5 Popular Skincare Ingredients and What They Do

Trendy skincare ingredients that actually live up to the hype.

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We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.

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Skincare is more popular than ever, but with great ingredients comes a great responsibility to know what those ingredients do. Niacinamide, bakuchiol, CBD, even watermelon—there are so many buzzy ingredients saturating the market nowadays that it can be tricky to know where to start. But worry not! We’re here to break down five popular skincare ingredients, including what they do and how you can add them to your routine.

Some of these ingredients are ones that your Curology provider can potentially prescribe to you. Interested in trying them out? Just sign up or start a chat with your provider to get started!


Niacinamide for skin: fixer, healer, and builder. With a résumé like that, it’s no wonder that this ingredient has been growing a steady following in skincare!

Topically, niacinamide is a multitasking B vitamin that helps repair sun-damaged skin, reduce inflammation and dark spots¹, and improve skin elasticity.² It’s an extensively researched ingredient that helps to both heal and fortify the skin, thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. There’s also some evidence that suggests topical niacinamide may decrease sebum, or oil³—so if you’re concerned about excess oil on some parts of your face, this might be a great ingredient to explore!

Niacinamide products we suggest:


Meet the gold standard for anti-aging. Tretinoin is a proven powerhouse for reducing fine lines and unwanted pigmentation (second only to sun protection). 

Tretinoin helps your skin:

  1. Shed dead skin cells. In healthy skin, skin cells naturally turn over, meaning that your old cells die and new ones replace them. Tretinoin speeds this up and gives dead, damaged skin cells the boot.⁴

  2. Stimulate collagen growth. After clearing the way, tretinoin welcomes in fresh, plump skin cells and gives them the support they need by stimulating the production of collagen: a protein that helps with skin firmness.⁵ This, in turn, helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  3. Get that glow! Say hello to smoother, brighter skin. New skin cells lead to your skin looking brighter and more even. Dark spots fade, dull skin sheds, and blemishes decrease—what’s not to love?

Heads up: Since tretinoin encourages new cell growth, it can cause sun sensitivity—so it’s critical to apply sunscreen before going outside!

Since tretinoin is only available with a prescription, you’ll need to either start a chat with your Curology provider or visit an in-person medical provider.

Azelaic acid

Mirror mirror, on the wall, what’s one of the most versatile skincare ingredients of them all? If you answered azelaic acid, you’re right! 

Azelaic acid is one of the most popular picks for hyperpigmentation in patients of all skin types—and for good reason.⁶ Its anti-inflammatory properties are also beneficial in treating redness.⁷ Plus, it acts as a mild exfoliant; it helps with skin texture and with smoothing and refining the appearance of pores.

Azelaic acid occurs naturally in some whole grains, but it’s generally safe to use topically for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.

Azelaic acid products we suggest:


If you’ve heard the term “retinoid” and thought it sounded similar to “retinol,” you’re right! So what’s the difference between retinoid and retinol?

Well, retinol is a kind of retinoid (just like ​​tretinoin). Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives, which stimulate skin cell turnover and increase the production of collagen. This makes them helpful in the treatment of both acne and aging skin!

Think of retinol as tretinoin’s gentler cousin. Retinol is a bit milder than its prescription counterparts and is often considered to be less effective, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Since it’s not as strong, retinol can be found in some over-the-counter products, whereas you can only get tretinoin with a prescription from a medical provider. 

All retinoids, including retinol, work by speeding up skin cell turnover. Over time, they can help fade dark spots, even out skin tone, and improve fine lines.

Heads up: Just like tretinoin, retinol (and other retinoids) encourages cell turnover, so don’t forget the sunscreen!

Retinol products we suggest:

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is an exfoliant—specifically, a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA. BHA not only buffs away dead skin cells but also helps clear out clogged pores. This makes it a great option for treating whiteheads and blackheads (and other types of acne!).

Got body acne? Salicylic acid might be the ingredient you’re looking for. Look for a body wash that’s gentle enough to use a few times a week (like Curology’s acne body wash) and doesn’t include ingredients that can potentially clog pores or worsen breakouts, like sodium lauryl sulfate.

People with all skin types can use products containing salicylic acid, but we often recommend them for those with oilier skin. Regardless of your skin type, it’s still important to move slowly when introducing salicylic acid to your routine. It can be easy to over-exfoliate—so proceed with caution, and give your skin a break if you experience any irritation. If you feel that your reaction is more significant, please reach out to your Curology provider or an in-person medical provider!

Salicylic acid products we suggest for your face:

Salicylic acid products we suggest for your body:

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Where can I find these skincare ingredients?

Want a one-stop shop for these ingredients? Curology’s got you covered. Sign up for a free trial* of Curology to get a prescription formula customized to your skin’s unique needs and shipped straight to your door. 

Check out our other skincare guides for more tips and tricks, and remember: we’ve got your back!

• • •

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

1. T. Hakozaki, et al.  The Effect of Niacinamide on Reducing Cutaneous Pigmentation and Suppression of Melanosome Transfer. The British Journal of Dermatology. (July 2002).

2. Donald L. Bisset, et al. Niacinamide: A B Vitamin That Improves Aging Facial Skin Appearance. Dermatologic Surgery. (July 2005)

3. Zoe Diane Draelos, et al. The Effect of 2% Niacinamide on Facial Sebum Production. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. (2006, March 20).

4. Hilary E. Baldwin, et al. 40 Years of Topical Tretinoin Use in Review, Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (June 2013).

5. Siddharth Mukherjee, et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006).

6. A.S. Breathnach. Melanin Hyperpigmentation of Skin: Melasma, Topical Treatment With Azelaic Acid, and Other Therapies. Cutis. (January 1996).

7. Stuart Maddin. A Comparison of Topical Azelaic Acid 20% Cream and Topical Metronidazole 0.75% Cream in the Treatment of Patients With Papulopustular Rosacea. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (1991, June 1).

*Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days. +$4.95 shipping and handling. 

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