The Super Acids of Skincare

We reveal what the most common skin care acids are all about.

Pick up a skincare product and the label will likely focus on a key ingredient that gives that product its superpowers. In this blog we’re going to run through the properties of a few of the most common skincare acids and explain what they do. After each short expose, there is a nugget of golden advice regarding usage of products containing each acid.

Here’s the list of skincare acids we’re going to cover off. We’re sure they’ll be familiar to your skin care cabinet –

  1. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA’s) & Beta-Hydroxy acids (BHA’s) – classes NOT types
  2. Salicylic acid – oil busting anti-inflammatory anti-bacterial
  3. Glycolic acid – a deep exfoliator that shows size doesn’t always matter
  4. Lactic acid – no need to be so rough, a light touch can be effective
  5. Citric Acid – when life gives you lemons, make an exfoliator that protects
  6. Mandelic acid – a friend to those with pigmentation issues
  7. Hyaluronic acid – show me 1000 waters! Dermal fillers anyone?
  8. Retinoic acid (Vitamin A derivative) – there is no greater skincare acid. Period.
Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA’s) & Beta-Hydroxy acids (BHA’s)
These are categories of acids and not acids themselves…

This first one is a bit of a bogey first step because AHA’s and BHA’s are classes of acids, not specific acids themselves.

Saying “this product is AHA” is like saying “this product is shampoo”…okay, it’s a shampoo, but which one? The same goes for BHA’s…saying it’s BHA is not enough, you need to know more.

What’s the difference between them? Simple: Oil and water.

AHA’s will dissolve and work in water based environments but will not be effective in oils. BHA’s will dissolve and work in oils, but not water. Because your skin has water based and oil based elements AHA’s and BHA’s will work to help different aspects of your skins biology and physiology.

Summary – AHA’s work in water. BHA’s work on oils.

Golden Nugget – if a product advertises that it contains ‘AHA’ or ‘BHA’ and doesn’t go into more detail, we wouldn’t advise you put it on your skin without looking at the ingredients more carefully.

Salicylic acid
A BHA which works to control oil and should be found in low concentrations in skincare products.

Salicylic acids superpower is to be found in working with the oil in your skin (sebum). It clears pores clogged with excess oil which is why it’s so often a component of acne and oily skin focused products. The bacteria that thrive in oily pores don’t like it because it’s a mild anti-biotic and if that weren’t enough, it also has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s actually extracted from the bark of the willow tree – just like aspirin.

All this means that while you’ll definitely feel it on your skin, all that means is it’s working and you shouldn’t expect any irritation that does occur to last too long.

Summary: anti-oil, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory.

Golden Nugget – once you’ve gotten your skin’s oil levels under control, daily usage of pads containing salicylic acid are a great way of maintaining your skin’s oil levels.

Glycolic acid
The smallest commonly used AHA which penetrates most deeply making it a super exfoliator.

Mainly because of its size, glycolic acid is one of the most effective exfoliating and gentle peel skincare acids. Its size means it penetrates the skin deeply, removing dead skin cells. This has the effect of regulating your skins turnover cycle, which happens in tandem with collagen and elastin production which is good for fine lines and wrinkles. All in all, it’s the business!

Also the ‘peel’ part shouldn’t frighten you. Peel in this instance refers to the replacement of the very top few layers of skin cells. So while you’ll feel it, and a little redness may occur, you’re not going to be tearing away swathes of your skin after using over the counter glycolic products.

Summary – small, deeply penetrating AHA with excellent exfoliating and skin renewal properties.

Golden Nugget – glycolic acid can be used in relatively high percentage concentrations but it is irritating so for combination or sensitive skin it’s best to start low and build up tolerance to higher levels.

Lactic acid
A smaller AHA that works more gently than glycolic acid making it suitable for exfoliating more sensitive skin

Another AHA which penetrates the skin and exfoliates dead skin cells and debris. It’s effective at improving the way in which your skin turns over and replaces itself but does it in a more gentle way than glycolic acid – it’s this gentleness with effectiveness that makes up lactic acids superpower. Lactic acid products are prefered by people with more sensitive skin. While it’s a different skincare acid altogether, you might consider it like a glycolic-acid-lite.

Summary – gentle exfoliator for sensitive skin types

Golden Nugget – lactic acid is a great way of introducing your skin to skin care acids because it is so gentle.

