If you’re on the hunt for glowing, smoother, and more even-toned skin, you may have heard of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). But what are AHAs? What products should you use? All of this can be overwhelming, but consider this your cheat sheet on all things AHA. We’ll cover everything from how they work to what they do for your skin, and how to incorporate them into your skincare routine.
What are AHAs?
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds that are most often derived from plant-based sources. There are different types of AHAs with some of the most common being glycolic acid, malic acid, and lactic acid. While they all exfoliate the surface of the skin, they differ in molecule size and, subsequently, penetration levels.
The smaller the molecule, the deeper the exfoliating acid penetrates the skin. However, increased penetration can also lead to a higher risk for irritation, particularly for sensitive skin. It is therefore important to choose carefully when deciding on the right product; the acid, concentration and product used are all very important (we’ll cover all that later, don’t worry).
- Exfoliates the top layers of the skin: AHAs exfoliate the surface of the skin by splitting the bonds between dead skin cells. Once cut loose, the cells fall off and encourage the regeneration of new cells. The healthy skin underneath is able to shine through, improving the skin’s overall appearance and radiance.
- Evens texture: The removal of dead skin cells smooths the skin’s surface (it’s not rocket science). But more than that, it also encourages cell regeneration which leads to an overall healthier, more even skin texture.
- Increases collagen production: AHAs are great for anti-ageing purposes, particularly glycolic acid. With smaller molecules, glycolic acid is able to penetrate the skin on a deeper level and promote collagen production. More collagen means a reduced appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Hydration: Most AHAs are humectants which means that they attract water to the skin. Lactic acid is a particularly good choice for those with dry skin as it enhances the skin’s natural moisturizing factors.
Most Common Types of AHAs
- Glycolic Acid: Among all the AHAs, glycolic acid is most popular as it often yields the most impressive results. With smaller molecules, glycolic acid can penetrate the skin on a deeper level to exfoliate the skin more effectively.
- Lactic Acid: With larger molecules, lactic acid performs the same function as glycolic acid at a slower rate. It’s great for sensitive skin as it often gives the same results as glycolic acid, but with less irritation.
- Malic Acid: Malic acid has larger molecules than both glycolic and lactic acid, meaning it does not penetrate the skin as much. While it is still an effective exfoliant, it’s much less irritating to the skin. Malic acid is, however, better known for its antioxidant benefits that can boost radiance and protect the skin’s barrier.
How to Incorporate AHAs into Your Skincare Routine
- Consider which AHA to use
First, you need to think about which acid is best for your skin.
– Glycolic acid is beneficial for all skin types and concerns, particularly uneven textures. Sensitive skin, however, should use lower concentrations of glycolic acid to prevent irritation.
– Lactic acid is best for sensitive, dry and mature skin.
– Malic acid is great for mature and sensitive skin types.
– Oily skin should consider mandelic acid.
- If you’re unsure, choose an AHA blend
A good rule of thumb is to choose a product that blends together lower amounts of different AHAs rather than using a higher concentration of just one. Combining different acids at lower strengths may be less irritating as they penetrate at different levels and offer different hydrating abilities.
- Decide on the best type of product for your skin
You can find AHAs in everything from cleansers to serums to face masks – it’s really up to personal preference when deciding what product to get. However, sensitive skins should first start with wash-off products to limit exposure to the acids. Regardless of your skin type, you should start slow and gradually build up a tolerance before increasing the frequency and strength of your products.
- Be cautious when mixing with other active ingredients
AHAs (and all exfoliating acids, for that matter) can cause irritation when used with certain active ingredients. Be sure to avoid using exfoliating acids with vitamin C, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide. Mixing these ingredients can cause a reaction and an imbalance in the skin’s pH levels, causing excessive dryness, redness and irritation.
- Beware of over-exfoliating
Generally, you should only exfoliate a few times a week depending on your skin type and the products you’re using. It’s super important to first read product instructions to get an idea of its recommended usage. As a general rule of thumb, you should avoid using AHAs on a daily basis unless recommended by specialists (especially if you’re still in your 20s!). For more info, check out The Beginner’s Guide to Exfoliating Acids.
This gentle, leave-on tonic contains glycolic acid as its star ingredient. It is suitable for daily use and assists in tightening and revitalising the skin.
This 5% formulation offers a mild exfoliation that is great for sensitive skin. It is paired with a Tasmanian Pepperberry derivative to help reduce irritations associated with AHA use.
These exfoliating pads are used to soothe and refresh the skin while replenishing moisture. They contain green tea, glycolic and lactic acid to remove dead skin cells, excess sebum and skin impurities. These are great for a deeper exfoliation that can be used around one or twice a week.
This effective, skin-resurfacing toner exfoliates and brightens the complexion in a gentle formula. Its active ingredients include lactic acid and willow bark extract.