Acids in skincare sound scary – but they’re actually quite loveable! Not only are they safe (they’ve been used for the last 20 years or so in dermatology) but you can see results in your skin texture and appearance (because they push the skin to regenerate itself) quite quickly after introducing them into your skincare routine. You don’t have to go see a dermatologist for a peel anymore (though you can of course for a stronger treatment) as they have been added into a variety of skincare products – cleansers, toners, masks, serums and even moisturises these days. Acids most commonly are known for their exfoliating properties – and rightly so because they are the bomb when it comes to this function. Acids however don’t only supercharge your skins ability to turn over new skin cells (and keep breakouts at bay) but skin is also able to produce more hyaluronic acid (which is actually a sugar not an acid) leaving skin more moisturised (yep, our skin produces hyaluronic acid naturally!) and collagen which firms your skin. I have always preferred acids over physical scrubbing, as if chosen and used correctly, they won’t break down your skins lipid barrier (your skins protection mechanism) and are more kind to your skin.
There is two types of acids commonly used in skincare and dermatological treatments – alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). It’s crucial to know the difference between both so you know what kinds of acids will suit your skin’s needs best. The main difference between AHAs and BHAs is their solubility. BHAs are oil soluble, so this means that they can sink into the pores of your skin easily, getting past the gunk lying on your skins surface and into the pores even if they are blocked by oil and other impurities – exfoliating skin cells from within pores. BHAs are superb at getting rid of blackheads, whiteheads and make pores seem ‘smaller’ because they lessen skin congestion and make your skin clearer. The main BHA used in skin care is salicylic acid (you will see this ingredient in most acne prone skin care lines). While AHAs are not oil soluble and are only water soluble, they work at refining skin texture – especially when it comes to refining fine lines, wrinkles and surface scars (like hyper-pigmentation, which occurs after a breakout or a deeper pimple). This makes AHAs perfect for sun damaged skin, skin prone to all types of pigmentation, skin already showing the signs of ageing (wrinkles or dehydration lines) and skin with bumps and a ‘rougher texture’.
While topical skincare treatments used at home containing acids are more delicate than salon/dermatological treatments, this does not mean that they don’t work well. The key to achieving results at home is to use products containing acids consistently, as directed by the instructions on the packaging. You can use multiple products containing acids, however you should introduce them slowly into your skin routine and adjust the use of acids depending on your skins needs. Over doing anything (even if it’s a good thing) can be counter-productive, so either stick to using a serum consistently (which tend to be quite strong), or use more gentler forms of BHAs/AHAs regularly (like toners and moisturises, paired with a hydrating serum instead to counteract any irritation). Serums and masks containing acids should be used in the evening only (or concentrated toners) since they contain the highest concentration of acids and you may notice some slight irritation when using them, especially for the first time. When using any kinds of acids in your skincare routine, be aware that they can make your skin more sensitive to the suns rays. This also makes sunscreen a must for the morning – you don’t want to be working to remove pigmentation and treat sun damage and then expose your sensitive skin to more sun spots by not using sunscreen. Any kind of skin irritation hates the sun, so just keep this in mind!
So who can benefit from using acids? Everyone! Younger skin also benefits from acids, because they help keep breakouts at bay, brighten dull skin and slows down the ageing process. Once you hit 30-35, cell turnover slows down quite a bit, so skin is left looking sallow and dull. Acids turn this process up a notch, so skin is left feeling smoother, firmer and brighter thanks to acids (an even skin tone makes skin appear more youthful). Sun damaged skin or hormonal pigmentation (which can arise during pregnancy as melanin products seems to go into overdrive during this time) will benefit from acids. Skin regenerates itself at night, while during the day it defends itself, so if you’ve been pulling all nighters or haven’t been sleeping well, your regenerative processes might have been interrupted. A mask containing acids, will help your skin get back on track and look more healthy. If you spend a lot of time in an office where the aircon or heating is blasting and you drink a lot of coffee, your skin might start showing signs of dryness and dehydration. Acids will help your skin shed dry cells so other products can penetrate into your skin and they themselves will hydrate skin by upping hyaluronic acid production etc. If you smoke (which hopefully, everyone is working on quitting in this day and age) acids will help your skin enormously, as your skin will be struggling to shed all the toxins affecting skin cells (which also block the flow of oxygen to cells). This is why smokers tend to have dull and yellowish complexions.
I need to get my hands on this mask from Rodial full of delicious acids (glycolic acid and fruit extracts), since there are nights that I don’t sleep well and I spend long days in city smog…
What acids are most commonly used in skincare products and which one will suit me best? Let’s see!
