We Asked the Experts Whether Single Ingredient Skincare Really is Better
Main image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy
Lately it feels like there’s been a huge rise in single ingredient skincare (when a product contains one primary ingredient, so that users can layer their chosen ingredients up accordingly).
Whether it’s brands like The Ordinary of The Inkey list launching their latest product, or an influencer discussing exactly how they like to combine all their favourite ingredients, my social media feeds seem to be full with single ingredient formulas.
Here, I explore the benefits and downsides of building a single ingredient routine compared to regular skincare (where the brand blends a variety of ingredients into one product).
Skincare experts Merry Thornton and Dr Jennifer Baron help me to debate whether or not single ingredient skincare is really everything it’s hyped up to be.
Single ingredient skincare: The pros
Before we get to the pros though, dermatologist Dr Baron clears one thing up; while we may regularly hear the term “single ingredient skincare” used, it’s actually a misconception.
She explains, “Technically, no skincare product contains a single ingredient (except water or petrolatum!).
“There must always be additives to ensure the product does not become contaminated with mould.”
That means that even the “pure” salicylic acid products we see, for example, are likely to contain at least a few other ingredients.
Now onto the benefits of buying your skincare this way.
1. Reduced sensitivity
“Single ingredient skincare is great for those with ingredient sensitivities,” says Thornton. “They reduce potential irritation and are targeted to a particular issue.”
When you buy a product containing a particular ingredient you’ve heard your skin will benefit from, it will often contain lots of other ingredients too.
Potential irritants like essential oils or unnecessary fragrances that may not be so good for it. This can cause sensitivity and irritation and may interfere with the results you you were originally aiming for. Choosing a single ingredient skincare product eliminates the chances of this happening.
2. It can cost you less
The more ingredients a product contains, the more expensive it generally is. Depending on the amount of products used in your regime, adopting the single ingredient skincare rule can actually work out cheaper.
3. Your ingredient knowledge is automatically better
When selecting individual ingredients, you have no choice but to swot up on skincare advice and ingredient perks. This is an excellent way of keeping on top of what’s right for your skin now and in the future.
4. It gives you flexibility
Choosing a product with one ingredient focus means you can do the process of elimination. If a specific ingredient doesn’t agree with your skin, you will instantly know which one it is if you’re using a product containing a single ingredient.
Therefore, you can avoid using any products containing that in the future and know more about how to build your perfect regime.
5. You have more of an incentive to look after your skin
Brands like The Ordinary and The Inkey List who offer single ingredient skincare are impressively affordable. Going down this route, and choosing reasonably priced brands like these, may give you the nudge you need to start taking care of your skin.
Whereas if they cost an arm and a leg, you probably wouldn’t prioritise it.
Single ingredient skincare: The cons
Ok, but does that mean we should all switch straight to single ingredient skincare?
Before you do, take a look at why the experts agree it may not always be the best option for your skin.
1. Lack of ‘two for the price of one’
“If you want to tackle multiple issues (such as pigmentation and wrinkles), [a single ingredient product] might not be as good of a multi-tasker and you might have to add additional products instead of finding one that has multiple ingredients to address multiple issues,” warns Thornton.
2. It’s not always cheaper
Allow me to refer you to point number one. Additional products for multiple issues? Hang on a minute….! “This translates to more money, more time and ingredients/formulations that potentially do not mix well together,” adds Thornton.
PRO TIP: The more issues you want to address, the more it’ll cost you and it may actually work out cheaper to buy a product containing multiple ingredients instead.
3. It can add time, rather than save it
Using more targeted products is all well and good, but it still takes the same time to apply a single ingredient product as it does a multiple one. So if you’re using two single ingredient products instead of one bulk product, it’ll take you double the time to apply.
4. You could overdo it
Misleading videos on social media that champion single ingredient skincare can take it too far by recommending you layer too many actives or acids on top of each other.
Just because the products contain just one ingredient doesn’t mean the skin isn’t going to notice you applying multiple ingredients at once.
PRO TIP: Not overdoing it on the active ingredients applies to both multiple and single ingredient skincare.
5 tips for starting a single ingredient skincare regime
If you still think single ingredient skincare is right for you then, what’s the best way to use it?
- Know your combinations:
It’s always best to check which ingredients can be layered with others to ensure your skin doesn’t have a reaction.
Read up on the brand’s website or have a scroll through their Instagram grid – if they’re serious about skincare, they’ll usually have a lot of useful information in their captions.
The Inkey List website has lots of great information tools that will help you understand your ingredients better. For starters, they have their Ingredients Index which states what each one does.
The Ordinary website has similar resources, including a regimen guide and even a guide specifically on vitamin C.
- Go quizzing:
Many websites will have a skincare quiz which will ask a few short questions about your skin to help you find the right regime.
At the end of The Inkey List’s quiz, it presents you with your very own regime, containing products and ingredients that mostly compliment each other and, crucially, how much it is going to cost you in total.
It also comes up with a warning and explanation about any ingredient combinations that might be a red flag in relation to the products they’re recommending, so that you’re fully in the loop.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions:
You can contact brands directly either via their website or on social media to ask any questions you may have about ingredients.
Most aim to get back to you within 48 hours. The Inkey List website even has a chat tool where you can ask a skincare advisor any burning questions.
- Go for the cheaper brands:
Well, where you buy it from makes no difference – a cheap ingredient is a cheap ingredient – so choosing to buy a single ingredient product from a more expensive brand will only make a difference to your bank balance.
- Wean yourself:
If you’re looking to try a new ingredient, introduce it into your regime slowly. If you go in all guns blazing and use it morning and evening straight away, your skin might freak out.
I always recommend starting on any new ingredient twice a week – spaced out. Then after a few weeks, build it up to three times a week. Then four times a few weeks after that.
Once your skin is accustomed to it and there is no redness or irritation, you can then start to use it on the regular.
There is something to be said for single ingredient skincare enabling you to become your skin’s very own scientist. It gives you control over what is going on your skin, as well as a wider knowledge of ingredients and what’s best for your skin.
I can see a valid argument for it working out to be more cost effective too – why pay extra for ingredients that your skin doesn’t really like or need?
But then again…what if your skin likes and needs multiple? Then you’re spending more money and more time applying them as single ingredients when, actually, there are enough options out there to find the right formula for your skin’s requirements in one hit.
As far as saving time goes though, it’s a no from me. Multiple ingredient skincare gives me all the ingredients my skin needs in one bottle, and in only one application too.
I may have multiple skin concerns, but knowing I can address them with just one product works best around my lifestyle. And there are plenty of multiple ingredient products to suit all budgets.
Meet the experts
Merry Thornton is a Board Certified Physician Assistant in Dermatology, licensed skincare expert and the founder of Element Medical Aesthetics in New Canaan
Dr. Jennifer Baron is a double board-certified dermatologist with a premier skincare line. For more than a decade as a private practice dermatologic surgeon in San Jose, California, Dr. Baron continues to pair her medical training and experience with research and innovation of effective skin care treatments for her patients.