What are Face Acids?

The thought of using skincare acids might scare you. The word “acid” conjures up images of scary chemical burns and bubbling test tubes – who wants to put that in their face? But if you comprehend skincare science, you will discover that incorporating the suitable acids in your beauty routine can be beneficial in addressing different skincare concerns.

Face acids are sold in the market as miracle products used to fight wrinkles, age spots, acne, scarring, and uneven skin tone. But with so many acids in the market, it can be overwhelming to remember which to use and for what.

What are Acids?

Acids are a skincare ingredient used for exfoliation. Chemical exfoliation is one of the best things you can do to remove dead skin cells and reveal healthy, youthful, glowing skin. You can find acids in skincare products, such as:

  • Cleansers
  • Toners
  • Peels
  • Scrubs
  • Masks
  • Moisturizers

The purpose of acids is to exfoliate the skin. There are two main groups of skincare acids: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Both of them loosen the fluid that binds cells to the upper layers of the skin to reveal a smoother, brighter surface. Depending on the strength, the product may remove the dead skin cells from the surface or remove the whole outermost layer. Sometimes, the shedding can be visible to the naked eye.

Both AHAs and BHAs are used for the following purposes:

  • Removing dead skin cells
  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Decreasing appearance of large pores, wrinkles, and fine lines
  • Making skin tone even
  • Improving overall skin texture
  • Unclogging pores to prevent acne

Two Main Types of Face Acids

Here’s how the two acid groups differ:

1. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Alpha hydroxy acids are derived from food and plant sources like milk, sugar, and fruits. These are water-soluble and work mostly on the skin’s surface, making them an excellent option for skin brightening, improving textural issues, and removing fine lines. AHAs are suitable for exfoliating the outer layer of the skin, leaving it brighter, with even skin tone and texture. Since they don’t penetrate the pores as deeply, they are best for addressing surface skin issues.

Generally, AHAs are well-tolerated by most skin types, but experts suggest that people with sensitive skin use AHAs carefully. Sensitive and extremely dry skin types may get irritated with these acids. AHAs are the most common acids used for the skin.

All AHAs offer significant exfoliation, but the effects and uses slightly differ between types of acids. When using AHAs, apply them every other day at first until your skin gets used to them. This will help prevent side effects like redness and irritation. But no matter which AHA you choose, make sure you wear sunscreen every morning after applying face acids because the strong exfoliating products can make your skin more sensitive to the damaging rays of the sun.

Proper use of AHAs for the long term can reveal fresher, refined skin that looks smoother, more hydrated, and visibly firmer. If you aim to look younger for longer, consider adding an AHA product to your skincare routine.

  • Glycolic acid – The most common of AHAs. It’s the gold standard because of its track record of impressive results among users of different ages and skin types. It can penetrate the uppermost layers of skin to reveal better and younger-looking skin underneath. Glycolic acid is made from sugar cane and is found in several peels and other daily skincare products.
  • Lactic acid – Can be derived from milk, but the synthetic form is most often used in skincare products. It functions like glycolic acid but a bit slower. It’s known for its significant anti-aging and exfoliation effects.
  • Citric acid – Made from citrus fruit extracts, but it can also be made synthetically. It functions as the skin’s pH neutralizer and works to even out rough patches of skin.
  • Mandelic acid – Contains larger molecules from almond extracts. It’s usually combined with other AHAs to increase exfoliation but can improve texture and minimize pores when used alone.
  • Tartaric acid – Occurs naturally in grapes but can also be made synthetically. It exfoliates skin like glycolic or lactic acids, but it helps keep the pH range that other AHAs need to work. It also helps alleviate signs of acne and sun damage.

2. Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)

Meanwhile, beta hydroxy acids bind to oil, unlike AHAs that bind with water. Because BHAs are oil-soluble, they can break through bacteria buildup, remove oil and dead skin cells in the pore lining, and dissolve it. It’s great for unclogging pores for oily and acne-prone skin. It’s also suitable for protecting the skin against sun damage and reducing rosacea-related redness.

BHAs can penetrate the skin deeper than AHAs, making them suitable only for oily or acne-prone skin. People with sensitive skin must use it use these products with caution since they can be drying.

BHA in skincare products are designed to be safe for daily use, but you may need to apply them a few times a week at first until your skin gets used to it. Unlike AHAs, BHAs don’t make your skin more sensitive to the sun, but still, you need to wear sunscreen when going out.  

  • Salicylic acid – the most common BHA. Its most known as a treatment for acne, but it can also be used to calm down general redness and inflammation.

Besides AHAs and BHAs, there are lesser-known acids used for skincare. And there’s the popular hyaluronic acid, which is technically an acid but is really a humectant best known for its water retention and moisturizing properties.

What Acid to Use

Choosing the type of acid to pick and use for your skin is a tricky part of skincare. The easiest way to decide is to identify the problem you want to treat.

If you have acne-prone skin, choose from:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Azelaic acid
  • Mandelic acid

If you have mature skin, choose from:

  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Ferulic acid

If you need to fade pigmentation on your skin, choose from:

  • Glycolic acid
  • Kojic acid
  • Azelaic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Linoleic acid
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Ferulic acid

Tips for Using Face Acids

These are some essential tips and bits of information to remember before using face acids:

  1. The higher the concentration of the acid in a product, the more likely it will irritate the skin. Always do a patch test before use, or better yet, start with a lower concentration before moving up.
  2. You cannot pick which hydroxy acid is better than the other, as both are highly effective methods of deep exfoliation. It lies on the needs of your skin, as what is most suitable for your skin type.
  3. Most acids offer various benefits for the skin. Since they come in different formulations, it’s possible to use more than one. Check the ingredient list to ensure the acid you are looking for is an active ingredient, listed near the top and not at the end part of the list.
  4. Organize your acids between daytime and nighttime use because it’s not beneficial for your skin to put them all on at the same time. Some acids may interact with others, which can cause unwanted effects like dryness and irritation. Here are some guidelines about what not to do when using skincare products with acids:
  • Avoid using salicylic acid with other skincare products that contain niacinamide.
  • Do not use salicylic acid with another acid simultaneously, as it may cause extreme skin irritation.
  • Don’t mix ascorbic acid with lactic acid or glycolic acid. This will cause the ascorbic acid’s benefit to disappear before it even starts working.
  • Avoid using AHAs along with retinol-based products.
  • Do not layer AHAs and BHAs on top of one another. It’s best to alternate products by using one in the morning and the other at night. You may also use AHAs and BHAs on alternating days.