I'm an Esthetician—These Are the Best Skincare Ingredients of All Time

As an esthetician, I’m faced with skincare-related questions from clients, friends, colleagues, and even strangers on the internet, on an almost daily basis. While common questions include how to get rid of acne, the best way to treat dry skin, and product recommendations for dark under-eye circles, in the past year I’ve noticed an increase in questions related specifically to skincare ingredients. When should I start using retinol?" "Is niacinamide good for acne-prone skin?" and "What is hyaluronic acid?" are now some of the most-asked questions in my DMs and WhatsApp messages. 

It’s all part of the growing interest in skincare we’ve seen post-pandemic—Google searches for ‘skincare ingredients’ have more than doubled in the past 3 years—and it makes total sense. As people are becoming more clued up about skincare, it’s understandable that they’re spending time investigating and analysing formulas to check out what ingredients are in their skincare before buying it. After all, knowing exactly what ingredients you’re using and how they work is the best way to ensure you’re directly targeting your individual skin goals.

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The thing is, having a perfect skincare routine (if that even exists!) doesn’t necessarily mean you need a 10-step regime or a shelf of expensive products. As long as you have the best skincare ingredients for your specific skin concerns then you’re on the right path to seeing really noticeable results. The best part is that if you take an ingredient-led approach, you don’t need to spend a ton of money. Thanks to ingredient-focussed skincare brands like The Ordinary, The Inkey List, and CeraVe, you can easily find affordable skincare products that feature the same effective ingredients as their more expensive counterparts.

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Download or screenshot our cheat sheet ready for your next skincare investment!

So, where to start? There’s a lot of noise out there about the latest trending ingredients, which can make it hard to separate the truth from the marketing, but the best skincare ingredients are the tried-and-tested heroes that brands have been formulating with for years. They’ve been through rounds of clinical testing, have benefitted from scientific innovation, and have real proven results that stand as testament to their efficacy. I asked dermatologists Sonia Khorana and Zainab Laftah for their top ingredient recommendations, from niacinamide and retinol to vitamin C and ceramides.

If an ingredient has made it onto this list, you know that it’s one of the best…

The best skincare ingredients to look out for:

1. Hyaluronic acid

Chances are, you’ve probably already heard of hyaluronic acid—it’s a commonly used ingredient, often found in products like moisturisers and serums, which has benefits for all skin types—but especially dehydrated skin. "Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it pulls moisture to itself,” explains Khorana. "It hydrates without pore clogging, so it’s great for all skin types and pairs well with several ingredients which make it work better.” Applied topically, hyaluronic acid has the ability to hold over 1000 times its weight in water, which means it really boosts skin’s moisture levels.

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2. Retinol

Retinol is another hugely popular skincare ingredient, typically found in ‘anti-ageing’ serums. While it is most often touted as an anti-ageing ingredient, it also has impressive benefits for those with concerns like congestion and dull skin. "Retinol encourages skin cell turnover, which helps deal with dullness most people experience in the winter months,” says Khorana. "It also boosts collagen and helps to even out discolouration and hyperpigmentation, encourage cellular turnover, stimulate collagen, soften wrinkles and help fade pigmentation.” Basically, a real multitasker. However, if you have sensitive skin or you’ve never used a retinol before, it’s important that you choose a beginner-friendly formula, since retinol increases skin’s sensitivity and can lead to irritation and dryness if used incorrectly.

Khorana recommends looking for formulas which pair retinol with hydrating ingredients like glycerin and niacinamide. "This will help with tolerability and these ingredients support the skin barrier so can fight off the negative side effects,” she adds.

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3. Vitamin C

Like retinol, vitamin C is particularly effective when it comes to addressing signs of ageing like fine lines, wrinkles, loose skin, and hyperpigmentation. "It’s a brilliant antioxidant, which fights free radical damage, brightens the skin, fades hyperpigmentation and stimulate collagen,” says Khorana. "It inhibits melanin production by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase – this interferes with abnormal pigmentation.” Vitamin C doesn’t always play well with other skincare ingredients, so you should avoid layering it with other actives like retinol or exfoliating acids. However, Khorana explains that it does work well with complementing antioxidants like vitamin E and ferulic acid. "They will boost the efficacy and stability of the molecule,” she explains.

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4. Niacinamide

Niacinamide is one of the best multitasking skincare ingredients out there, with benefits for skin concerns ranging from oily and acne-prone through to dry and dehydrated. "It’s highly effective in restoring the lipid layer in the stratum corneum [the top layer of skin] to maintain and strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier,” says Khorana. "And it’s also shown to have antioxidant capabilities so it’s helpful in addressing pigmentation concerns when paired with vitamin C.” In addition, niacinamide can help to lower skin’s sebum production, reducing the excess oil that can clog pores and lead to breakouts. It can be paired with several ingredients—commonly you’ll find it in serums alongside hydrating ingredients or antioxidants like vitamin C.