Glycolic Acid – An AHA derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid’s molecules are super small (probably the smallest of all acids) so they absorb into the skin very well. For this reason, glycolic acid is really popular in take home skin care products. Glycolic acid really smooths the skin and any surface irregularities, evening out skin tone so it appears more youthful and refined. One of the best products containing glycolic acid is Alpha-H’s Liquid Gold. Containing two active ingredients, glycolic acid (5%) and licorice extract, both ingredients work to even out skin tone, lighten pigmentation and retexturise the skin. The formulation also contains glycerin to help counteract dryness to soothe the skin. This product is interesting because it’s like a toner, but a super charged one, so you may want to skip your nightly serum when using this since it contains actives (or pop a hydrating serum/moisturiser over the top).
Isn’t my sample of Alpha-H Liquid Gold cute?
You can find Liquid Gold at Adore Beauty for $48.88 with free shipping – yay!
AHA’s can be quite irritating, so if you have sensitive skin or highly pigmented skin (your skin might be highly reactive if this is the case) you might want to use one of the gentler AHAs out there or a different type of acid. Some ‘gentler’ acids include;
- Lactic acid – An AHA, derived from sour milk and yogurt, lightly exfoliates and hydrates the skin. Lactic acid hydrates exceptionally well, as it stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid in the skin via a skin healing mechanism. Lactic acid is a natural trigger for hylauronic acid synthesis and deposition in the skin, more so than any other AHA. While full fat, natural yogurt doesn’t contain as much lactic acid as some skincare products out there (which tend to be more concentrated) you can use natural yogurt as an easy and gentle ‘exfoliating’ DIY mask at home. For more info, check out my One Hit Wonders post on yogurt here.
- Mandelic acid – An AHA, derived from a bitter almond solution, exfoliates the top layer of the skin like other AHAs, but is also anti-microbial. Because of its anti-microbial activity, acne sufferers may prefer mandelic acid, especially combined with salicylic acid (more on salicylic acid down below).
- Citric acids – AHAs derived from citrus fruits and corn, also exfoliate the skin well, by breaking down a protein that bonds living cells to dead cells, allowing the dead cells to fall a part. Citric acids used in peels and other over the counter products, eliminate fine lines, refine skin texture, treat skin discolouration and scars. *Note* Firstly, rubbing citrus fruits onto your skin is NOT the same as using isolated citric acid formed in a lab. Why? Citrus fruits themselves don’t contain a huge amount of citric acid to begin with (labs usually ferment a special type of fungus called aspergillus niger, in order to create larger amounts of citric acid) and these amounts vary from fruit specimen to fruit specimen, so you never really know how much citric acid you are putting on your skin. Secondly, citrus fruits contain citric oils which are photo-toxic, which make your skin highly reactive to UV light. Allergic reactions to the sun can swiftly follow after using lemon on your face (I say lemon because this comes up in DIY masks all the time). Citrus fruits can also upset the ph barrier of your skin, exposing it to hyper sensitivity when the lipid barrier breaks down.
- Malic acid – An AHA derived from apples and grapes, exfoliates and stimulates collagen production within the skin.
- Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) – This is somewhat a ‘new’ type of acid, similar to AHAs, except that they have larger molecules which means they can’t sink into the epidermis quite as much and are as a result, less irritating (very sensitive skin rejoice!). PHAs come in the forms of galactose (a sugar used for glycosaminoglycan and collagen synthesis and cell migration), gluconolactone and lactobionic acid. They also exfoliate the skin well, improve the skins barrier function (big plus for very sensitive skin) and also have some antioxidant properties, protecting skin from free radical tissue breakdown and helps repair sun damage including pigmentation. From what I’ve researched online, NeoStrata hold a patent for gluconolactone – however I think this is to be able to promote the ingredient as an anti-wrinkle ingredient. Either way, NeoStrata love their PHA’s and you can find them in their products. I especially like the sound of their Bionic Lotion which contains 12 percent gluconolactone and 3 percent lactobionic acid.
The best acids for oily and acne prone skins are salicylic acid (a BHA), Pyruvic Acid (PA) and lipohydroxy acid (LHA). Salicylic acid as I mentioned above, is oil soluble, and can sink into pores and exfoliate them from within, minimising impurities and blocked pores. Pyruvic acid stimulates collagen production, elastin and has some antiseptic properties. LHA can also penetrate into the pores and is bacteria zapping! It’s great at exfoliation because it works more slowly, but also lessens irritation. It’s also anti-inflammatory and has a similar ph to the skin (5.5), it can be used in conjuction with retinols and vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), if used on its own. SkinCeuticals have some great skincare products LHA, including a cleanser and toner (the LHA Cleansing Gel and LHA Solution).
