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To the Rescue: Skin Care Hero Ingredients, Explained

If you’re a beauty and skin care fan who loves reading up on the latest trends and products, you’ve probably seen the term “hero ingredient” thrown around in articles about the hot new serums, masks, and boosters. If you’re more of a minimalist who’s just trying your hand at a full-fledged regimen for the first time, it’s probably one more term to try to grasp among all the other overwhelming choices and information that’s out there.

So let’s clear it up and keep it simple: when we’re talking about skin care, what do “hero ingredients” mean, and how important are they? And while we’re at it, what are some of the most common ones out there?

Hero Ingredients Answer the S.O.S. (Save Our Skin) Distress Call

“Hero” is another way to describe a product’s main active ingredient(s). They’re the ones that provide the skin benefit that the product was formulated to do. That can include moisturizing, antioxidant protection, smoothing out skin texture, accelerating cell turnover, strengthening your skin’s barrier, boosting the production of collagen or other naturally-occurring substances in your skin, and many other functions.

These ingredients are combined with other types of ingredients that do things like affect the texture or scent of the product, stabilize the hero ingredient, keep the formula consistent, or help your skin absorb the product. But it’s the hero that’s doing the heavy lifting.

When you’re choosing your skin care and building a regimen, then, hero ingredients are pretty important! Not only are you looking for the ones that meet your skin’s needs, but you’re also considering how well the heroes in different products will work together, whether they’re better for nighttime or daytime use, and finding which ones your skin tolerates best.

The Skin Care Hall of Heroes

Usually, a skin care product will have some combination of common and proprietary hero ingredients. Common hero ingredients are anything from tried-and-true favorites like vitamin E or retinol, to more recent beauty buzzword darlings like hyaluronic acid or even snail mucin. You’ll hear them talked about a lot in articles about top skin care trends because they’re effective enough to be used in many types and brands of products.

Proprietary hero ingredients are formulas developed through extensive research by their brands and are usually patented, like SkinMedica’s TNS® (Tissue Nutrient Solution) growth factor blend. In some cases, a brand will develop a proprietary version of a common hero ingredient that improves its effectiveness or creates a more stable version of it, like SkinMedica’s HA5, a hyaluronic acid formula that supports the skin’s ability to produce its own naturally-occurring HA.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular and effective hero ingredients you’re likely to come across, and what it is they do for your skin:


Skin in the Game

  • • Hyaluronic Acid: HA is a naturally-occurring substance in skin that works hard to provide many benefits to skin health, including hydration, antioxidant properties, and keeping your skin’s structure stable and refreshed. In skin care products, it’s become a passion because each molecule has the ability to bind massive amounts of water to itself and to penetrate the skin to deliver ultimate moisture—but is also lightweight and gentle enough for oily or sensitive skin. Check out SkinMedica’s bestselling HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator for a light, silky moisturizer that deep-quenches thirsty skin.
  • • Collagen: Found in every area of your body, collagen is a protein (or technically a group of proteins) that maintains suppleness and flexibility in skin, cartilage, and connective tissue. When it’s used in skin care, it supports your skin’s structure and improves its firmness, especially as our ability to naturally produce it slows down over time.
  • • Squalane: A more stable version of squalene, this is a powerful emollient, meaning it helps fill in weak spots in your skin’s barrier to prevent moisture loss. It’s very similar to the squalene produced in our own sebum, which we produce drastically less of starting only around age 30. Other benefits are being studied, such as its antibacterial and wound-healing properties and ability to prevent dark spots from developing. Note for those who go green: Look for olive or vegetable-derived squalane in skin care rather than that derived from shark livers.
  • • Peptides: The short form—peptides are amino acids that make up proteins. When we’re talking about skin care, “peptides” can cover a lot of ground, but usually are used for one particular function. When collagen in the skin breaks down (for example due to UV light exposure, smoking, and other stresses), peptides are released and serve as “messengers” to the body to stimulate the production of new collagen. They’re often used in skin care, therefore, to boost collagen production and keep your skin firm, smooth, and tight.
  • • Ceramides: Similar to squalene, ceramides are lipids that are part of the strateum corneum, or the skin’s outermost barrier layer where flattened skin cells are bound together with lipids like ceramides and squalene to protect the skin beneath. Naturally-produced ceramide levels also drop drastically starting around age 30, so products with ceramide are especially useful for conditioning and strengthening that barrier layer and preventing moisture loss, leading to smoother, softer skin. Try SkinCeuticals’ Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 for a rich emollient formula that contains ceramides and other fatty acids and that pairs well with retinoids to help your skin adjust to them.


