According to Dove dermatologist Dr. Alicia Barba, “active ingredients,” as opposed to scent/endorsements/cute packaging, are really the make or break factors when it comes to determining whether or not a product will work for our skin. In skincare products, active ingredients are the parts of a given formula responsible for delivering its proposed benefits. So, for example, in an acne-fighting product, the “active” ingredient might be benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, because those are the ingredients that actually do the pimple zapping, as opposed to the “inactive” ingredients, which do things like deliver the product’s fragrance or texture.

On any given day, your skin’s needs differ, so it’s important to stay in tune with how your face is feeling and implement the necessary ingredients. Keeping a range of products on hand certainly helps, but the most important thing is learning how to combine them in the right way. “I’m very much into cocktails, so I layer a lot of actives,” says Barba, who is a proponent of experimenting to figure out what works best for you, and also of changing up your routine daily based on what you need. “What your skin might need on a Monday morning is different than what it might need on a Thursday night,” she says.

Knowing when to take a break from harsh active ingredients is equally as important as knowing which products to use to begin with, says Barba. “Learn to read your skin to make sure that you know when to stop, because too much of a good thing can cause irritation,” she advises. “A lot of young people have to deal with hydroxies and acid and retinol (which are all used to treat acne) and these tend to be irritating. So just be careful, if you find that it’s over-exfoliating, it’s ok to take a break.”

Got all that? Now that you have all of the information you need to start rebuilding your beauty routine, here are the five active ingredients you should add to your arsenal.