Layering Skin Care Actives: A Complete Guide

When it comes to skincare, there are some ingredients that stick out above the rest that we call actives. We’re talking about ingredients that are scientifically proven to change your skin, whether that’s a track record of smoothing away wrinkles or clearing acne. 

These are the real heavy hitters that you want in your skincare routine - however, there’s one crucial thing to know first: how to use them. But first things first - what are we talking about when we say skin actives?

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide capsules product image on white backgroundElizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Serum | $190
These serum capsules are rich in retinol, a powerful active that helps to fight off the signs of ageing.

What Is a Skin Active?

‘Active’ is an umbrella term to refer to skincare ingredients that have a noticeable effect on the skin. I know what you’re thinking - don’t all skincare ingredients have an effect on the skin? You’re right - however, these actives are usually highlighted for their ability to change something about the skin that isn’t just hydration. 

As important as hydration is, we’re talking about skincare ingredients that have the power to brighten dark spots, reduce breakouts, and firm skin, to name a few. Ingredients that fall into this category are Vitamin C, Alpha-Arbutin, Resveratrol, and Retinoids (which includes Retinol), for example. You can think of them as ingredients that radically change how your skin looks, especially with consistent use over time. 

After all, that’s when you see the best results with your skin! They’re superhero skincare ingredients that are perfect for targeting pressing skin concerns. However, with great power comes great responsibility - actives are powerful and need to be used the right way in order for your skin to benefit properly from them. 

Lancome advanced genifique serum product image on white backgroundLancôme Advanced Genifique Concentrate | $305
This serum from Lancôme combines the power of skin ferments with a gentle form of Vitamin C for glowing skin.

Is it Possible to Over Do it With Actives?

We’ve already gone over the amazing benefits of these actives in other posts, such as Retinol and Vitamin C - so of course, it’s natural that we want to literally use all of the actives we can to get gorgeous, glowing skin! 

However, there’s one major thing that you need to know when it comes to using actives - you could be overdoing it (and you might not even know it)!

The most famous examples of this are acne skincare lines that have acne-fighting ingredients in every single product, from cleanser to toner and moisturiser. The issue is that it’s very easy to think you need to use the entire line for it to be effective when in reality it’s a recipe for irritated, uncomfortable skin - not necessarily clearer skin. If this sounds familiar, this blog post is for you!

SK-II Facial treatment clear lotion product image on white backgroundSK-II Facial Treatment Clear Lotion | $121
This exfoliating essence from SK-II combines the power of AHAs and BHAs to clear skin and refine pores. 

And it’s also possible to overdo it by using too many different actives at once - while using multiple products at once for a certain skin concern can sound like a good thing on the surface, it’s not always the best approach to take for your skin!

However, that’s not to say that all active ingredients can cause irritation! Actives can be roughly sorted into two groups: ones that have the potential to cause irritation, and ones that don’t. Knowing how to layer skincare actives starts with knowing the difference between these groups. 

When I say potential to cause irritation, that’s due to misuse - as in, overdoing it with actives. Ingredients that you’ll want to keep an eye on to make sure you’re not overdoing it are:

  • Retinol
  • Vitamin C (in serum form)
  • AHAs (Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid)
  • BHAs (Salicylic Acid)
  • Azelaic Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide 

So, to be clear, these are skincare ingredients that you could potentially overdo and cause irritation to your skin with - whether that’s by just using one of these too often, or layering skincare incorrectly (such as using AHAs and Retinol too soon after each other!)

Actives that are impossible to overdo include Panthenol, Alpha-Arbutin, Resveratrol, Peptides, and Caffeine, for example. They’re also ones that work well with the skincare ingredients listed above, so you don’t necessarily need to worry about layering, other than following the right order of skincare.

Elizabeth Arden Prevage Progressive Renewal Treatment product image on white backgroundElizabeth Arden Prevage Progressive Renewal Treatment | $205
This at-home exfoliating treatment uses the concentrated power of Lactic Acid, an AHA, to renew and rejuvenate skin.

Guidelines for Using Skincare Actives

Each of these potent skincare ingredients comes with its own similar rules of thumb when it comes to usage - and at its core, it comes down to how often you use it (and what you’re using it with). It can be confusing to know the right thing to do when so many skincare products suggest daily use when realistically, daily use of a certain ingredient depends on the rest of your skincare routine!

Our guideline? Start slow, and work your way up to a schedule that works for your individual skin. The slow approach means that you’re less likely to overwhelm skin and gives your skin time to adjust - especially to ingredients like Retinol and AHAs

SK-II R.N.A Power radical new age essence serum product image on white backgroundSK-II R.N.A. Power Radical New Age Essence | $270
Looking for an active that goes with everything? This serum is packed with niacinamide, an active that works alongside all the others - and layers especially well with retinol. 

How Do I Combine Skincare Actives?

Layering is one option that many people talk about, but isn't actually as easy as it sounds - most actives can't be layered together without the risk of irritation. That's why we've created this cheat sheet to show which actives don't work well together. 

how to layer skincare ingredients visual guide

I know what you're thinking now - how am I supposed to use different skin actives?

One approach to safely using actives in your skincare routine is using them on different days and at different times of day, instead of layering them. For example, Vitamin C (or any antioxidant, really) and Retinol are a skincare combination that’s absolutely lethal to sun damage and the signs of ageing, thanks to both ingredients' ability to increase collagen production.

The trick to getting the benefits of both is using your Vitamin C serum in the morning, and retinol in the evening - you don’t always have to layer multiple actives at the same time to make sure your skin gets all the amazing benefits! 


    Dr Irena Eris Institute Solutions L-Ascorbic Power Treatment product image on white backgroundDr Irena Eris Institute Solutions L-Ascorbic Power Treatment Set | $251
    This treatment set from Dr Irena Eris uses high concentrations of Vitamin C to boost skin’s radiance and kick-start collagen production.

    What Should I Do If I’ve Overdone My Actives?

    Ok, now we know how to layer actives (and how not to layer them), it’s time to check if you’re already overdoing it and what you can do about it. Signs that you’ve overdone your actives can include sudden skin sensitivity, dry skin flakes, stinging skin, unusual breakouts, and redness.

    In most cases, they’re actually the same signs as over-exfoliation, especially if you’ve used AHAs too often or layered it with Retinol. The solution? Cut back on all actives, at least just for two weeks. Overdoing your actives usually leads to over-exfoliation and a damaged skin barrier - the exact opposite you were going for, right?

    Once you’re sure that your skin has bounced back from any irritation, you can reintroduce your actives again. It’s best to start with one at a time and start slowly - you might even find your skin needs far fewer actives than you think to reach your skin goals!

    If you’re still trying to create a skincare routine with the right actives for you, try our skincare quiz!

    Beauty Affairs Skin Quiz

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    Alexis Adrienne

    Alexis Adrienne

    Alexis Adrienne is a passionate beauty writer with over 10 years of experience. She’s incredibly keen on all things skincare, makeup and cosmetics, with a fingertip on the pulse of the latest global beauty trends at all times.

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