Take Your Vitamins

  • • Retinol: This is vitamin A in skin care. It has a dizzying range of benefits to skin, making it one of the most popular and most widely-used skin care hero ingredients for a variety of concerns, from redness to clogged pores to rough texture to large pores. It’s a great antioxidant and overall improves skin health and resilience. It’s also very potent and not everyone can tolerate it; for those who can, it’s best used at night because it can increase photosensitivity. SkinCeuticals offers two strengths, Retinol 0.5 and Retinol 1.0, to meet your skin’s needs.
  • • Vitamin C: It’s not just good for you inside your body—it’s a superstar when it comes to skin care! It’s got intense antioxidant capabilities and actually works even better in combination with other antioxidants. It supports collagen production and helps your skin heal more quickly, overall boosting your skin health and improving its smoothness, firmness, and brightness. Caveat: always get a product (like Obagi’s Professional-C Serum) that comes in opaque or very dark glass bottles, because it breaks down quickly when exposed to light.
  • • Vitamin E: This is one of the longtime heroes of skin care, another powerhouse antioxidant that’s also calming and anti-inflammatory. One of its main claims to fame is its ability to aid your skin in healing scars. It’s a great choice for smoother, softer skin with a more even tone.
  • • Niacinamide (B3): This water-soluble vitamin is another substance, like vitamin C and retinols, that’s been used successfully long enough to have a body of clinical studies backing it up. And like both of those, it’s a friend to your skin in a multitude of ways. First of all, it’s compatible with most other hero ingredients, and it’s tolerated well by most people and skin types. It boosts the skin’s natural barrier defenses, helping to prevent moisture loss and to ward off environmental damage. Its ability to work with the skin’s own processes and substances results in brighter, smoother, revitalized complexions. Products like SkinCeuticals’ Metacell Renewal B3 are a top choice for daily skin nourishment.
  • • Vitamin B5: You’ll also see this called pantothenic acid or panthenol. This skin care star’s main claim to fame is its moisturizing properties—like hyaluronic acid, it’s a humectant, meaning it draws water into the skin to replenish moisture. But research suggests it has a number of benefits for skin, including its ability to speed healing, reduce inflammation, keep skin oils at healthy levels, and possibly help prevent acne. Especially if you have oily skin, try SkinCeuticals’ Hydrating B5 Gel for a super-light, easily-absorbed moisturizer that perks up a tired complexion, or Hydrating B5 Masque for a deep-moisturizing and soothing treat.


Nature’s Gifts

  • • Resveratrol: It’s a plant compound derived from red wine and grape skins that’s thought to be part of the benefit of drinking red wine. When it comes to your face, products with resveratrol both offer antioxidant protection (so important for countering all the environmental stress that your complexion faces every day!) and stimulate the skin’s production of its own antioxidant defenses. SkinCeuticals’ Resveratrol B E delivers a high-powered dose of this hero in its nighttime defense serum.
  • • Ferulic Acid: Found primarily in grains and seeds, on its own ferulic acid is a great addition to the family of antioxidant ingredients in skin care. It’s thought to speed healing from environmental damage as well as offering protection against free radicals itself. The real benefit, however, is that it’s great at stabilizing other ingredients and making them last longer and work better—especially vitamins C (which otherwise breaks down quickly in sunlight) and E. That’s why SkinCeuticals’ C E Ferulic, which combines all three, has been so widely hailed throughout the skin care industry as a top product for skin health and defense against environmental stressors and pollution.
  • • Phloretin: Derived from apples, phloretin is a flavonoid (meaning one of the substances that gives plants their colors) that has antioxidant benefits, but also works to keep skin tone even. It’s used in skin care especially in combination with other active ingredients because it helps them penetrate the skin more easily. SkinCeuticals’ Phloretin CF, for example, is a powerful antioxidant serum that brings together vitamin C, ferulic acid, and phloretin for benefits that go deep and last long.
  • • Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): This group of chemical (as opposed to mechanical, like a scrub) exfoliants are derived from fruits, milk, and sugar cane. They work by dissolving the bond between old, dead skin cells and new skin, speeding up the process of shedding old skin to brighten your complexion. They’re gentle enough that they can be used by people with dry or sensitive skin, and they don’t irritate or inflame skin like harsher exfoliants. Try SkinMedica’s AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser and Face Cream for products formulated for gentle everyday use.
  • • Glycolic Acid: Glycolic acid is actually an AHA, but is a popular standalone hero ingredient because it’s got the smallest molecules of any AHA type, allowing it to penetrate the skin most easily and effectively. It also helps stimulate collagen production, so it not only reveals fresh new skin but helps that skin feel firmer and smoother.
  • • Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs): Derived from birch and willow, BHAs are most commonly found in skin care as salicylic acid. They are also natural chemical exfoliants that work similarly to AHAs, but whereas AHAs are only water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble, making them especially useful for acne, blackheads, and clogged pores as well as oily skin types. Both AHAs and BHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so don’t skimp on the SPF.


For a true super hero ingredient, take a look at Latisse® lash growth serum. Bimataprost 0.03%  is the key to this FDA-approved treatment for growing thicker, longer, fuller lashes over time.

Got questions? We’ve got answers! Drop a comment here or reach out to contact us if you need help choosing your skin care products or placing an order with us. Our site and our products are an extension of more than 10 years’ experience caring for our clients in our medical spas and salons. We love hearing your thoughts and we’re always happy to help you.

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