hada Labo Aqua Oil Volume Matrix Hydrating Light Cream, $25.90

If skincare were a cheesy romcom, this pairing would be the couple I root for. While vitamin C and benzoyl peroxide make a bland, neutralised couple, its compatibility with hyaluronic acid is through the roof. 

Hyaluronic acid is a humectant that binds moisture from the air and your skincare products to help retain moisture in your skin. In fact, this acid can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, making it an effective moisturiser. Well-hydrated skin is plump and supple, giving you the appearance of a lively complexion. 

Vitamin C works in tandem to brighten your complexion while promoting elastin and collagen production. It also helps protect the skin from harmful UV damage that our skin is battling every day. While vitamin C makes for an unstable partner, hyaluronic is a stable peer that complements it. Together, they transform your skin into a radiant canvas. 

Ideally, you should apply Vitamin C products first before any hyaluronic acid-infused skincare. 

Acne-prone or Sensitive Skin = Retinol + Niacinamide

Try: The Ordinary Retinol Serum 0.5% in Squalane, $10
CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion, $26.87

If you have sensitive skin, navigating actives is a particularly strenuous journey. Many combinations simply don’t work because they are too potent! If this echoes your frustration, then retinol and niacinamide might be the perfect pair to start incorporating into your routine.

As mentioned, retinol is great for anti-ageing. But that’s not the only benefit it has up its sleeve.  Vitamin A ingredients were first marketed as acne solutions due to their ability to constrict pore size while promoting cell turnover. As such, retinol helps with calming inflammation-induced acne by controlling oil production. Aside from working on current problems, retinol plans for future issues too: they prevent breakouts by shoo-ing away dead skin cells that can clog pores. 

But for those with sensitive skin, using retinol alone can be too harsh. That’s where niacinamide steps into the picture. Niacinamide is a highly stable active that can help reduce the irritation potential of retinol. By itself, niacinamide is also an all-star ingredient: it stabilises the skin barrier, ensuring that all the good moisture is kept in. They are also acne’s age-old rival — by preventing debris and dirt buildup, your pores have no chance to turn into pesky pimples. 

Blackheads & Whiteheads = Beta Hydroxy Acids + SPF

Try: COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, $31.90
Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ PA++++, $18.90

Beta Hydroxy Acids, or more commonly known as BHAs, is an umbrella term for various chemical exfoliants that treat deeper skin concerns. In fact — BHAs love oils! But in a toxic Joker-Harley Quinn kind of way. They reach deep into your pores to dissolve sebum and dead skin, effectively clearing up blackheads and whiteheads. The most popular acid that falls under the BHA category is salicylic acid.

However, BHAs can make your skin more vulnerable to UVA and UVB rays. I would recommend using BHAs at night when you are not exposed directly to sunlight. However, in the case that you do incorporate it into your day routine, it is crucial to slather on a healthy dosage of SPF after (which you should be doing anyway!). The same goes for any other chemical exfoliants you choose to experiment with, such as AHA

Does The Concentration Of Actives Matter?

In short, yes. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. Different active ingredients work best at different levels of concentrations. Too much and it could be detrimental for your skin barrier, and too little it will have no effect. These are the general percentages for the active ingredients mentioned in this article: 

  • Benzoyl Peroxide: 2.5% 
  • Hyaluronic Acid: 1 to 2% 
  • Niacinamde: 2 to 5% 
  • Retinol and other Vitamin A ingredients: 2% or less 
  • Salicylic Acid (BHA): 2% or less 
  • Vitamin C: 10 to 20% depending on the tolerance of your skin 

But note that depending on how severe your concern, the required percentages might vary! As always, do test patches before applying onto your face. 

However knowing the effective concentration is only the first hurdle — finding out the percentage of active ingredients present in your skincare products is no easy feat either. Unless you are strictly buying from minimalistic brands like The Ordinary, some brands tend to leave out just how much actives their product has due to marketing purposes and varying international standards. The easiest way is to see how high up the active is in the ingredient list — the ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration. 

Sites like Inci Decoder can also help with decoding what ingredients are in your skincare product, especially when they are labelled as expert jargon.  

— 

As a fellow lady in her 20s, these are some of the active ingredients I think would work best with the primary concerns we have. However, there is a whole enchanted forest of skincare actives out there that you can experiment with, should you have the tenacity to! Having clear, glowing complexion is, after all, a never-ending journey and not a destination. 

Have a question you’d like us to answer? Drop us a question on our Instagram Story Question Box, or on our Home page’s Ask Box. We pick a few questions every two weeks and answer them the best we can. Fire away!

With love,
Cheyenne

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