You might think of harsh chemical peels when you read the word ‘acids’, but don’t fear – there’s really nothing scary about them. A great alternative to scrubbing beads, acid exfoliators can be found in toners, serums and even cleansers – making them a great option if you’re looking to slot in game-changing products to your beauty routine.
Acid exfoliators are generally grouped as AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids), but which one do you choose? Tom Ogden, European Business Manager at Alpha-H, stresses the importance of choosing an acid exfoliator to suit your needs: “AHAs are water-soluble and stimulate peeling on the surface of the skin, while BHAs are oil soluble and have more of an impact within the pore, helping to reduce congestion and excess sebum”.
With this in mind, we’ve compiled a lowdown of the most popular acids, which you can easily slot into your skincare routine – and you can find them in a surprisingly wide variety of products.
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Alpha hydroxy acids are the catch-all term for glow-boosting ingredients that work to dissolve the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells together. As AHAs are water-soluble, they draw moisture to the surface of your skin, hydrating and revitalising your complexion.
If you’re prone to dry, flaky areas, using an AHA as part of your routine might be the perfect solution for your skin. Tom explains: “A gridlock of dead cells on the surface of the skin can act as a barrier, which prevents your more hydrating skincare treatments from penetrating effectively. By removing this barrier, your skin’s permeability is improved, so moisturising products will be much more effective”. So, if you’re after a gorgeous glow and increased efficacy of your favourite products, AHAs might be for you.
Extracted from sugar cane, Tom tells us: “Dermatologists started using glycolic acid because it has the smallest molecular structure of any AHA, easily penetrates into the skin, and has considerable water-binding properties.” This makes glycolic acid particularly good for speeding up the turnover of new cells, diminishing the look of dull and dry skin, and encouraging a healthy glow. Tom adds that “glycolic acid is widely used in skincare because it achieves extremely fast results.”
Not only is glycolic acid great for dry skin, “it’s also favoured in the professional beauty world because many practitioners feel it has beneficial effects on pigmentation and sun damage. This may be due to its resurfacing properties that promote accelerated exfoliation of stained dead skin cells, which results in quicker pigment dispersion” says Tom. This means that if you do notice skin tone irregularities, glycolic acid could be your hero ingredient to help lessen the look of pigmentation, encouraging a more even complexion.
If you’re looking to add a glycolic acid-based product to your skincare routine, one of our favourites is Alpha-H Liquid Gold, with 5% glycolic acid. This liquid exfoliator can be applied neat on a cotton pad after your evening cleanse, or before a rich moisturiser to ensure skin feels soft and silky in the morning. You might notice a slight tingle before applying your chosen glycolic acid, which is perfectly normal if your skin isn’t sensitive.
Derived from milk products, lactic acid is one of the more gentle acids in the AHA family. If you’re more prone to irritation, this could be the AHA for you.
Sarah Chapman, founder of Sarah Chapman Skinesis Skincare, is a huge fan of lactic acid in skincare: “Lactic acid is a more hydrating form of alpha hydroxy acid and has a larger molecular structure. It works by gently dissolving the glue between dead cells, releasing them for a controlled exfoliation without damaging the skin.”
However, overuse of lactic acid – or any acid – can lead to increased sensitivity. Sarah adds: “Overuse or high concentrations can still cause irritation, so opt for a lactic acid-based product twice a week to keep skin fresh and glowing if you are on the more sensitive side. AHAs should not be used too frequently – they are designed to exfoliate, so once the skin has shed its dead cells, you will be damaging healthy skin cells”. To introduce a lactic-acid based exfoliator to your routine, try the Sarah Chapman Liquid Facial Resurfacer. Its gentle formula enriched with sodium hyaluronate, allantoin and vitamin E will work to keep your skin feeling balanced and soothed, while helping to combat redness, dullness and irregular texture.
Beta hydroxy acids, more widely known as salicylic acid, is similar to AHAs in that it works to break the bonds that keep skin stuck together. However, while AHAs are water-soluble, salicylic acid is oil-soluble, making it an often more viable option for oily skin.
SJ Froom, International Make-up Artist for Bareminerals, explains why she’s such a fan of salicylic acid in skincare: “Salicylic acid gently dissolves pore-clogging impurities, so it’s incredible when it comes to targeting excess oil, sebum and blackheads. These skin conditions are usually common with oilier complexions.”
Salicylic acid can penetrate deeper than AHAs, working inside the pore to almost shrink the look of its size for a perfected, glass-like finish. SJ adds: “Using salicylic acid on your skin will help promote skin’s natural exfoliation process, so it gently exfoliates dead skin cells and blocked pores while at the same time conditioning the skin, keeping it clear, soft and subtle”. It also has anti-inflammatory properties to keep redness at bay.
To incorporate salicylic acid into your skincare routine, try a daily treatment like Philosophy No Reason to Hide Serum. This works to lessen the look of enlarged pores, while also helping to even out your skin tone and leave your complexion looking fresh, healthy and soothed. The Bareminerals Blemish Remedy Gelee Cleanser is another fantastic, salicylic-acid enriched product, as it helps to purify and refine skin, without leaving it feeling stripped or parched. As it’s a rinse-off cleanser, you only need a minute to splash this on when you’re in a rush in the morning.
Whether you’re looking to reduce the look of pores, reduce sebum or pigmentation, or encourage a dewy glow, it’s pretty clear that acids can really add to your skincare routine.
If your skin would benefit from multiple acids, opt for a product that combines more than one – we love the gentle yet hardworking Murad Exfoliating Cleanser, which features both glycolic acid and salicylic acid to simultaneously clear pores and reveal more radiant skin. Another way to benefit from multiple acids is to try cocktailing your skincare, by applying an AHA-based product to areas of dryness or dehydration, and a BHA-based treatment to your T-zone or areas prone to oiliness.