If you are on a quest for a younger-looking, smoother, and brighter complexion, you have probably heard of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs).
However, there are some questions that are still left unclear for many people that are not professionals in the skincare industry such as;
- What exactly are AHAs and how to use them – and;
- What should you do after exfoliating with an AHA?
In this article, I will explain how to use AHA safely and what you need to use after using an AHA exfoliator to help you achieve the optimum benefits without dealing with irritation.
What Are Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)?
AHAs are a group of natural and synthetic ingredients that primarily work to exfoliate the uppermost layers of the skin.
By doing so, this will reveal a fresher and refined skin that appears much smoother, feels more hydrated, and becomes visibly firmer with constant use.
AHAs are found throughout nature in sugarcane, sour milk, some fruits, and even nuts, however, AHAs used in dermatologic and cosmetic products are typically synthetically produced.
AHAs have a profound effect on keratinization, which is clinically detectable by forming a new outermost layer of the epidermis.
Additionally, AHAs appear to have deeper dermal effects. They can be used to improve skin that’s been damaged by the sun by producing increased amounts of collagen while also increasing skin thickness without any significant inflammation.
Here are some of them:
Naturally occurring in sugar cane, glycolic acid is the gold standard in skincare products among all other alpha hydroxy acids.
It is the most researched AHAs and it has the best track record of giving impressive results for all ages, skin types, and different skin concerns.
What makes glycolic acid a special snowflake is that it can penetrate the uppermost layers of dead cells to reveal the better-looking skin hiding underneath due to its small molecular weight (76).
Additionally, it also has a natural ability to hydrate the skin, “teaching” it to become better at retaining its natural moisture.
Lactic acid is the second AHA with a smaller molecular weight, therefore, it basically does everything glycolic acid does, but on a slower level because its molecular weight is a little bit larger (90).
This slightly reduces its ability to penetrate the skin’s outermost layer at the speed glycolic acid does, therefore, lactic acid is considered a milder means of exfoliation.
Topical lactic acid in concentrations of 2% and up can hydrate your skin when used alone or combined with other AHAs in a weekly skincare regimen,
However, it begins working as an exfoliant at a 5% concentration, with amounts between 5 – 10% considered ideal for skincare products meant to exfoliate.
It can naturally be derived from sour milk, however, the synthetic form is most often used in skincare products as this one is significantly easier to stabilize and ensure results.
Mandelic acid is becoming increasingly popular in skincare products as it has a slightly different structure and performance than other AHAs.
It is derived from the hydrolysis of an extract of bitter almonds and it has a larger molecular structure (152) than both glycolic and lactic acid.
This means that it doesn’t penetrate the skin at the rate glycolic or lactic acid will, making it a suitable option for more sensitive skins.
Additionally, some studies suggest that mandelic acid can have significantly fewer side effects such as inflammatory reactions and post-inflammatory pigmentation. It also has the upper hand on treating inflammatory acne visibly faster than salicylic acid.
Citric acid comes from various citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons, but its synthetic form is preferred in skincare products due to stability.
Although in higher concentrations of 10% and up it can exfoliate the skin, it is also considered more irritating due to its naturally lower pH of 2.2.
However, low amounts of citric acid show up in many skincare products where it is mostly used as an antioxidant as well as a pH adjuster, keeping formulas within the pH range they need to be to be effective and gentle on the skin.
Citric acid has the largest molecule weight (192) from all other AHAs.
How Often Should You Use An AHA Exfoliant?
Exfoliation is something that happens regularly in a good skincare regimen, regardless if you have dry or oily skin.
This is the one factor responsible for removing the buildup of dead cells and make way for the new cells underneath.
With regular exfoliation, your complexion will appear healthier, more radiant, and even brighter in appearance.
However, healthy skin, or more specifically a healthy epidermis, is not about how young the skin cells are, but;
- how well the cells are able to communicate with other cells across the layers of the epidermis,
- how well they are able to interface with something called the “skin microbiome’, and
- how well they are able to relate with their immediate environment.
Within the skin is a collaborative environment where interactions are key to how well synergies and symbiosis can take place and consequently how a healthy skin environment can emerge and be maintained.
This works like an ecosystem of cells, micro-organisms, and the environment.
The dead skin cells or “corneocytes” are indispensable in this healthy ecosystem, even though they may technically be considered “dead”.
The most optimal corneocytes are the ones that have fully matured and are flattened and larger in shape and size.
No, they do not look plump, bright, or radiant, but their maturity, structure, fortified cell walls, and higher surface area allows them to hold the most amounts of what is called the Natural Moisturizing Factors or NMFs.
NMFs allow the skin cells to hold on to water and maintain optimal hydration levels within the outermost layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum.
Young and fresh cells are not able to hold on to much water because they are simply not strong enough to withstand the osmotic pressure of water building up within the cells.
