Beauty-related Google searches have certainly changed in the past decade.

The world went from “how to fix acne” and “how to diminish stretch marks” in 2014, to “what does vitamin C do for your skin”, “how does hyaluronic acid work” and “how to use retinol ” in 2021. In other words, the focus switched from treating skincare issues to the power of ingredients.

Today’s beauty devotees have become well-versed in ingredient lists, which is why fancy packaging and promises of overnight wonders are not enough any more. They are savvy, knowledgeable and less brand loyal, and they believe in product transparency.

Single-ingredient skincare, given its simplicity, is now at the forefront and helping empower people to choose what they layer on their skin. Brands can no longer entice customers with celebrity ambassadors and miraculous formulas at the expense of ingredient quality – what customers really want is efficacy.

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“Research has shown that women put an average of 515 synthetic ingredients on their body daily due to their beauty routines,” says Tina Hedges, the founder of Loli Beauty, the world’s first zero-waste , organic, food-grade beauty brand formulating 100 per cent waterless products.

She believes that, in the same way we eat clean to detoxify our bodies, we should strip out unnecessary ingredients from skincare.

“When a skincare product has a long ingredient list, the majority of the product will be made up of the first few ingredients. [ …] The bottom line is, long ingredient lists mean that the active ingredient in the product is diluted, so not as effective as it would be in a product with a limited number of ingredients,” she says.

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“Single-ingredient” doesn’t necessarily mean there’s only one ingredient in a formula – the term mainly refers to products that use one pure ingredient, or mix active ingredients that complement each other, for a more targeted approach to your skin concerns.

According to Deciem’s lab team – the scientific minds behind brands such as The Ordinary, Niod and Hylamide – that is why these formulas are so beneficial: they offer versatility to consumers.

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“Single-ingredient products allow for customisation and curating of products that are targeted and tailored to an individual’s specific skincare needs,” a spokesman for Deciem says.

As one of the first to identify this market trend, the team behind affordable, science-based brand The Ordinary has been aware for years of the possibilities single ingredients offer to customers.

“Ingredients that work in synergy may be present in separate products or combined together in a single product, [ …] which may impact a user’s choice of product based on the severity and priority of one’s skin concerns,” the spokesman says.

Low-cost skincare used to be linked with mediocre quality and bad results. After The Ordinary’s breakthrough, beauty devotees realised controlling what goes on their faces doesn’t have to mean spending the big bucks.

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Since then, brands such as The Inkey List, Typology, Loli Beauty, Maelove and Pai have introduced a more democratic approach to skincare, where the consumer has a real say in how and what to spend their money on.

The key to their triumph has lots to do with the chemistry behind the formula and the percentage of active ingredients used. Any product can have “hyaluronic acid” or “vitamin C ” on its packaging, but what turns a serum into a holy grail is the higher-than-usual concentrations of such ingredients. That’s why we see percentages on labels, too.

No matter if you’re an avid skincare consumer or a total newbie, understanding your skin’s needs and sensitivities is crucial before jumping into the world of high concentration ingredients. Once you’re there, you can let the trial and error begin.

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Single ingredient must-haves

The Ordinary – Resveratrol three per cent + Ferulic Acid three per cent

This serum combines high concentrations of two powerful antioxidants: resveratrol and ferulic acid. Resveratrol prevents ultraviolet (UV) damage (which can lead to premature skin ageing) and is a powerful anti-inflammatory, while ferulic acid helps to protect skin integrity by reducing the development of fine lines, spots and wrinkles.

Together, they protect the skin against environmental stressors that may contribute to signs of ageing.

Typology – Radiance Serum 11 per cent Vitamin C

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This brightening powerhouse combines 11 per cent vitamin C to restore radiance, reduce pigmentation spots and slow down photoageing, and three per cent albizia julibrissin extract – which is known for restoring radiance to the skin.

This formula will help combat harmful free radicals triggered by bad sleep habits, stress, bad diet and UV rays to prevent skin from becoming dull.

Dr Barbara Sturm – Hyaluronic serum

One of the brand’s most fundamental formulas to date, this serum is packed with low- and high-weighted hyaluronic molecules. Low molecular weight hyaluronic acid penetrates deep into the skin, leaving it feeling stronger, fuller and more radiant. High weight hyaluronic acid molecules provide immediate intensive hydration to the surface layers of the skin.

Loli Beauty – Plum Elixir

This is the brand’s number-one bestseller, and hydrates dry skin, chapped lips and damaged hair. Sustainably upcycled from the kernel of the French ente plum, this vegan beauty oil is a waterless blend of four organic, food-grade seed oils. Each plum seed is packed with a mix of vitamins A, C and E, plus sky-high levels of essential fatty acids.

The Inkey List – Niacinamide Oil Control Serum

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Featuring two of the most popular skincare ingredients of 2020 and 2021, this lightweight serum (containing 10 per cent niacinamide and one per cent hyaluronic acid) is easy to layer and helps to reduce excess oil, blemishes, dark spots, inflammation and redness while keeping your skin moisturised.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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