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5. Ceramides

While ceramides have featured in skincare formulations for years, they’ve become increasingly popular in the past year as focus has shifted to ingredients that support and strengthen the skin barrier. "Ceramides help rebuild and restore the skin barrier to retain moisture, improve visible signs of ageing, and block environmental damage,” explains Khorana. "They are well tolerated by all skin types and perfect for those with dry or sensitive skin.” What’s more, she adds that ceramides are safe to use in conjunction with most, if not all ingredients. This means that you don’t have to worry about any issued with layering ceramide-rich products (most often moisturisers) over active ingredients. In fact, ceramide-based products are a great addition to routines which feature ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid, as (by supporting the skin barrier) they will help to counteract the sensitivity that these ingredients can cause.

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6. Salicylic Acid

Oily and acne-prone skin types in particular will benefit from using products containing salicylic acid—an exfoliating acid often referred to as a BHA (beta hydroxy acid). "It works by softening and dissolving keratin, a protein naturally found in the skin that can block pores by causing skin cells to stick together,” says Khorana. "It helps loosen desmosomes, allowing the cell to let go of the excess sebum that oily skins like to hold onto.” Because salicylic acid keeps pores unclogged, it helps to address concerns like enlarged pores, whiteheads, and blackheads too, and it also exfoliates dead skin cells to prevent future congestion.

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7. Azelaic Acid

Azelaic is one of the best skincare ingredients for inflammatory skin conditions that trigger redness in the skin, like acne and rosacea. "It’s a very versatile ingredient with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,” says Laftah. "It is a free radical scavenger so it reduces inflammation and is also a tyrosine inhibitor which helps fade hyperpigmentation. Plus, because it’s antibacterial and has keratolytic properties [can break down excess skin], it helps treat acne.” Despite having acid in the name, this ingredient is super gentle on the skin so you don’t need to be concerned about using it if you have sensitivity.

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8. Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is a chemical exfoliant, categorised as an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid). If you have dry skin, rough skin texture, or hyperpigmentation then products containing lactic acid will be great ones to reach for. "It works by boosting skin cell turnover and reducing the buildup of dead skin cells,” explains Laftah. "Which is how it helps even the skin tone and texture.” Lactic acid is one of the more gentle chemical exfoliants and also helps to increase moisture levels, so is one I often recommend to those with dry and sensitive skin. 

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9. Glycolic Acid

Like lactic acid, glycolic acid is also an AHA but has a much smaller molecule size, which means it can penetrate deeper into the skin. It is less suitable for dry and sensitive skin types than the above, but does have a stronger effect so will really help to speed up skin cell turnover, quickly leading to smoother, brighter skin. "It works by loosening the bonds that holds the dead skin cells together to aid skin’s natural exfoliation process,” explains Laftah. "Over time, this helps to reduce pigmentation and brighten the skin’s appearance, so it’s great for those with blemish-prone skin, hyperpigmentation, and dull skin.” 

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10. Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide isn’t widely available in ‘on the shelf’ products in the UK since (at a certain strength) as it requires a prescription. However, it is considered a really effective ingredient for acne-prone skin and is typically found in targeted spot treatments, cleansers, and masks aimed at those who experience breakouts, making it worthy of being on this list. According to Laftah, it’s particularly effective for mild acne and blemish-prone skin because it has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. "It also reduces excess oil production and helps unclog pores,” she adds. Consult your doctor if you are looking for more information on benzoyl peroxide. 

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11. Squalane

One of the best ingredients for dry skin, squalane is an oil-like substance which is suitable for all skin types, even oily and breakout-prone skin. "This is because it’s an organic compound with similar properties to the skin’s natural oil,” explains Laftah. Basically, if you avoid using oils because you’re concerned about their pore-clogging properties, squalane is an ideal non-pore clogging alternative. It’s still a powerful moisturiser however, and acts as an occlusive, which means it seals moisture into the skin and prevents it from escaping. The result? Improved moisture levels, and softer, more nourished skin.

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Next Up: This Skincare Product Had a Bad Rep, But It’s Back and More Effective Than Ever

Freelance Beauty Editor

Grace Day is a beauty editor and content creator. She has over 10 years of beauty-industry experience, spanning editorial, retail, and e-commerce, which gives her a unique understanding into how people shop for their beauty routines.

While studying for a history degree (specialising in the history of beauty) and working as a beauty adviser in department stores, Grace started writing her own beauty blog in order to share the products she discovered while dealing with acne. After graduating, she moved to Beauty Bay as beauty editor and content manager. Grace is currently a beauty contributor to Who What Wear. She has also written for Hypebae and PopSugar and works as a brand consultant and copywriter.