Over-exfoliation removes the matured corneocytes, leaving behind the immature cells that may look bright, plump, and radiant, but this also leaves your skin unable to keep itself hydrated.
Therefore, while regular exfoliation should still take place in a good skincare regimen, this is definitely a process that needs to be reserved for no more than 2-3 times a week.
What Should You Do After Alpha Hydroxy Acid Peel?
AHAs at a concentration of 10% or less in skincare products are likely safe for most people when applied on the skin appropriately and as directed.
However, in some people, AHAs can make the skin slightly sensitive to sunlight, therefore in some cases, they can cause mild skin irritation, redness, swelling, itching, and mild discoloration.
Here’s what you should do after using a product that contains alpha-hydroxy acids:
When using leave-on products such as toners that contain AHAs, it is important that you follow up with hydrating products such as essences or serums.
This is mostly done to prevent that initial irritation that happens to someone who is using AHAs for the very first time or testing out different products that contain variable concentrations of AHAs.
Slap on that hydrating essence or serum to relieve the redness and irritation when introducing acids for the first time in your skincare routine.
Nourishing your skin is always important, therefore, as you start using AHAs in your skincare routine, this is a good practice to get into.
We all have different skin types, so regardless if you are someone with a dry or oily skin type, you should always turn to moisturizers to soothe the initial irritation that comes with using acids until your skin gets used to them.
AHAs have the tendency of making your skin slightly more sensitive to the sun, therefore, it is always a smart idea to use sunscreen and protect your skin from burning and, subsequently, becoming damaged.
Wear sunscreen daily and reapply this godsend thing as often as you can during the day in order to protect your skin from harmful free radicals and damaging sun rays.
What Should You Not Mix With Alpha Hydroxy Acids?
I often read misinformation online regarding how AHAs work as well as which other products complement the function of exfoliating acids in skincare products.
One of these is that exfoliating acids cannot be combined with retinols because it will render the retinol effects useless.
While this is not entirely true and there is no clear research that demonstrates or concludes that AHAs exfoliants deactivate or make retinol any less effective, I have to agree that they are probably not the best combo for another, much simpler reason.
It will be too much for your skin, and you don’t really need it.
It is a popular misconception that the way retinol works is by exfoliating the skin, so it is understandable why the issue has become confusing.
Retinol is an antioxidant and an important cell-communicating ingredient. When retinol absorbs into the skin, it works by “telling” living skin cells to make healthier cells and enhance the production of new skin cells.
This is called “stimulating cellular turnover” from the deeper layers up, but AHAs work in the uppermost layers of the skin, right?
However, retinol in both over-the-counter and prescription-only products may cause flaking and peeling for some, but this is not the same thing as exfoliation.
When flaking occurs this is usually a sign of irritation, and in that case, you should perhaps reduce the frequency of use or consider stopping altogether.
Therefore, the misunderstanding is clearly there, but I would always suggest using your retinol on one day while complementing it with using AHAs on other days, simply because it will work totally fine that way too, and irritation is less likely to occur.
Best Alpha Hydroxy Acid Products
Here are some of my favorite products that contain mild AHAs for optimum results:
By Wishtrend – Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water; $22
A gentle exfoliator containing 5% Mandelic acid to soothe and exfoliate skins sensitive to most other acids such as glycolic or lactic.
It contains great moisturizing and soothing ingredients including Panthenol, Centella Asiatica, and Beta-Glucan and is a low-irritant exfoliator suitable for all skin types, including oily skin.
Krave Beauty – Kale-lalu-yAHA; $25
The Kale-lalu-yAHA is a skin resurfacing exfoliator that contains glycolic acid to gently remove the bonds that hold dead skin cells together and reveal a smoother and brighter complexion.
It has a pH balance of 3.5-4.0, which is fairly strong and the most appropriate pH for an AHA to be most effective.
Additionally, the Kale-lalu-yAHA contains nourishing antioxidants including dark, leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and parsley, as well as vitamin B5 in order to improve discoloration, skin damage, and fine lines.
Read my full Krave Beauty review.
The Ordinary – Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution; $8.70
A mildly exfoliating formula, this legendary product by The Ordinary comes at a pH of approximately 3.6, which makes it ideal for giving great exfoliating results.
It contains 7% glycolic acid in addition to Tasmanian pepperberry derivative, which is a powerful antioxidant that helps improve radiance and clarity while reducing signs of irritation, redness, and sensitivity on the skin s surface.
Chemical exfoliants are the new best thing in the skincare community with the ability to tackle different skin concerns and work for every skin type.
And most of the good products are also affordable. Therefore, it is understandable that we all want a piece of this cake.
However, in order to approach something the right way, you need to know exactly what you’re dealing with and what you want to achieve to get satisfying results.
AHAs are gentle exfoliants we all need in our daily skincare regimen, therefore shoot me a comment if you are uncertain of which one might be best for you so we can work on it together!
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.
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