Active ingredients in a cosmetic formula carry out an action on the skin compatible with the results they claim to deliver. They either fight free radical damage, fight inflammation, enhance collagen production, prevent and reverse photo aging, oppose glycation, assist in cell regeneration or help speed cell turnover.
Inactive ingredients are in the product for three main reasons:
- As a vehicle to deliver active ingredients to the skin
- As a preservative to help maintain reasonable shelf life for the product
- To make it feel, smell and look nice
That does not mean that inactive ingredients will not have an effect on the general health of the consumer or that of the skin. Anything that touches our skin will have an effect on it and eventually find its way into our bodies. For example, most parabens, which act as preservatives (and therefore are considered to be "inactive ingredients"), have been prohibited from use in the European Union because of the direct relation between certain parabens and breast cancer. Fortunately, most high-end skin care products are now paraben free. However, parabens were replaced by other preservatives that may sometimes cause an allergic reaction in certain prone individuals. Synthetic fragrance or perfume are included in formulas to make them smell better, however, they are highly sensitizing and should be avoided, particularly in serums. Serums are designed to be used daily on naked skin, so when they contain fragrance, perfume or colouring, these, per se, inactive ingredients will quite often irritate the skin.
Many skin care products will have a lower percentage of active ingredients, and a high percentage of feel good, smell good ingredients. Sometimes, the percentage of actives is significantly lower than what is required to render an effect on the skin, yet just because it is listed, the brand that sells it can still market the benefits of the said ingredient regardless of its inadequacy.
Unless you're one of the lucky few who can wash their face with hand-soap and still manage to have flawless skin, then be sure to do your research on your products active and inactive ingredients before using them.