If you’re looking to transform how your skin looks and feels, you have probably heard of AHA or Alpha Hydroxy Acids. This ingredient category is one of the most frequently sought out – and the most commonly misunderstood ingredient. Here, we’ll break down what you need to know about AHAs, what they are, the different kinds, the benefits and pitfalls, and how to make the most of your AHA in your routine.
Included in this Peach Skincare Academy:
What is AHA
AHA or Alpha Hydroxy Acids is a category of ingredients – they can be natural or synthetic – that have the ability to chemically exfoliate the very top layers of our skin. The common trait of AHAs is that they have carboxylic acid replaced with a hydroxyl group on an adjacent carbon. This unifying chemical structure is what allows the AHA to do the work it does on our skin in ungluing dead skin cells and exfoliate effectively.
However, for this to happen, AHAs need to be formulated properly at the right levels and the right pH in some instances.
When AHAs are formulated in the right way, as they exfoliate the dead skin cells off our uppermost layers, skin looks noticeably smoother, feels softer, can be more hydrated and appear much firmer.
This process can also help discoloration like dark spots, red spots or hyperpigmentation look faded more quickly.
AHAs can also help bumps or blemishes, whether that’s breakouts or keratosis pilaris, look and feel dramatically smoother.
Because of the multi-faceted ways AHA can improve skin, this ingredient comes up a lot. However, you may have also heard about many of the pitfalls associated with using AHAs in ways that are not suitable for your skin, including the telltale signs of irritation to a compromised skin barrier for a prolonged period of time.
We have you covered – we’ll break down the best ways to incorporate this superstar ingredient into your routine.
The different kinds of AHA
Glycolic Acid is commonly considered the superstar of the AHAs. It’s the most widely researched (along with lactic acid) and has demonstrated the most stand-out results for all skin types. It has the smallest molecule size out of all the AHAs, which uniquely positions it for the most incredible penetration of that top layer of skin revealing baby-soft, fresh new skin underneath the dead skin cells. Studies also show that glycolic acid naturally hydrates and can help skin “remember” how to retain moisture better. Glycolic acid studies also show that it can effectively target fine lines, wrinkles and loss of firmness helping skin look and feel more lifted, smoother and plumped up. This acid can be derived from sugarcane or can be created in labs, allowing it to be more stable and reliable.
Lactic acid is like a gentler cousin of glycolic acid. Studies show similar benefits of glycolic acid, but the molecule is larger in size. What does this mean? It works more slowly over time and can be gentler than glycolic acid. That said, the gentle nature of the acid cannot be separated from the overall formula and % included. For example, a high percentage of lactic acid in a formula without any soothing ingredients may not be as gentle as a lower percentage of glycolic acid in a formula crafted to calm skin dramatically. As the name implies, lactic acid can be derived from milk as well as created in labs allowing it to be more stable and consistent in delivering results.
Citric Acid is derived from a variety of fruit sources and like the above, can be created in labs, too. Citric acid typically works in formulas in a different way than glycolic acid or lactic acid. They are typically included for antioxidative benefits and can also be used to help adjust a formula’s pH level. To exfoliate skin, studies show they need to be included in concentrations typically higher than 10% and because they are naturally very low in pH (at around a pH of 2.2), at this concentration, they can be very irritating for most people. Research has not yet shown citric acids to be stars at exfoliating. We love them best in formulas for the ways they can help fight off damage from environmental stressors as antioxidants and the clever way they can help adjust pH levels in formulas.
Malic acid is even larger than lactic acid, which is larger than glycolic acid. Malic acid has been shown to have exfoliating benefits but because of its relatively much larger molecule size, the exfoliating action will be quite slow. Therefore, we love seeing malic acid in formulas combined with lactic acid or glycolic acid if exfoliation is the goal of the formula. Malic acid is derived from apples and like the rest above, can also be created in a lab for increased stability and reliability. Malic acid also has antioxidative properties.
Tartaric acid is even larger than malic acid. It’s about double the size of glycolic acid! Formulators may include this acid to help adjust the pH level of an overall formula. For example, glycolic acid needs to be in a lower pH formula to work effectively and tartaric acid can help bring the overall formula’s pH level down so that glycolic acid can do its work. That said, tartaric acid can have exfoliating benefits in its own right, but is known to work much, much slower as compared to glycolic acid. Tartaric acid occurs in grapes and can also be crafted in labs.
Mandelic acid is the largest molecule size of all the AHAs. An interesting twist to mandelic acid is that research shows that it can signal skin to secrete more oil. For dry skin types, this can be an added benefit.
Benefits of using AHA
While the benefits of AHA range based on the specific AHA selected, here we’ll speak to the benefits of the superstar AHA, glycolic acid, as it’s one of the most popular AHAs.
That said, now that you know your different AHA types, when you’re looking at a formula that includes “AHAs,” be sure to check the details on exactly which type of AHA is included and at what percentages to know exactly what you’re getting for your skin.
Glycolic acid is a beloved ingredient for doing a lot of heavy-duty work for skin. Studies show that it exfoliates effectively by ungluing the dead skin cells on the uppermost layers of skin. Think of your dead skin cells like a brick wall, and the glue like the mortar in between the skin cells. Glycolic acid is like dissolving that mortar so that all the dead skin cells are then easily swept off skin. Glycolic acid can also help skin look and feel more plumped up, smoothed out and lifted, which is why it’s included in many formulas that also target fine lines, wrinkles and loss of firmness. If you’re struggling with pore issues, glycolic acid can also help minimize the appearance of pores by both helping to clarify and visibly tighten the look of skin. As exfoliation occurs, this helps boost cell turnover, which naturally slows down resulting in more vibrant-looking skin. And another benefit is as it boosts cell turnover, skin can appear more radiant and over time can help minimize the appearance of dark spots more rapidly. Additionally, as skin is exfoliated and resurfaced, those dealing with breakouts, often find glycolic acid to be beneficial for blemishes. And finally, research shows that glycolic acid can help hydrate skin and help skin stay better moisturized over time.
