All about terminology: active ingredients, skincare actives, cosmeceuticals and more!

You’ve probably heard of the terms ‘active ingredients’, ‘skincare actives’ and ‘cosmeceuticals’. But what do these terms actually mean? Read on to find out!

All about terminology: active ingredients, skincare actives, cosmeceuticals and more!

What is an active ingredient?

An active ingredient is a component that is biologically active, meaning it exerts some sort of effect on the skin. In other words, they’re ingredients that help a product do what it promises, be it exfoliating, reducing oil production, or fading pigmentation. Sometimes, active ingredients are referred to as ‘skincare actives’. 

What are some active ingredients?

There are lots, but examples include retinoids, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, vitamin C, niacinamide, benzoyl peroxide and many more. 

What are inactive ingredients?

The other ingredients in a product (and usually there are many!) are what are called excipient or inactive ingredients. Their job is to help deliver the active ingredient to your skin, and create a stable and effective product. Examples include preservatives, which help prevent bacteria from growing, and stabilisers, which prevent products from breaking down and becoming ineffective. 

Should all of my products contain active ingredients?

No, many products don’t contain active ingredients, and don’t need to. For example, some cleansers and moisturisers aren’t designed to have an effect beyond cleansing or moisturising, so don’t contain any active ingredients. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t do a great job of cleansing and moisturising! 

Some cleansers may contain active ingredients if they aim to do something in addition to cleansing. For example, a cleanser containing salicylic acid as an active ingredient is designed to treat acne and exfoliate the skin, in addition to cleansing it. 

What’s a cosmeceutical?

The word cosmeceutical is a combination of the words cosmetic and pharmaceutical. It really just refers to products which contain active ingredients, such as sunscreens, antioxidants and vitamins.




Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…