The other two acids worth mentioning are kojic acid and l-ascorbic acid (vitamin C). They might not have the exfoliating powers of the other acids mentioned, but they lighten skin tone/pigmentation excellently and prevent new pigmentation from arising. Kojic acid is made from fermented mushrooms and is used predominately for it’s skin lightening abilities. Japanese skincare products looove Kojic acid. It balances skin tone and helps to fade age spots, hyperpigmentation (from past acne), as well as sun spots. Kojic acid halts the production and over-production of melanin. It can be a little unstable in water, but Medik8 for example have come up with a nifty solution for this problem. In their White Balance Click serum, the kojic acid is stored in the cap of the product as a powder. Once you are ready to use the product, you press down on the cap and the powder releases into the serum base. Your serum is then ‘fresh’ and potent, ready to use. You receive two little bottles in a pack, which is such a brilliant idea. Each little bottle also has a coloured strip on it, so you can compare the colour of the serum with the strip to see if it has darkened over time (if it has, it’s best to move onto bottle no. 2 as it has become unstable). L-ascorbic acid on the other hand is a powerful antioxidant, which you should use in the morning. Studies using 15% or more l-ascorbic acid have shown to brighten skin tone and lighten sun spots. Along with added vitamin E, the vitamins work synergistically, protecting skin from UVA/UVB rays, decomposing damaged collagen and triggering new collagen production. As an anti-oxidant, the vitamin also protects the skin from free radicals and oxidative stress. Using a vitamin C serum in the morning (which uses l-ascorbic acid and vitamin E) and then using another type of acid in the evenings (either every evening or every second) is perfect.
So what acids do I use? When and how?
Every second evening I use my Ultraceuticals Even Skintone Serum. I alternative between this serum and my Futurederm Time-Release Retinol 0.5% *note* don’t use acids in conjunction with retinol! Use them separately. I loooove the Even Skin Tone serum because it keep breakouts out bay, unclogs blackheads and pores, and rexturises my skin so it is smooth and so clear! Let’s hope and pray they continue making it forever, because it is one of my few tried and tested staples. I have been using this guy for YEARS. All those years ago it helped get my acne under control and now it keeps working to keep my skin clear and fine! It uses citric acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid to do the job. It also contains bearberry leaf extract (to help lighten pigmentation), glycerin and niacinamide (vitamin B3). Niacinamide is one of my favourite skin care ingredients because it reduces glycation (which can result in the yellowing of the skin with age or sallowness), reduces the distribution of melanin so it evens out skin tone, reduces hyper-pigmentation and ups ceramide synthesis so your skin is more hydrated. Ultraceuticals have a version of this serum for sensitive skin called the Even Skintone Serum Mild. The mild version is the perfect serum to start off using if you are new to acids (I used to use this version, and then I moved up the ‘original’ concentration). They also do a concentrate for very problematic skin.
In the mornings, I use my Medik8 White Balance Click serum as a spot treatment (on stubborn pigmentation spots) underneath my vitamin C serum. I’m onto my second little bottle and after I finish it, I will give my skin a break from it for a while. It has lightened a stubborn sun spot I had on my cheek. It’s very light and I luckily haven’t experience any irritation from the kojic acid. The serum also contains lactic acid and niacinamide (bonus!).
On top of my Medik8 White Balance Click ‘spot treatment’, I use my Futurederm CE Caffeic Silk Serum 16+2 serum. The serum contains 16% L-ascorbic acid (8% of which is microencapsulated so it releases into the epidermis slowly), 2% vitamin E and caffeic acid (an antioxidant). It now comes in an airless pump which is awesome! L-ascorbic acid can oxidise quite quickly thanks to air and sunlight, so this is such a great development. The ‘new’ CE Caffeic serum also contains avacado and grapseed oil (hydrating and anti-oxidant benefits). It’s suspended in a silicone formula so that your moisturiser and makeup sit on top of the serum beautifully. The serum makes sure that my skin is protected throughout the day (while night time products should help your skin regenerate). As I hinted above, I plan to get the Rodial Super Acids X-Treme Hangover Mask (how great is the name?) soon, and when I do test it out, I will let you know of the effects etc.
Do you use acids in your skincare routines beauties? Are there any products containing acids that you swear by? If you don’t, is it something you will now look into? I know this post is a little long, but I wanted to talk through the subject thoroughly :) Having the right information makes choosing skincare products so much more easy and more effective in the long run. So I hope this post has been helpful!
Until next time beauties,