Hyaluronic acid. Salicylic acid. Lactic acid. Sometimes, browsing the skincare aisle to look for the best serum can feel like chemistry class. While labels like “suitable for sensitive skin” or “for oily skin types” help, it may still be hard to look for “the one” serum or “the one” toner you can entrust your skin with.
Knowing the differences between the types of skincare acid is essential for targeting your skin concerns. Skincare acids induce cell necrosis or cell turnover. It means that it causes older cells to shed and new ones to grow, thus improving skin texture and appearance. However, different acids target specific skincare concerns, depending on their strength and molecular size. Some acids treat acne and hyperpigmentation, while some target wrinkles and fine lines.
At first, it may seem overwhelming trying to figure out if you need one acid over the other, but it’s not necessary to get into the scientific details of each acid. It may help, but as long as you remember the best ones for your skin type and concerns, that’s all that really matters.
Here are some key details to help you in choosing the best face acids for your needs:
1. Glycolic acid
Glycolic acid, which is derived from sugarcane, is one of the most common acids used in skincare products, including chemical peels. It gently exfoliates the skin, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, and decreases the appearance of fine spots. It can regenerate collagen, deepen the skin, and help treat acne and acne scars.
Glycolic acid is the most popular alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) used in skincare, and it’s highly effective in getting into the skin, thanks to its small molecules. It’s a fantastic anti-aging agent.
Due to its abilities, this acid is excellent for aging and mature skin, as well as oily skin. It is well-tolerated by almost all skin types. But if you have sensitive skin, consult a dermatologist first before trying glycolic acid because it has a higher chance of producing irritation. Or choose a product with a lower percentage of glycolic acid. This product is not recommended to people with eczema or other sensitive skin conditions because it can cause a reaction.
Glycolic acid is also used in peels to treat acne and pigmentation, and sometimes in tandem with micro-needling or microdermabrasion. However, it can also increase sun sensitivity, so you need to use sunscreen to prevent excessive sun damage.
2. Lactic acid
Also, an AHA, lactic acid, is a gentle exfoliator. It has the second smallest molecule out of all face acids. It’s milder than glycolic acid and draws moisture into the skin, making it a great hydrating agent. It’s usually found in milk, but it can be synthetically made. This acid is gentle enough for people with sensitive skin.
Lactic acid improves the firmness of the skin and makes it smooth. It breaks down the “glue” that holds the dead skin together so it can act as an exfoliant. This type of acid is helpful for people who struggle with dry skin, aging, or uneven skin tone. It can also be used to correct age spots, fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and an overall dull complexion.
Though it may help with mild acne, it’s not generally recommended for eczema sufferers.
3. Malic acid
Malic acid is a type of AHA that the body produces naturally. It helps the skin retain moisture, promote cell turnover rate, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It can also soften and improve the texture of the skin. Malic acid is also a humectant, which helps it to draw moisture in and help the skin retain its moisture.
Malic acid is not as strong as other acids because of its larger molecule size, which cannot penetrate as deeply as other acids. It’s often combined with other kinds of acids like glycolic and lactic acids to give off the best benefits.
It’s best suited for mature, sensitive, and combination skin types. It doesn’t cause irritation to the skin, and it gently exfoliates.
4. Citric acid
Extracted from citrus fruits, citric acid is an AHA that helps exfoliate the skin and get rid of dead skin cells. It’s a great face acid to use if you’re looking for something that will brighten the skin, improve dullness, and reduce discoloration. By stimulating skin cells, citric acid can also help improve the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
Citric acid is an excellent option for those who want the benefits of an exfoliant but are unable to tolerate other products that contain stronger acids.
Along with other exfoliants, people with sensitive skin must take caution before using products containing citric acid.
5. Salicylic acid
If you’ve ever bought an acne treatment, you’re probably familiar with salicylic acid. It’s the most popular face acid, which is an agent for minimizing breakouts. It has been used for a long time – often found in the form of cleansers, toners, and serums, as well as in spot treatments for acne.
Salicylic acid is the most common beta hydroxy acid (BHA) with comedolytic properties, which means it can penetrate deep within the skin and unclog the pores. It can also help break down the topmost layer of the skin to dissolve dead skin cells. In higher concentrations, salicylic acid can be used as a peeling agent for acne scars, age spots, melasma, and sun damage in dermatology clinics. It’s also used in wart and corn removal solutions.
If you’re suffering from oily skin or acne breakouts, salicylic acid is your best bet. It’s effective for acne-prone skin.
The structure of salicylic acid is similar to that of aspirin, so if you’re allergic to the drug, keep away from salicylic acid. Also, take caution if you have sensitive skin because it can often be drying. If you have acne-prone, sensitive skin, always apply moisturizer over the salicylic acid after it has dried.
6. Hyaluronic acid
If you’ve seen people rave on social media about products that give them dewy skin, it’s probably because of the hyaluronic acid. It’s technically an acid because its pH is lower than neutral, but it’s more of a humectant known for its ability to attract and retain moisture. It can absorb up to 1,000 times its own weight in water and aids in trapping the moisture against the surface of the skin.
