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No, no… this isn’t a post about dropping tabs or doing LSD for beauty. I’m not talking about that type of acid. This also isn’t a post about corrosive acid you might find in a battery or any other alarming chemical agents. This post is all about the types of acids that are actually safe and beneficial for your skin.

To the average person, putting acid on your face in the name of looking good sounds like a terrible idea. But devoted skin care enthusiasts know acids aren’t as bad or scary as they sound. Skin care acids typically provide a gentle, non-abrasive exfoliation that go a step above your average cleansers to enhance your glow. And though you may be picturing placing your face on fire, you’ll be relived to know that most acids (when administered properly) don’t cause a burning sensation. There are over 10 acids commonly used in the majority of skin care products but there are 3 acid families: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA), Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), and Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA). Like everything else in skin care, you should only be using an acid that’s appropriate for your skin type.

Which Acid is Right For Me?

If you have a normal/dry skin type and are looking to fade fine lines and other signs of sun damage then AHAs are right for you. AHAs are water soluble and derived from foods such as sugar cane (glycolic acid), sour milk (lactic acid), apples (malic acid), citrus fruits (citric acid), and grapes (tartaric acid). The most effective AHA is glycolic acid as it has the smallest molecular structure enabling it to penetrate easier and deeper into the skin. AHAs work within the stratum corneum (outermost layer of the skin) to effect keratinization. Using products with AHAs are clinically proven to safely boost collagen.

Most AHA products you can buy over the counter (or online) typically contain no more than 10% AHA. Anything above that should be administered by an esthetician or dermatologist because with those higher amounts you can start to feel the burn—for lack of better words—and irritation.

If you have an oily/combination skin type then BHAs are what you’re looking for. BHAs are oil-soluble and only derived from asprin (do not use if you have an allergy to asprin). They can appear on labels as willow bark extract, tropic acid, trethocanic acid, salicylate, beta hydroxybutanoic acid, sodium salicylate, and betaine salicylate. Because BHAs are oil-soluble they are able to penetrate into sebaceous filaments, pores and lift the oil up and out of your skin.

Unlike AHAs, BHAs retain the same amount of efficacy at lower doses so when you read your skin care labels and see one of the aforementioned further down the ingredients list, don’t worry. In addition to decongesting your skin, BHAs are helpful in reducing fine lines and wrinkles and improving skin texture.

If you have sensitive/dehydrated skin type then PHAs are the skin care acids that will work best for you. These are commonly listed as gluconolactone, lactobionic, and maltobionic. While you could probably use AHAs if you had sensitive skin, you might still experience some mild irritation. PHAs (widely considered the next generation of AHAs) have a larger molecular structure, designed to penetrate the skin more slowly, and also acts as a natural humectant. These types of acids don’t have any of the sensitizing side effects that come with traditional AHAs and can be used if you have rosacea or dermatitis.

You will typically find PHAs available in large amounts (30% being the most common). While it wouldn’t be safe to try to use an AHA at such high a concentration, it’s okay to use for PHAs. Again, PHAs have a larger molecular structure and are more gentle.

Top 5 Skin Care Acids (in no particular order)

  1. Glycolic Acid—this is the OG of skin care acids. Its tiny molecular structure allows for the acid to really get in your skin and make a difference by boosting collagen and stimulating cell turnover. While you’ll immediately have a refreshing glow, it is important to use sunscreen liberally immediately following the use of products containing this acid. Glycolic acid is known for causing sun sensitivity.
  2. Mandelic Acid—derived from bitter almonds, this skin care acid is great for oily/acneic skin and for treating hyperpigmentation. This is a great alternative to those with an asprin allergy looking to combat breakouts and it’s also high in antibacterial properties.
  3. Salicylic Acid—if you don’t have an allergy to asprin, this is hand down the best acid for getting control over breakouts and even cystic acne. You can find salicylic and mandelic combined to provide a more powerful exfoliation.
  4. Maltobionic Acid—perfect for getting a smooth texture, firmness, and hydrating the skin.
  5. Tartaric Acid—extremely gentle and packed with antioxidants. You’ll want to use this if you are looking to prevent sun damage.

With any acid, you want to pay close attention to the ingredients/labels and consult your physician to ensure you don’t have any allergies. Avoid using acids if you’re currently on any form of retinol. You should stop retinol use for at least 6 weeks before trying acids.