Citric acid
A gentle exfoliator which offers antioxidant protection – not all heroes wear capes.

Ever wonder why many skin care products smell like lemons or oranges? Citric acid is your answer – it’s literally the same acid found in all the citrus fruits (lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit).

You might have noticed a running theme regarding skin care acids – very few of the do just one thing. Citric acid is no different as it offers a gentle exfoliation as well as providing your skin protection against free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules which are too numerous to list but which exist everywhere in our body. They are also introduced to our skin by the environment all the time. So as well as helping us regulate our skin turnover cycle, the hero that is citric acid also fights off the damage pesky free radicals can cause. HERO!

Summary – a gentle exfoliator with the added benefit of antioxidant protection

Golden nugget – do not smear lemon juice or orange juice on your face, it doesn’t work like that

Mandelic acid
A large acid that micro-exfoliates gently and works against pigmentation

Not new to the game but becoming increasingly appreciated, mandelic acid offers all the general benefits found in most AHA’s with one added perk – it inhibits melanin production. Mandelic acid is usually extracted from almonds.

Pregnant and breastfeeding readers beware, this next bit may well come in very useful in the future due to pregnancy related pigmentation (melasma). As well as gentle exfoliation and therefore regulation of your skins turnover cycle – mandelic acid has been shown to inhibit the production of melanin, which is the chemical responsible for skin discolouration and pigmentation. This makes it a specialist skin care acid in the fight against a very common skin issue for many people – pigmentation issues are hugely prevalent across ALL skin types.

Summary – gentle exfoliator with pigmentation correction superpower

Golden Nugget – Using a product with a small amount of mandelic acid has been shown to prevent pigmentation occurring as severely as well correcting in place pigmentation – so it’s not just for people who suffer from discolouration, it helps prevent it in the first place

Hyaluronic acid
Water, water, water. Hyaluronic acid is 1000 times better than you at it.

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a superpowered water magnet that hydrates the skin like no other. It’s such a magnet that it can attract and hold 1000 times its own weight in water. Not impressed? Unsure of what this means? Well, let me ask you this – could you carry 1000 yous?

The best thing about HA is that it’s naturally occuring in our skin so the risk of irritation is virtually zero. If your skin is being irritated by a product with HA in it – I’d bet my house on it that it’s not the HA component, it’s something else.

Now the molecule itself is pretty big – it’d have to be to be able to hold all that water. So how it works is by resting on the surface of your skin and attracting water from the air. Once it has a hold of it, your body can do the rest.

Hyaluronic acids ability to attract water and therefore volume to where it is has made it the go to product for dermal fillers.

Summary – a super hydrator.

Golden Nugget – If you have dry skin, hyaluronic acid is the skincare acid for you. HOWEVER, most people actually have oily skin presenting as dry skin. As counterintuitive as it seems, our skin health specialists see this misdiagnosis all the time. This is why a skin consultation is always the best first step in skin health at Amara.

Retinoic acid (Vitamin A derivative)

Believe the hype – this is the greatest skincare acid there is.

If you ask any dermatologist, aesthetic doctor or skin specialist which is the one acid they could never give up in their practice – Retinoic acid will win. Every. Time.

A derivative of vitamin A, this skincare acid does so much good I could write an essay about it. I won’t but just read this list:

  • Powerful exfoliator and dissolver of dead skin cells
  • Prevents the sebaceous glands from over producing oil
  • Induces collagen production
  • Increases skin cell turnover
  • Improves skin complexion
  • Protects against free-radicals
  • Improves skin brightness and sun-spot damage

Summary – The superpower superhero of skincare acids. Number 1 on the speed dial of skincare acids for problematic skin.

Golden Nugget – this is a serious skincare acid. It’s benefits are only realised in controlled regimes prescribed by people who have experience using such powerful agents. Please consult someone in the know before attempting to integrate these products into your regime.

A final word on skincare acids and skincare products…

There are hundreds of skincare brands out there and the skincare acids mentioned here can be found in most of them. Like everything however, quality separates the good from the bad. There is no use having one of these ingredients in a cream or serum if the product doesn’t have quality delivery systems so the product is taken to where it can be effective. This is the difference between budget skincare products and the more expensive ones. The more expensive ones are more likely to get these acids to where they can work. Simply having and listing a good acid as an ingredient is not enough.

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