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Why These Three Super Common Anti-Aging Ingredients Must be Paired with Sunscreen

by kelly / December, 5 2018 01:30

Photo of a woman basking in the sun

Retinol, alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), and hydroquinone are powerful “active ingredients” on the market today that can help with the signs of skin aging. Great, right? Well yes, sort of – you have to use them correctly as a major side effect is they increase sun sensitivity. I know, so unfair – why does something that helps with the signs of aging also making us more susceptible to the sun – the leading cause of skin aging. Fortunately, if these ingredients are paired with effective sun protection, used at the right time, and you follow the direction of your doctor, you can be on your way to glowing skin.

Active Ingredients

First off we’re talking about the active ingredient versions of these anti-aging ingredients in your skin care products. The non-active ingredient versions can have the same sun sensitivity issues although maybe to a lesser extent because to be non-active means the ingredients are used in lesser quantities which means they are probably less effective too.

In any event, here is a little 101 on active ingredients.

If a product has an active ingredient in it then the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates it as a drug – either over-the-counter (OTCs like aspirin, cold medicine, etc) or prescription. Many skin care products with active ingredients fall under over-the-counter drugs by the FDA (sunscreen, or really any SPF product, is another example that the FDA classifies as an OTC drug). Some skin care products are even prescription drugs and require a medical prescription. These are the kinds of creams a dermatologist prescribes.

Specifically according to the FDA:

“An active ingredient is any component that provides pharmacological activity or other direct effect in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or animals.”

Or as the Skin Cancer Foundation puts it:

“active ingredients are responsible for delivering the proposed benefits. These exist in all types of skin care products, even in natural versions. Depending on your skin concerns, you can choose an active ingredient that targets clogged pores, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and more.”

So how do you know if the product you’re using is considered a drug by the FDA? Well, if a product has an active ingredient, the ingredient must be listed on the product’s label on a Drug Facts panel in the “Active Ingredient” section.

As I said, you can have inactive ingredient versions of these three ingredients in a skin care product too. Because they are “inactive” the skin care product might not be considered a drug by the FDA – in which case you won’t see a Drug Facts panel on the packaging. However, this also means the ingredients are usually used in smaller quantities and the proposed benefits may not be as effective, tested, or regulated.


Retinol is first up and is considered by many dermatologists to be the hallmark of any anti-aging skin care regimen. Also known as vitamin A, retinol targets fine lines, wrinkles, pore size and uneven tone and texture.

Retinol is able to fight the signs of aging by stimulating cell renewal to produce new skin cells. However the new skin that develops is more delicate and thinner. As a result this skin is more sensitive – particularly to the sun.

Take a look at the packaging and you’ll probably notice that almost all retinol products recommend using the product at night to avoid sun damage to the skin. They often also recommend using a sunscreen during the day since your skin will be more sensitive overall. Ask your dermatologist too, particularly if it’s a prescription product, and they’ll likely recommend the same.

I agree. If you use any product with retinol in it – active or inactive – use it at night and always use sunscreen during the day to help combat the extra sun sensitivity retinol causes.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

AHAs are another common skin care ingredient and are often found in skin-brightening products. AHAs exfoliate the skin, getting rid of buildup that dulls the skin.

Because AHAs are such potent exfoliators – they also make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, even on days you don’t use them. For instance, one study found that continual use of AHAs caused skin to burn when exposed to UV light 24 hours after application.

That’s why you want to make sure you use any AHAs – active or inactive - in partnership with sunscreen. It’s a best practice in keeping skin healthy. Of course, consult your doctor too - particularly if they prescribe you an AHA product.


You may not be as familiar with hydroquinone but there are lots of products out there that use it. It’s the ingredient for all those pesky dark spots. It is a lightening agent that fades skin discoloration by disrupting the formation of excess melanin. Too much melanin causes brown and dark spots and even hyperpigmentation.

So it all sounds great, right? Well, one big downside is decreasing melanin also makes the skin more susceptible to UV radiation.

That’s why hydroquinone is usually recommended in small doses and it’s best to talk to your dermatologist before using a product with active hydroquinone – active or inactive. Of course, if you do start using it you’ll want to use a sunblock too.

Suncare Smarts

These active ingredients aren’t necessarily to be avoided as they can be helpful in fighting the signs of aging. We don’t currently use them in any of our products but since they are so common, we think it’s important to be aware of their potential benefits, pitfalls, and best ways to use them.

Together with sunscreen, sun protection, other tips from your doctor and these active ingredients – you can get the most out of these three ingredients. For even more tips to flawless skin check out our Anti-Aging or Suncare Smarts blog series.

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