When you’re working on your skin, chances are you’re following the most popular, top-search-result suggestion known for solving your particular skin issue, like a salicylic acid treatment for acne or a vitamin C serum for dullness.
After all, what works for hundreds must work for you... right? If only skin transformations were that simple.
When you’re faced with a skin care product that just isn’t solving your problem — or is actually making your skin worse — it can be not only frustrating but confusing. The good news is there’s never only one answer.
Typically, ingredients gain notoriety for a specific skin issue for one reason — they work. Which is why it can be so frustrating when it doesn’t.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular skin care ingredients, why they might not be working, and alternative ingredients you can try to get your skin issues back under control.
What it treats: acne
Signs it’s not working: Your acne isn’t going away and your skin is damaged.
Why it might not be working: Not all acne is created equal — and if your acne is severe, salicylic might not be strong enough for you. “Cystic acne will need something stronger than salicylic acid,” says NYC-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman.
What to try instead: Fortunately, there are many ingredients for acne. Face acids, retinol, zinc, sulfur, and tea tree oil are positive alternatives. You may even want to try at-home blue light therapy. However, if your acne is chronic and cystic, Jaliman recommends seeing a dermatologist. They can prescribe a stronger treatment, such as a prescription topical or antibiotic, to get your acne under control.
What it treats: wrinkles, sun damage, redness, acne, and overall skin health
Signs it’s not working: You’re not seeing results and you notice the product is pilling on your skin. Also, if you experience redness, itching, or burning, you might want to skip this ingredient.
Why it might not be working: If the product is pilling, that means it’s not properly absorbing into the skin and, because it’s not absorbing, it’s not delivering results. If you experience redness or burning, your skin is likely sensitive to the ingredient.
What to try instead: If absorption is the problem, try using less product — and giving the product at least two to five minutes to absorb into the skin before layering on moisturizer. If your skin is having an adverse reaction, switch to a gentler ingredient, such as bakuchiol extract, rose hips seed oil, or a face acid. Since niacinamide can treat many conditions, your replacement depends on your goals.
What it treats: fine lines, wrinkles, elasticity, aging, and acne
Signs it’s not working: You’re experiencing redness, dryness, peeling, or a burning sensation after using retinol.
Why it might not be working: The truth is, retinol can be too active for some people. “It’s too strong [for some people],” says Jaliman. You could also be using too high of a percentage.
What to try instead: If retinol is too intense for your skin, try bakuchiol, a natural alternative. “Another alternative to retinol is bakuchiol,” says Jaliman. “It imitates retinol to a degree because of its anti-aging properties, but it’s all natural, unlike retinol.”
What it treats: dullness, dark spots, elasticity
Signs it’s not working: Vitamin C is supposed to be nourishing for your skin. Think of it like a glass of OJ for your complexion! So, if your skin is having the opposite of a nourished effect, that’s a telltale sign this ingredient isn’t working.
Why it might not be working: Just like there are different brands of orange juice, there are different forms of vitamin C. If you have sensitive skin, certain types might not work for you. “If you have sensitive skin, avoid [vitamin C] products with L-ascorbic acid,” says Jaliman. “You might get irritation or discomfort.”
What to try instead: If L-ascorbic acid makes your skin react, try magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, a water-soluble derivative of vitamin C that tends to be gentler on skin.
What it treats: dryness and dehydration
Signs it’s not working: Your skin is still dry and dehydrated.
Why it might not be working: Hyaluronic acid binds moisture to the skin, but alone it’s probably not enough to give you a hydrated complexion. “Hyaluronic acid alone will normally not give you the moisture you need,” says Jaliman.
What to try instead: There’s no need to replace hyaluronic acid in your skin care routine —you just need to add additional moisturizing products. Follow up your hyaluronic acid serum with a moisturizer or face oil to hydrate your skin.
So, how do you know what else to use?
Don’t banish the ingredient from your skin care routine just yet. There are a number of reasons why a certain product might not solve your skin issues.
1. Your product could be expired
If a product has been sitting on the shelf too long, which is typically between 6 and 12 months depending on the product and packaging, it can definitely make it less effective — and less likely to deliver the results you’re looking for.
“Consumer skin products should undergo stability and efficacy tests. Unfortunately, since these tests aren’t mandatory, and nonprescription cosmetics aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there’s really no way for American consumers to know how long a product will last,” says Brundha Balaraman, board-certified dermatologist and founder of the SkinTRUST Society.
2. You’re storing your products in the sun or a humid area
“Storing your products in your bathroom where the temperature can get very high due to hot showers may change effectiveness of some ingredients,” explains Jaliman.
“Extreme ambient temperatures may significantly affect product stability and efficacy,” says Balaraman. This means it can make your product react, look, feel, and even work differently. “For example, sunscreen products that are overheated in cars may no longer be effective against ultraviolet radiation, or may cause skin irritation.”
You might want to store your products the way you store food: in a mini beauty fridge.
3. Your product doesn’t have enough active ingredients
“It may be the proper ingredient, but the concentration is so low that by the time some of it reaches the target area in the skin, there’s not enough to have a qualifiable or quantifiable effect on the skin,” says Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified dermatologist in private practice in Los Angeles.
Before you chalk up an ingredient as ineffective for your skin, Google the ingredient list of your product. If the active ingredient isn’t in the top five, there’s probably not a high enough concentration to see results.
4. The product is low-quality
“Poor-quality ingredients [can cause an ingredient not to work],” reminds Shainhouse. Not all skin care products are created equal, and sometimes we see that reflected in prices.
Shainhouse refers to inferior ingredients, poor formulations, unstable molecules, or packaging as potential areas for quality checks. For example, open-jar packaging can let a lot of oxygen in, causing destabilization in active ingredients.
If you’ve eliminated any potential issues with the product, then chances are, it’s the ingredient.
Deanna deBara is a freelance writer who recently made the move from sunny Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. When she’s not obsessing over her dog, waffles, or all things Harry Potter, you can follow her journeys on Instagram.