Skip to content
Skincare 101: Your guide to actives (i.e., what the hell are they?)

Skincare 101: Your guide to actives (i.e., what the hell are they?)

Posted 16.01.2023

Unless you’re a skincare addict, you probably have absolutely no clue what an active is. Stepping into the skincare world as a teen or young adult can be super intimidating when you’re faced with the words AHA, BHA, retinoid, and niacinamide to name a few, like what do they even mean? Lucky for you, we’re here to tell you all about them – just think of us as your skincare BFF!

What are skincare actives?

Actives are ‘chemical’ ingredients (not the bad type) found in some skincare products that are made to address specific skin concerns. Some of these skin concerns include acne, dryness, ageing, and sun damage.

If you’re anything like us, you’re bound to have come across ingredients that you didn’t even know were actives whilst scrolling through ‘skintok’ for endless hours. The ones you’ve definitely come across are:

  • Alph Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)
  • Niacinamide
  • Hyaluronic Acid

What do actives do?

As mentioned above, actives have different purposes and target different skin concerns. Let’s run through the most common actives and what they do.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

AHAs are naturally found in fruits, sugar, and milk. Here at my Olivanna we use apple amino acids (a form of AHA found in apples) in our Apple AHA Foam Wash due to it’s amazing exfoliating and brightening properties, plus it’s vegan!

Be sure to always use a sun cream with an SPF of 30 and over after using products containing AHA since they make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Benefits of AHAs:

  • Gently exfoliates the skin by removing dead skin cells

  • Allows ‘new’ skin cells to emerge which gives a healthier and smoother appearance

  • Moisturisers can then sink deeper into the skin, making them work better

  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles

  • Reduces skin discolouration (e.g., hyperpigmentation, and dark spots)

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)

Like AHAs, BHAs are another gentle chemical exfoliant for the skin. The most common form of BHA is salicylic acid which is naturally found in plants. The only difference between AHAs and BHAs is that BHAs work deeper into the pores than AHAs, meaning they are great for those with clogged pores, and rough, bumpy skin.

Again, be sure to use an SPF over 30 when using BHAs.

Benefits of BHAs:

  • Unclogs pores and reduces acne

  • Anti-bacterial properties

  • Gently exfoliates


Niacinamide is naturally found in yeast and cereals. It’s an essential for the body and we consume it through meat, fish, nuts, and bananas!

Aside from food, niacinamide can be found in many different skincare products and it’s great for those with oily, acne-prone, or sensitive skin due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Benefits of niacinamide:

  • Reduces sebum and oil production in skin

  • Minimises pore size

  • Strengthens skin barrier

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is naturally found in the body and is the ultimate active that provides lots of moisture and relief for super dry skin.

This burst of H2O can be found in our Strawberry Seed Oil Moisturiser for super glowing hydrated skin!

Benefits of hyaluronic acid:

  • Smooths skin texture
  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
  • Enhances skin elasticity

When should you use actives?

So, you’re thinking of using actives in your skincare routine, yay! When to use them all depends on the type of active.

With AHAs and BHAs we find that it’s best to use them at night to really give your skin time to soak in your night skincare and restore overnight. It’s also a lot safer to use AHAs and BHAs in your evening routine since these particular actives make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Apply AHAs and BHAs after cleansing your skin with a cleanser (our Pineapple Enzyme Milky Cleanser is a great option) or opt for a cleanser that contains AHA or BHA already (for example, our Apple AHA Foam Wash)

Unlike AHAs and BHAs, niacinamide can be used morning and night since it does not increase sun sensitivity. It should be applied after cleansing and applied before your moisturiser and face oil.

Hyaluronic acid can also be used in your morning and night routine to add a boost of moisture into your skin. It’s gel-like consistency makes it a great serum to apply after cleansing and before your moisturiser and face oil.

How to choose the right active ingredient for your skin?

This is all down to what your skin needs since not all actives are for everybody.

If your skin is looking dull or rough, you have blackheads, or blemishes, then AHAs and BHAs are a must in your skincare routine.

If excess oil and big pores are an issue for you then niacinamide will be your bestie.

If dry skin is your biggest problem, and your skin is dying for a tall drink of water, then be sure to add hyaluronic acid into your routine.

Can active ingredients be mixed?

It might be tempting to use all your actives together, but by doing this you’re causing more harm to your skin than good. 

AHAs/BHAs can be mixed with: Hyaluronic Acid, Ceramides, and Niacinamide, but be sure to not mix them with Retinol

Niacinamide can be mixed with Retinol, Hyaluronic Acid, and AHAs/BHAs, but not with Vitamin C

Hyaluronic Acid is the easiest active to work with since it can be mixed with any active!