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Skin School Class 5: Decoding Active Ingredients

Written by Kerry Benjamin

Decoding Active Ingredients

With thousands of active ingredients on the skincare market, it can be confusing to choose the right one for your skin. Last week, we took a deeper look at exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid and AHAs. So this week, we’re turning our attention to the most effective ingredients you should be looking for in a serum or specialized skin treatment. While new research and new advancements in cosmetic science are constantly emerging, these five active ingredients are some of the most well-studied and effective options on the market.

Active Ingredient
What It Is
What It Does
How It Works
Best For
Things to Consider
Retinol A synthetic derivative of vitamin A Reduces breakouts, clears congested pores, minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, and improves skin firmness. Activates the skin’s repair process to shed damaged cells and create newer, fresher skin cells. Acne, Uneven Texture, Deep Lines, Loss of Firmness Can cause redness, peeling and irritation. Look for next-generation forms which are gentler.
May cause temporary purging in acne-prone skin.
Epidermal Growth Factors (EGF) A synthetic version of a protein naturally found in the skin Reduces breakouts, clears congested pores, minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, and improves skin firmness. Activates the skin’s repair process to shed damaged cells and create newer, fresher skin cells. Acne, Post-acne dark spots, Fine Lines A gentler alternative for skin that does not tolerate retinol.
May cause temporary purging in acne-prone skin.
Vitamin C An essential nutrient critical to human health Visibly improves skin’s brightness, minimizes stubborn hyperpigmentation, and creates more even-looking skin tone. Prevents aging pollutants from damaging your skin cells
Inhibits an enzyme in the skin that creates excess skin pigment.
Dark spots, Dullness, Uneven tone The most common form, ascorbic acid, has a short shelf-life and can cause irritation in sensitive skin. Look for fat-soluble forms like tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate if your skin is sensitive.
Hyaluronic Acid A hydrator naturally found in our eyes, skin and joints. Quenches dryness, balances oil, visibly plumps fine lines Draws water into the skin like a moisture magnet to reverse dehydration Dryness, Oiliness, Rough skin Doesn’t absorb well unless paired with ingredients like lactic acid and niacinamide. Look for a hyaluronic serum with these ingredients.
Anti-Aging Peptides Short chains of amino acids Reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, boost skin firmness and elasticity. Send messages to your skin cells to repair collagen and elastin. Crows feet, Loss of firmness There are thousands of peptides: look for serums that specifically call out peptides for their anti-aging benefits.
Gentle enough to use around the eye area.
How to choose the right active for you:

1. Take a look at the chart above and see which ingredient targets your main skin concern.
2. If choosing between retinol and EGF, consider the sensitivity of your skin: reactive skin may tolerate EGF better. Gentler forms of retinol are generally better suited to aging concerns than acne so if you are looking mostly for help with fine lines, an encapsulated retinol or a form called hydroxypinacolone retinoate may work well for you.
3. Consider the area of the face: While EGF, retinol and anti-aging peptides can all help fine lines around the eyes, peptides are best-suited to the thin and delicate skin in that area.
4. Look at your other products to see if there’s overlap with the ingredients listed above. For example, if you already use a moisturizer with vitamin C or hyaluronic acid, you may want to choose another hero ingredient when shopping for a serum.


Still not sure what active ingredient is best for you? Ask Kerry! StackedSkincare founder Kerry Benjamin will be answering your questions via text this week only. Text CONSULT to 833-232-7047 for expert advice.

About the Author


Kerry Benjamin, a licensed aesthetician, has over 12 years of experience. Kerry is the driving force behind StackedSkincare. As the company's CEO, Kerry has dedicated her career to revolutionizing skincare. Her innovative approach combines peels, serums, and specialized tools toeffectively address a wide range of skin concerns. CA LE license number Z98459.