Like many terms avidly used in the beauty industry, ‘actives’, ‘cosmeceuticals’ and ‘medical grade’ are not regulated, or even used uniformly. Confused? We get it. Generally speaking, these terms indicate products which are targeted at specific skin concerns, and that contain higher percentages of ingredients formulated to work at particularly effective levels. So far, so good, but the downside can be that, in the excitement to get all of that high quality skincare on your face all at once, you create more problems (think redness, stinging, flaking and general sensitivity) than you had to begin with. We spoke with Ultraderm brand founder Pauline Valle about how to create the most effective skincare routine that will achieve the results you want, without the downtime.

Ultraderm founder Pauline Valle


So what exactly are these ‘actives’ everyone is talking about? Usually, they are considered to be products which contain ingredients that have been scientifically proven to bring about actual change in the skin. These include acids (AHAs like glycolic and lactic, and BHA aka salicylic), retinoids (vitamin A derivatives), niacinamide (vitamin B3) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). In the simplest terms, they are ingredients that often look or feel like they’re working as soon as you apply them. Ultraderm’s range makes use all of the above ingredients, in products like Skin Renew Active Night Repair, Skin Renew Moisturiser with Tri-Peptides, Rapid Retinol Concentrate, IntenC Serum and Absolute B3 Serum. So, do you start using all of those at once? Not so fast.


If you’re new to active skincare products, it’s best to approach with caution, and start slowly. Pauline advises to “start with one new product at a time if you are prone to sensitivity. Follow the instructions, especially with vitamin A products – start on alternate days and gradually build up your tolerance and use at night only. And use a sunscreen daily to protect your skin.” While we should all make daily sunscreen application a habit, it is even more important when using ingredients that encourage fresh skin (which needs extra protection)  to come to the surface.


Some people can tolerate certain actives but not others, or can only tolerate so many when used in combination. (For example, your skin may be happy with you using a vitamin C, but not when you also try and incorporate an AHA and a retinoid into your routine).

If you’re wondering where to start or what you should focus on, Pauline tells us that “vitamin A as it is the gold standard for age management, acne and cellular repair.”

Once you have your retinoid usage down pat, you can consider incorporating other actives to target any other specific concerns. But if your skin doesn’t like the new comers? Ditch them. Vitamin A should be your one true love.


Adding fuel to the fire of the explosion of interest in skincare in the last few years has been the rise of affordable, single ingredient products. Suddenly, anyone could feel like a chemist, chopping and changing between tiny apothecary bottles at whim, all from the comfort of their bathroom. Now, we are seeing the end result of what you might call this ‘self-formulating’ – many brands are bringing out soothing, calming, bland products to counteract the damage done by the self-administered, actives free-for-all. This is where ‘cosmeceutical’ products can be so helpful. They are designed to give results, while avoiding damaging the skin (a pitfall that those of us playing around in our bathrooms are not exactly equipped to avoid).

Pauline says, “there are several factors to be considered when looking at cosmeceutical products.  Cosmeceutical formulas contain high performance actives in optimal concentrations to affect change and benefit the skin. Additional factors to consider are the product’s pH levels (the skin on average has a pH of 4.7 and products which create too much of a disruption to that over time, disrupt the skins protective acid mantle which can create or worsen problematic skin conditions) and additional ingredients (formulations should be composed of complementary ingredients not incompatible ones).”

Choosing well-regarded cosmeceutical brands for your active products removes the guess work of these tricky elements. Unless you are a skincare whiz with a healthy appetite for risk, it can be best leave it to real chemists to make these decisions, rather than you trying to play mad scientist as you rush out the door each morning.


If you’re wondering what sort of percentages of active ingredients you should be looking for, Pauline took us through some ideal options for those which are most widely-used. “The ideal percentages for widely used actives such as vitamin C, niacinamide and retinol, is dependent on what the product has been formulated for. In general terms vitamin C serums are usually formulated between 5% – 20%, vitamin B (niacinamide) will be effective with concentrations of 5% -1 0%, and retinol is often used at strengths from 0.5% – 1%.” (Remember, retinol is just one of the commonly used subgroups of retinoids, which also includes retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate, so the necessary strength for the results you’re after may vary, depending on the type of retinoid you choose.)

Ultimately, though, the best strength of product for you is the one that you can use daily, while keeping your skin happy. There’s no need to keep choosing stronger and stronger formulations and demanding more from your skin’s barrier, if you’re pleased with the results you are getting from a gentler product.


Use them regularly, to avoid finding something is past its use by date, and look for appropriate packaging. Pauline told us that, “in order to certify product longevity and performance, products undergo a series of product safety, user trials and stability testing. To ensure products are used within their best before date, they are labeled with the PAO (period-after-opening) symbol, which indicates how long after opening the product remains safe, stable and suitable for use if stored under the correct conditions. A product past its use by date will deteriorate over time: the texture may change (it might separate if it’s a cream or lotion), and possibly change smell or colour.”

It’s also worth nothing that products are generally formulated to be shelf-stable (unopened in a shop, awaiting you to take it home) for two to three years. So while the PAO does technically apply from when you open it, pay extra attention if you’ve owned the product for a long time.

Pauline also informs us that “packaging plays a role in product preservation and longevity. Airless pump bottles and tubes are often the preferred packaging option as there is less chance of product contamination.”

In other words, choose the right, cleverly formulated product in the right packaging, and you’ll have fresh, potent ingredients, ready to help change your skin for the better.

Story by Zoe Briggs. Photograph of Pauline supplied by Ultraderm. This article was sponsored by Ultraderm.

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