How to Use Acids in Skin Care

acids in skin care

In this article I want to cover how certain acids in skin care might be helpful to you. I will talk about what acids to use for your skin type (dry, oily, sensitive).

acids in skin care

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

First acid I’m going to talk about is alpha hydroxy acid. These acids are perfect for people who have dry, rough, bumpy skin. They are humectants meaning they help hold water into the top layer of the skin. They can exfoliate the top layer of skin as well.

Alpha hydroxy acids include:

  • glycolic acid
  • lactic acid
  • malic acid
  • madelic acid
  • tartatric acid

There are ton of alpha hydroxy acid based products on the market: peels, toners, creams, lotions, etc.

I find that consumers can really get into a lot of trouble with these because they can be incredibly irritating. People way overdo it and end up over exfoliating their skin and getting a lot of irritation, flares of acne, flares of rosacea, flares of numerous skin problems.

But for people with dry, rough, bumpy skin, using an alpha hydroxy acid moisturizing product can help soften that dry, bumpy skin. Specifically people who have a condition called keratosis pilaris can benefit from using an alpha hydroxy acid moisturizing product in their skin care routine for their face.

As far as products though, I want to give a shout out to a brand that I personally love and recommend and that is Alpha Skin Care.

They make a fantastic 12% glycolic acid cream called Enhanced Renewal Skin cream. I highly recommend this for anybody with dry or rough or bumpy skin, like keratosis pilaris. It also can be helpful if you have mature skin that has a lot of dry or rough patches, a lot of photo damage that alpha hydroxy acid can help exfoliate.

With time, it can actually help improve the overall hydration status of the skin. The cream is really thick, really moisturizing.

Another product that’s good if you have oily skin with rough and patchy areas is the Alpha Skin Care Essential Renewal lotion. It is 10 percent glycolic acid lotion that is not as heavy in terms of the consistency as the cream.

An expensive product that works great is Neostrata Glycolic Renewal Smoothing Cream.

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

If you have oily skin and a lot of textural irregularities, say you have acne and you’ve got some healing acne that’s peeling and drying, giving you some textural irregularities, you’re gonna benefit more from using salicylic acid.

The reason for this is that salicylic acid focuses in the oily surface of the skin very well as opposed to alpha hydroxy acid, which is for dry skin. Alpha hydroxy acid is water soluble, but BHA is oil soluble, so it’s better for addressing the needs of people with oily skin and specifically it’s very helpful for acne. It can help reduce acne flares. It’s also helpful if you’ve got blackheads and enlarged pores.

As far as liquid vehicles of BHA, I’m a huge fan of the Paula’s Choice 2% liquid BHA exfoliant. The way to use this is after you cleanse your skin, apply your moisturizer, allow your moisturizer to dry and then put this onto the skin. That will minimize any irritation from the BHA.

But for a lot of people, when they tried BHA, aka salicylic acid, they find that it’s pretty irritating.

My preferred method for using beta hydroxy acid is in a wash form. Using a cleanser with salicylic acid is a really gentle yet effective way to use one with minimal irritation and it is effective.

The way to use it is to just lather it to the affected areas, like in the shower, let it sit on the skin for just a few minutes. You really don’t need a long contact time and then rinse it off. It will exfoliate the skin gently, help control oiliness and really help with those textural irregularities. Unlike the leave on stuff, it will take a little bit longer for you to start seeing results but you have less irritation.

It is high yield and it also helps remove sun damaged skin cells. Just by using your finger pad, you get a little gentle mechanical exfoliation.

So it’s a good option if you have oily, mature skin to use a salicylic acid cleanser in the shower.

My favorite salicylic acid cleanser that is amazing is Zapzyt. It’s very inexpensive, you can get at Walmart for $6.

Those are really good options. It just takes a little bit of time for you to start seeing results.

Polyhydroxy Acids (PHA)

What about if you have a really sensitive skin?

An issue with both alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acid is that they sting and they can be really irritating for people who are particularly sensitive, especially if you have rosacea.

But you don’t have to despair. I would suggest instead trying a polyhydroxy acid.