The body naturally produces hyaluronic acid, so it can help give the skin a youthful glow. It can leave the skin looking plump and hydrated and soften the appearance of wrinkles.
All skin types can benefit from hyaluronic acid, especially people with mature, dry, and dehydrated skin. It helps keep aging skin firm and plump by boosting its hydration levels. It’s also the perfect hydrator for those with oily skin, for it offers a more lightweight texture than other emollients or oils you may find for dry and hydrated skin.
7. Ascorbic acid
The most common water-soluble form of vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is an essential vitamin and antioxidant that can help reduce skin issues like hyperpigmentation and protect it from radical damage and oxidative stress. It is used in skin care for its anti-aging effects and benefits and has been used as a substitute for hydroquinone in treating melasma.
Due to its high acidity, ascorbic acid triggers the skin to heal itself by accelerating collagen and elastin production to make the skin look firmer. It can inhibit the production of melanin by preventing the development of dark spots and hyperpigmentation.
It’s recommended to use ascorbic acid in a serum form in the morning before applying moisturizer and sunscreen. It works well if you’re looking to solve hyperpigmentation concerns.
All types of skin can use ascorbic acid, but it will primarily benefit people with uneven skin tones. It’s also beneficial for mature skin. If you have sensitive skin, take caution, avoid ascorbic acid, or use it in a lower dosage.
8. Retinoic acid
Also known as retinoids, retinoic acid is a derivative of vitamin A that helps stimulate cell turnover and increase collagen production. It has been shown to offer excellent results in treating aging skin and preventing wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. It exfoliates and improves the thickness of the skin.
OTC retinol products are converted to retinoic acid when applied to the skin. Meanwhile, prescription products contain retinoic acid in a stronger, more effective formulation and are therefore more expensive.
Retinoic acid is suitable for almost all skin types, except for sensitive skin. It’s best to consult a dermatologist to know the correct ways to use it on your skin and the proper concentration to use. It may irritate the skin, so it’s best to take it on gradually before using a full-strength product. Dermatologists recommend applying the product during the night, starting with a lower concentration and increase slowly.
9. Azelaic acid
Azelaic acid is a saturated dicarboxylic acid that naturally occurs on the skin and can be found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It acts both as an exfoliant and antioxidant. It has been one of the mainstay treatments for fighting acne and is found in a lot of prescription-only creams. It’s frequently combined with retinoids as a milder alternative to hydroquinone.
Azelaic acid can help keep the pores clear, reduce inflammation, and kill bacteria. It can also help in reducing pigmentation in the skin. It’s a great skin-lightening agent that can help fade post-acne marks or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
This acid is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin. It effectively reduces inflammation, so anyone who has rosacea can use this acid to reduce symptoms and to calm their skin. Generally, it has few side effects, but for some people with very sensitive skin, it can cause redness, peeling, and stinging.
10. Mandelic acid
Mandelic acid is an AHA that is derived from almonds and works to exfoliate and smoothen the skin. It can treat acne, wrinkles, melasma, and hyperpigmentation. It can also improve the quality of aged skin by improving its elasticity.
Mandelic acid doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply as glycolic acid because of its larger molecular structure, so it’s less irritating. For this reason, it’s more recommended in peels instead of glycolic acid.
Since it takes time to penetrate the skin, mandelic acid is ideal for dry and sensitive skin, keeping it moisturized by increasing sebum production. This makes it unsuitable for people with oily skin. When used together with salicylic acid, mandelic acid works well for those with skin discoloration issues and darker skin tones. It’s great for people who are battling the signs of aging and hormonal acne.
However, this face acid is to be avoided if you have a nut allergy since this is derived from almonds.
11. Kojic acid
Kojic acid is an AHA with exfoliating benefits, but it’s best known for its skin brightening abilities. It helps reduce sun-induced damage, blemishes, age spots, and scars; plus, it has anti-aging effects. It’s a popular ingredient in Asian skincare products due to its whitening properties – which is an Asian term for decreasing hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone. Kojic acid can suppress tyrosine, the enzyme that produces melanin, and has antibacterial and anti-fungal benefits.
Kojic acid is produced by different types of fungi, especially Aspergillus oryzae, which is known as koji in Japan. This fungus is also a by-product of the fermentation of rice wine and soy sauce.
Anyone with visible sun damage, melasma, or hyperpigmented acne scarring can benefit from using kojic acid. If you use it with other exfoliating AHAs, such as glycolic acid, you will see incremental benefits. It’s pretty safe to use for all skin types, except for sensitive skin.
While kojic acid offers visible results, it can also irritate the skin if it doesn’t suit you. It can also make your skin prone to sunburn. It may even cause contact dermatitis for people with super sensitive skin. Better consult a dermatologist first to see if it’s suitable for you.
12. Ferulic acid
Ferulic acid is a popular antioxidant that is usually found in a serum form alongside vitamin C. It helps stabilize vitamin C, making it more shelf-stable and protecting its potency. Ferulic acid has protective benefits that prevent free radical damage. It can help improve signs of premature aging and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
Ferulic acid is great for mature and aging skin, but it must not be used with other AHA and BHA exfoliating acids because it can alter the skin’s pH levels and inhibit the effectiveness of the antioxidant serum.