It's not easy to find ingredients that are so widely studied with so many different benefits, which makes glycolic acid a specific type of AHA that goes down in our skincare Hall of Fame as an MVP player for skin.
Our favorite part? Glycolic acid works with just one application as the chemical exfoliation happens immediately when a properly formulated AHA-product is applied.
How to make the most of your AHA
As AHA is a powerful ingredient that works instantly, AHA can help skin in tremendous ways, but it can also be problematic for skin if not used in a way that’s suitable for your skin.
First, if you’re using formulas that don’t have the right AHA concentration or pH levels or AHA type, you may wonder why you’re not seeing any of the upside. So, checking the formula, asking the brand to clarify the details is always a great idea.
Assuming, you’re using a formula where the AHA is going to be active at the right levels for your skin, as it is a potent active, it could be too aggressive for skin.
To make the most of your AHA, here are a few practical steps to take:
- Slow and steady: if you’re new to AHAs, especially glycolic acid, work your way up. You can tweak the amount you’re applying, the concentration you’re using, the duration you’re leaving it on your skin, and the frequency of product usage. All of these elements can help you work your way up to the right level of AHA for your skin. If you’re using the right level for your skin, you’ll notice radiance and skin that stays calm and supple. If it’s too much for your skin, after that initial day of glow, the next day you may notice your skin actually looks duller and feeling more reactive. Once we exfoliate past the dead skin cells to disrupt the skin barrier, our skin go into “signal alarm and protect” mode where there are telltale signs of inflammation, reactivity as well as more dullness.
- Pair with SPF: AHAs can make our skin more sensitive to the sun. SPF should be our daily friend anyway, but be sure to wear your SPF daily when using AHAs.
- Differentiate between purging and irritation: AHAs like other exfoliants, can cause an initial time period of increased breakouts. The idea is that as cell turnover is sped up, the clog in the pore can be brought up to the surface faster. For some, there could be a period of getting more breakouts before experiencing more smoothness. It’s unclear exactly who purges and why. If you’re purging for more than a few weeks, it’s best to see what else might be in your routine and if this purging or breakouts. If it looks like breakouts, but is accompanied by an increased reactivity to otherwise very gentle products that normally work well for your skin, you may want to discontinue use of your AHA to see if it was purging or your skin becoming irritating.
- Mind the active-cocktailing: Mixing AHAs with other actives don’t necessarily negate the benefits of the AHA or other actives. However, too many actives at once in an explosive formula can be too harsh on skin resulting in a compromised skin barrier and increased irritation – which can then lead to a whole host of other issues. Again, here the slow and steady principle applies. Try mixing in your AHA with retinol by separating the days of use, if everything is going great and you would like to increase the frequency, work your way up from there.
- Don’t fear the tingle: Glycolic acid can tingle upon application as the chemical exfoliation of breaking down the glue between dead skin cells is occurring. Some describe the tingling as mild burning. This is a normal sensation, so don’t panic. On the other hand, some don’t feel it at all. As long as the formula is properly formulated, you don’t need to worry if you don’t feel the tingling. Everyone’s skin is different, so how you feel the glycolic acid working will be different.
AHA product spotlight
We crafted a product around this hero ingredient, glycolic acid, that would be suitable for all skin types, even the most sensitive skin. Meet our Super Reboot Resurfacing Mask starring a very concentrated amount of 10% glycolic acid in a pH of 3.6 to ensure the acid stays active.
10% glycolic acid may not seem as concentrated to some of you who may be seeing products that highlight a 20% -30% AHA concentration. Remember, this AHA concentration can include a mix of glycolic acid and citric acid (more of an antioxidant than an exfoliator), so the total AHA concentration is not as illuminating as knowing the concentration of the specific AHA, glycolic acid.
Glycolic acid at 10% is considered professional-grade. What does this mean? Any higher than 10% for glycolic acid, and the FDA recommends using it with a professional because 10% is a huge concentration.
We included 10% so that you can have a potent glycolic acid exfoliator at your fingertips at home with dramatically visible results you can see and feel right away.
However, because this can be a lot for skin, our mission was to create a formula that was incredibly powerful yet super gentle. Our founder, Alicia, has eczema and very sensitive skin, so she knows all too well the struggles of using products that can be too harsh for more delicate skin. We spent years crafting a special technology with our partner lab (over forty chemists worked on this formula!) to allow a beautiful blend of soothing ingredients to sink into skin while the glycolic acid is doing its work. Blue agave, aloe, camelia, chamomile, cica, turmeric, allantoin and panthenol calm skin. Plus, hydrating hyaluronic acid then binds moisture deep into skin.
The result? A uniquely potent 10% glycolic acid resurfacing mask that effectively combines a rich blend of super-soothers so that even those with very sensitive skin can enjoy the benefits of concentrated glycolic acid.
If it’s your first time using the Super Reboot Resurfacing Mask, start with a thin layer and leave on for five minutes and rinse off thoroughly. Reapply every two weeks. From there, you can work your way up when your skin feels ready to leaving it on for up to twenty minutes and using about two or three times a week. Consider this mask your super reboot to give your skin that baby-fresh clean and clear start.
As always, Peaches, if you have any questions, please let us know below and we’ll be sure to get back to you!
Cheers to radiance!