Skincare ABC’s: ‘A’ is for Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Hey friends! Today, we are kicking off the Skincare ABC’s series with the letter ‘A’ (duh)… and an ingredient that happens to be one of my absolute favorites for anti-aging: Alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA).
I know any product with the word “Acid” in it probably immediately incites panic in a there-is-no-way-I’m-putting-acid-on-my-face kind of way… and I totally get it. But hopefully, with a little more information, you’ll understand why AHA’s can be such a great tool in your skincare regime.

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WHAT are AHAs?
Let’s start with the basics: AHA’s are a range of acids including (and derived from):

  •  Glycolic acid: sugar cane
    • Generally, the most effective AHA because it penetrates deeper to stimulate fibroblast cells to aid in collagen production (Fancy science terminology for “it will stimulate the production of substances that keep your skin nice and plump”). Glycolid acid will exfoliate the skin by increasing cell turnover (more young, healthy skin cells!), even skin tone, and build the support structure in the dermal matrix reducing wrinkles.
  • Lactic acid: milk
    • A more ‘gentle’ acid than glycolic. It acts more like a pac-man, slowly eating away at the glue holding your old skin cells together.
  • Mandelic acid: apples, pears, almonds
    • A better choice for those with oily skin, since the molecules can penetrate even the greasiest of skins. Mandelic is also antibacterial and can reduce oiliness without drying the skin out.
  • Citric and Tartaric acid : oranges and lemons/grapes
    • Very gentle acids that can also act as antioxidants.

Lactic and glycolic acids are the most commonly used acids in cosmetic products. These acids act as liquid exfoliants for the top layer of our skin, and essentially help break down the “glue” that holds our old, yucky, dead skin cells together. This is quite a bit different from ‘manual’ exfoliants (such as scrubs) that physically exfoliate skin by scraping off skin cells from the top layer. Use of AHAs can do a wide range of magical things for our skin, including smoothing fine lines and wrinkles, improving skins texture and tone, and may also stimulate collagen (important for keeping the skin nice and firm!). These acids are also water-soluble, so they do not penetrate deeply below the top layer of skin.

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WHO could benefit from their use?
Just about everyone! I would say it is great to start incorporating anti-aging treatments into your skincare routine in your 20’s. Taking good care of your skin from an early age will help it stay beautiful forever.
WHEN should I use AHAs?
While exact timing of use for AHAs isn’t necessarily important, you will notice that most skincare products containing AHAs will recommend using the product at night. The main reason for this is that AHAs are a chemical exfoliant- by applying an AHA, you are helping to shed your top layer of skin cells. When you exfoliate the ‘dead’ upper layer, you’ll see smoother, bouncier, ‘younger’ looking skin on top. However, in order to protect this new ‘younger’ skin, it is critical that you use SPF. After all, sun damage is one of the biggest causes of visible skin aging- why would we want to expose the baby skin we just worked so hard to get to possible UV damage?
HOW do I use AHAs?
I thought you would never ask 😊 AHAs can be formulated in a multitude of different ways, so you could expect to find them in a wide array of products, including cleansers, toners, serums, and moisturizers. Stronger formulations may be sold as a wash-off mask. Most products with AHAs will contain glycolic or lactic acid. When shopping for these products, there are a few other things to keep in mind:
• pH of the product- since these products are acids, they will have a specific pH range in which they are most effective. The most effective range tends to be a pH of 3-4.
• Concentration of the acid, ie: how much acid is contained in the product. In general, the most-effective over-the-counter products will range from 5-8%. Concentrations much higher than this are generally too strong to be left on the skin, or need to be administered by a trained esthetician or dermatologist. These higher concentration (as high as 50-70%) acids can also lead to skin peeling, a common outcome of treatments such as a chemical peel.
As a general rule, if you are new to AHAs, it is best to start slow, and allow your skin to adjust to the use of AHAs. I would suggest starting with a lower concentration AHA, and only using it 1-2 a week to start. Gradually, you can build up to using it more frequently, or using a higher concentration.

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“Good” products containing AHAs:
These are just a small number of products I have personally tried and enjoyed. Keep in mind that everyone’s skin is different, so what works for me, may not be what is best for you. All of these products fall within an ‘appropriate’ pH range, and therefore would be considered scientifically effective and safe for use. I have linked the items along with the descriptions 🙂

Biologique RechercheLotion P50 1970 – My holy grail AHA acid toner! This stuff is fairly strong, but its my all-time favorite acid product. It is a little more difficult to get ahold of, since this brand doesn’t sell their products in store fronts. You have to purchase from a spa or clinic. I ordered mine online from a spa in Philadelphia (if you’d like this info, leave a comment/message and I can send it to you).

Sunday RileyGood Genes – This is probably one of the most cult-y skincare products on the market. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like this acid treatment. The nifty thing about this particular product is that it contains acid as well as a host of soothing ingredients that help your skin from getting irritated by the strength of the acid.

The OrdinaryLactic Acid 10% + HA – The budget-friendly alternative to Sunday Riley’s Good Genes treatment. This is a leave-treatment that is as close as you are going to get to the real deal at a fraction of the cost. I still prefer Good Genes, but will probably always keep this on hand due to the affordability. At less than $7, this product is an absolute steal! There is also a 5% Lactic Acid solution available for those with more sensitive skin, or for those new to acids.

Drunk ElephantTLC Sukari Babyfacial– This is anther one of my favorite products. It comes in the form of a weekly treatment wash-off mask. It packs a fairly potent punch in terms of exfoliation, but somehow feels more gentle on the skin than any other acid mask I have ever tried. However, if you are new to acids, or have very sensitive skin, rosacea, etc. this is not for you.

The OrdinaryAHA 30% + BHA 2% – Another budget friendly (less than $8!!) version of a high-end product. This is chemically very similar to Drunk Elephants Babyfacial treatment. This is a (maximum) ten minute mask that can be used once a week or so to do some heavy duty exfoliating. This is NOT a product for beginners!! This would be far too intense for someone just starting to use acids. It is also worth noting that this product is a combo AHA/BHA, so you are getting two different exfoliants in one.


Phew. So that was a lot of information, but I hope you found it informative/helpful! Please feel free to reach out/comment/message if you have any questions.

-Amanda Kennedy

Follow along on Instagram: @amandadev4

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