Polyhydroxy acids include things like:

  • gluconolactone
  • zinc gluconate
  • copper gluconate
  • gluconic acid
  • lactobionic acid
  • maltobionic acid

These like alpha hydroxy acid act mostly as humectants, meaning they help to hydrate up the skin and that can really help with a lot of textural irregularities in and of itself.

But they also can gently exfoliate the skin, but are much more gentle than alpha hydroxy acid. They definitely don’t go as deep but they have been shown to have similar outcomes as alpha hydroxy acids. They are much easier to tolerate for people.

They’re newer in the scene of acids, in the cosmeceutical market, so we don’t have as much data on them, but they are proving themselves to be pretty effective for helping and hydrating the skin, skin cell turnover and improving overall skin texture.

Neostrata is a company that really does polyhydroxy acids well. They actually put polyhydroxy acids in their sunscreen but they make a separate polyhydroxy acid serum.

But with polyhydroxy acids, their strength really is as humectants first and foremost and gradually with time, they gently exfoliate the skin. They actually function better applied to damp skin, taking advantage more of that humectant action.

But in general, I suggest with polyhydroxy acid to apply it to your skin after you’ve cleansed it, while it’s damp, to hold on some of the hydration and then apply a moisturizing product over top.

I really like Neostrata’s Bionic Face Serum but it is expensive.

The Inkey list PHA toner can be used in a very similar fashion. I use this probably for about three or four weeks just to try it out and make sure it wasn’t irritating and I had no issue with it.

I did find that my skin hydration was improved using this, so I think it’s good. It’s worth considering, it is much more budget-friendly and it’s free of added fragrance.

These are some of the products I can recommend to you based on your individual needs, whether it be drying, rough skin, oily skin or sensitive skin.

If you’re somebody though who’s in an overlap category, don’t worry.

For example, if you have oily skin that’s really sensitive, try the BHA washes. They’re very easy to tolerate.

If you have dry skin with rough patches that is really sensitive, then try the polyhydroxy acid.

If you have rosacea, be very careful with any of these. There are many people with rosacea who tolerate the polyhydroxy acids just fine. But not everyone, so proceed with caution.

Tips For Using Acids in Skincare

Here are some other tips about using these ingredients.

Because they exfoliate, meaning they’re removing and thinning that dead top layer of the skin, which makes you more at risk for a sunburn. If you use these acids, you want to make sure you’re really diligent with your sun protection.

The other thing that I will caution you against doing is getting these acids around your eyes or on your neck.

Eyelid skin is really thin and can become easily irritated. You can get a lot of eyelid swelling if you get these near your eyes, so make sure you don’t get it around your eyelids.

I caution against using it on the neck and people always ask why. The thing about the neck is that the skin there is much thinner and there are far fewer sebaceous glands. The neck skin is highly susceptible to irritation when it comes to using exfoliating products.

The other point about these ingredients is that because they can cause some irritation, you want to introduce them conservatively into your skin care routine, meaning not with a lot of other active ingredients.

If you are using topical vitamin A, you don’t want to apply topical vitamin A at the same time that you’re using these products.

In other words, if you’re using vitamin A and you’re tolerating it just fine and you want to introduce one of these, the way that you would do it is to alternate and use it on an off night and see how you tolerate it with the vitamin A.

If you’re already using one of the acids and you’re gonna start using vitamin A, then you probably want to stop and get used to the vitamin A.

By vitamin A, I mean prescription tretinoin or over-the-counter retinol.

Vitamin A does a lot of the same things. It thins the top dead layer of your skin and it can be irritating. Putting the two together can cause a lot of problems for people. Some people do well with both in their routine, alternating them morning and evening. But it’s not something that I can generally recommend to such a large audience out there. It’s not going to be appropriate for a lot of people.

That’s not to say that you can’t use vitamin A and one of these acids as part of your skin care routine. The best way to do it is to use your vitamin A at night and your acid in the morning. That way you’re not using them together at the same time.

Or use your vitamin A one night and your acid the next night and alternating. That’s another way to incorporate both ingredients in a skin care routine, minimizing the risk of irritation.

Another reason that’s important is even if you don’t find it irritating, the pH of some of these products might interfere with the stability of your topical vitamin A.

I hope this article was helpful to you as far as recommending some acids for skin care.


How to Use Acids in Skin Care
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