Welcome, skincare enthusiasts, to a journey of discovery that will forever change the way you look at your beauty regimen.

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Today, we’re diving deep into the fascinating world of facial acids.

Yes, you read that right – acids!

While the term may initially sound intimidating, these potent ingredients are the secret weapons behind that enviable, radiant glow we all covet.

From combating acne to reducing wrinkles, from brightening your complexion to hydrating parched skin, facial acids are the unsung heroes of skincare.

So, let’s demystify these power-packed molecules and reveal how they can revolutionize your skincare routine!

Main CategoriesIllustration of benefits of AHAs, BHAs, & PHAs

Even though not all acids fall under these, there are 3 main categories for your facial acids.

These 3 categories include your Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), and Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHAs).

Don’t worry, I will get to all the acids, but first we are going to see what makes these different from each other.

AHAs – organic acids that occur naturally in fruits, sugar cane, and milk.

Benefits of AHAs

1. Exfoliation: AHAs are primarily known for their exfoliating properties. They work by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, allowing them to be easily removed. This leads to a smoother, fresher-looking complexion.

2. Brightening: By removing the layer of dead skin cells, AHAs can help to reveal brighter and more radiant skin underneath.

3. Anti-Aging: Some AHAs, like glycolic acid, can stimulate the production of collagen and elastin, which are proteins that help maintain the skin’s elasticity and firmness. This can potentially reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

4. Improving Skin Texture: Regular use of AHAs can help to improve the texture of the skin, making it feel softer and smoother.

5. Improving Skin Tone: AHAs can help to even out skin tone by reducing the appearance of dark spots and discoloration.

6. Increasing Product Absorption: By removing the layer of dead skin cells, AHAs can also improve the absorption of other skincare products, making them more effective.

7. Treating Acne: Certain AHAs, like lactic acid and citric acid, have been effective in treating acne. They work by unclogging pores and reducing inflammation.

It’s important to note that while AHAs can have many benefits for the skin, they can also make the skin more sensitive to the sun. Therefore, it’s crucial to use a high-SPF sunscreen when using products containing AHAs.

BHAs- chemical exfoliant that work by penetrating the skin and dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells.

These have many of the same benefits as AHAs.

However, they are particularly effective in treating acne because they are oil soluble. This means they can penetrate into your pores and exfoliate the pore lining, which helps to unclog pores and reduce breakouts.

BHAs can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

They can also cause dryness and irritation, especially in higher concentrations or when you first start using them.

PHAs – molecular size is larger than AHAs and BHAs.

These are often referred to as the second generation of AHAs.

However, these acids offer milder exfoliation, hydration, less irritation, and antioxidant properties.

While all 3 provide exfoliating benefits, PHAs are milder and more gentle than AHAs and BHAs, which makes them a better choice for those with sensitive or dry skin.

Types of AHAs

1. Glycolic Acid – One of the most common and comes from sugar cane.

2. Lactic Acid – The other most common and comes from lactose or other carbohydrates.

3. Tartaric Acid – Comes from grapes.

4. Citric Acid – Comes from citrus fruits.

5. Malic Acid – Also comes from fruits.

Side effects

Patch test before applying all over your face.

To lower the risk of side effects, it is recommended to use a concentration of less than 10% and start every other day.

If you’ve never used AHAs before, some temporary side effects may include: blisters, itching, burning, and dermatitis.

Types of BHAs

1. Salicylic Acid – Most commonly used to treat acne. It originally came from the bark of white willow and wintergreen leaf, but it’s now commonly made in a lab. [1]

2. Trethocanic Acid- Derived from pine bark, it is less common than salicylic acid, has similar properties, but is more potent.

3. Beta Hydroxybutanoic Acid & Tropic Acid- Lesser known but can be listed as BHA.

Side Effects

As with AHAs, patch test before applying all over your face and gradually introduce into your routine to lessen the risk of side effects.

The most common side effects include itching, irritation, dryness, flaking, sun sensitivity, and peeling.

Other side effects can include blisters or welts, burning sensation, rash, swelling, or changes in skin color.

Types of PHAs

1. Gluconolactone- Exfoliates and hydrates and is the most popular of the PHAs.

2. Lactobionic- Oxidized form of milk that exfoliates, moisturizes, and acts as a humectant (attracts water).

3. Galactosen- Sugar found in milk and less common, but it exfoliates just as gently as the other 2.

As with any new skincare product, patch test first.

