Acids Abound: Which One is Right for You?

August 3, 2017


Hydroxy acids are touted as skincare staples that can resurface your skin, revealing smoother, brighter, and more even-toned skin. However, when used incorrectly hydroxy acids can cause stinging, redness and even an unanticipated trip to the dermatologist (yikes!). To help you avoid all of those undesirable consequences and take advantage of their benefits, let’s start with understanding the basics of hydroxy acids.


Simply, hydroxy acids work by weakening the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together thereby encouraging exfoliation or removal of the dead skin cell layer to expose newer, healthy skin cells. The two types of hydroxy acids are: Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxyl acids (BHAs). AHAs and BHAs are both derived from food and plant-based sources, including sour milk, sugarcane, and citrus fruits. The major difference between them is that AHAs are water-soluble (dissolves in water) and BHAs are oil-soluble, making BHAs a better option for those with oily skin. The most common AHAs used in skincare are lactic, glycolic, citric, and mandelic acids. Currently, the only known BHA is salicyclic acid, which is typically found in acne treatments as well as anti-aging creams.


Let’s get into more detail about each of these hydroxy acids and which would be a good fit for you:


Lactic acid


  • Most commonly derived from sour milk

  • Low to medium concentration strength can increase skin thickness and firmness as well as decrease fine lines

  • Shown to slow down melanin production, decreasing the development of sun spots


GOOD FOR general exfoliation and skin lightening, sensitive or darker skin



Glycolic acid


  • Natural sources include sugarcane, pineapple, and unripe grapes

  • Is smallest in molecular size compared to other AHAs, making it penetrate the deepest and fastest into skin

  • Because it can reach the deepest layer of the skin, it is the most effective in promoting collagen production and reducing wrinkle formation

  • Draws moisture to skin and increases hyaluronic acid (natural lubricant) levels in skin


GOOD FOR mature skin, dry skin



Citric acid


  • Derived from citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges, and grapefruit

  • An antimicrobial agent that helps destroy bacteria associated with acne

  • Increases skin cell production, but not as effective as glycolic acid in diminishing dark spots


GOOD FOR sensitive or darker skin, acne-prone skin



Mandelic acid


  • Naturally found in wild cherry and bitter bark

  • Effective in enhancing skin firmness, reducing skin discoloration, and treating acne

  • Is a larger molecule (doesn't penetrate as deep into skin), so works better on sensitive skin types

  • Doesn’t trigger a post-inflammatory response or pigmentation

  • Antimicrobial property helps fight against acne


GOOD FOR sensitive or dark skin, acne-prone skin



Salicylic acid


  • Found in willow bark

  • Can reach deep down into pores to help dissolve and clear away debris and oil that can lead to acne

  • Because it can dissolve oil, it can unplug pores and clear away acne as well as prevent formation of new acne and blackheads

  • Maintains anti-inflammatory property which helps to soothe skin and doesn’t cause hyper-pigmentation

  • Most effective in combating acne when paired with an antibacterial ingredients


GOOD FOR sensitive skin or darker skin, acne-prone (when combined with antibacterial agent)


Regardless of which hydroxy acid you decide to incorporate into your skincare routine, make sure to start with the lowest concentration and work your way up until you find a concentration that’s most tolerable for your skin. As always, make sure to wear sunscreen daily, especially since hydroxy acids can make your skin more sensitive to UV radiation. Lastly, if you’re pregnant make sure to consult with your physician about including acids into your skincare regimen, as it can be potentially harmful.


Have you tried any hydroxy acids? Which seem to work best for you? Share below!

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