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Skin Care Basics: Active Ingredients vs. Inactive Ingredients

As mentioned in our previous article about creating the perfect skincare regimen, people should pay close attention to ingredient labels when selecting their skincare products. There are currently thousands of beauty products on the market, many of which make unsubstantiated claims regarding their effectiveness. The best way for consumers to ensure they buy products that will meet their needs is to pay close attention to the ingredients used in the product’s formula. Learn the Skin Care Basics: Active Ingredients vs. Inactive Ingredients.

It’s always a good idea to inspect product labels, which list all ingredients found within the product. Upon looking at skincare product labels, you may notice some products classify their ingredients as “inactive” or “active” while others make no distinction at all.

Skin Care Basics: Active Ingredients vs. Inactive Ingredients

Active vs. Inactive: What’s the Difference?

Government-mandated safety regulations are the reason why ingredients are classified as “active” and “inactive” on product labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is tasked with overseeing the safety and efficacy of drugs and medical devices in the United States, enforces the labeling of active ingredients and inactive ingredients in two situations:

The product contains FDA classified drugs

FDA classified drugs

The FDA classifies an ingredient as a “drug” if (1) its use is intended to treat or prevent certain diseases or (2) if the ingredient use alters the way the body works. Any ingredient classified as a drug by the FDA must be designated as “active” on product labels. Active ingredients must also be pre-approved by the FDA for both efficacy and safety prior to being sold on the market.

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The FDA considers all non-drug ingredients to be “cosmetic”. These are ingredients that solely relate to altering skin appearance or performing a specific function like cleansing or exfoliating. The FDA mandates that these ingredients must be safe for use, but they are not required to be approved prior to being sold.

The product makes medical claims

Skin Care Basics: Active Ingredients vs. Inactive Ingredients

The FDA considers any product that makes a medical claim, where the manufacturer claims the product is intended to treat or prevent a medical condition, to be a “medical product”. An example of this is a product that claims to be a skin “lightening” product. All medical products are subject to classifying their ingredients as distinctly separate active ingredients (FDA classified drugs) and inactive ingredients.

In contrast, products that do not make a medical claim (and also do not contain ingredients classified by the FDA as drugs) are considered to be “cosmetic”. These are products that only claim to enhance the skin’s appearance. Cosmetic products do not need to label their ingredients as active or inactive, all ingredients can be listed in a single area on the label. The FDA only requires manufacturers to list cosmetic ingredients in order of the amount present, from highest to lowest.

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