Side effects with PHAs are less common, which is why they are great for sensitive skin. However, they are still acids, so side effects are possible and would be the same as AHAs and BHAs.

Other Acidsskincare bottles and droppers with hyaluronic acid

These are acids that don’t fall into either category from above.

Azelaic Acid – This is a naturally occurring acid that can be found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It is also produced by a fungus that lives on our skin.

You can use azelaic acid to reduce inflammation, fight acne, and even your skin tone. It works by killing the acne causing bacteria and acting as an antioxidant to fight free radicals (unstable, inflammation causing molecules).

You can get azelaic acid in prescription concentrations of 15% to 20% and lower concentrations over-the-counter.

Although, azelaic acid is milder than glycolic and salicylic acids, there may still be some side effects.

The most common side effects include: redness, dryness, burning or stinging, itching, and peeling.

Stronger side effects can include swelling, severe redness, scaliness, crusting, and soreness.

If you have dark skin, be cautious because it can cause color changes.

Also, if you have asthma, it can make it worse.

While using azelaic acid, your skin may become red or flushed when eating spicy foods or drinking hot beverages and alcohol. [1]

Ferulic Acid This one is a powerful antioxidant that is found in the cell walls of foods such as grapes, peanuts, coffee, parsley, spinach, and tomatoes. Just to name a few.

Ferulic acid got its start as a stabilizer for vitamins C and E in skincare. And, in fact, it can increase the effectiveness of both, which is one of its benefits.

Other benefits include even and brighten skin tone, reduce inflammation, reduce photo aging, and repair damaged skin cells and protect them from further damage.

Ferulic acid is considered safe most skin types, but those with sensitive skin should patch test first.

Side effects that have been reported before include: irritation, redness, peeling, acne breakout, itching, and a rash.

Having an allergy to bran can increase your risk of reaction to ferulic acid. [1]

Oleic Acid This acid is a natural fatty acid found in oils like almond, olive, and avocado.

Oleic acid has emollient properties, which means it helps to moisturize and soften the skin. It also strengthens your skin to make your complexion smooth, healthy, and younger looking.

It is also known for its ability to penetrate the skin barrier and deliver other beneficial ingredients.

However, it is important to note that oleic acid may not be suitable for all skin types, as it can be comedogenic and potentially lead to clogged pores in some individuals.

Linoleic Acid – Also known as vitamin F, it can be found in corn, sunflower, and safflower oils and is the most abundant fatty acid found in the skin’s upper layers.

Linoleic acid helps to strengthen your skin’s barrier, which will prevent loss of moisture and keep your skin hydrated.

It has anti-inflammatory properties to help soothe and calm acne, eczema, or dermatitis. Speaking of acne, it helps regulate sebum production, which can reduce clogged pores and breakouts.

This acid also helps your skin’s elasticity and firmness by promoting collagen synthesis and supporting the production of ceramides.

While considered safe, some may experience side effects such as skin irritation or allergic reaction. So patch test before use.

Ascorbic AcidThis is vitamin C and a potent antioxidant that can help brighten skin, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and protect against environmental damage.

When choosing a vitamin C skincare product, look for a concentration of at least 10% as this is the minimum effective dose. Also, opt for a product with L-ascorbic acid as this form of vitamin C is the most stable and effective.

The packaging should also protect it from light and air.

Vitamin C is considered safe for all skin types, however, those with sensitive skin may experience some side effects such as itching, dryness, irritation, redness, tingling, or burning.

Learn more about vitamin C here.

Hyaluronic Acid Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance in the body that helps keep skin hydrated and plump. In skincare, it is used as a humectant to attract and retain moisture in the skin, resulting in a more youthful, glowing complexion.

Hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, making it an excellent hydrating ingredient. It helps to attract and retain moisture in your skin to keep it plump, supple, and hydrated.

Learn more about the benefits of hyaluronic acid here.

Retinoic Acid
This is a form of vitamin A and the active form of retinol, which simply means that it starts working once applied to your skin.

It is only available by prescription.

Retinoic acid has many benefits for the skin including reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by boosting collagen production, improving skin texture and tone by exfoliating, treating acne by unclogging pores and reducing inflammation, and lightening dark spots by inhibiting the production of melanin.

Common side effects include dryness, redness, peeling, and increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Those with sensitive skin should use caution before using this in your skincare.

Learn more about retinol and retinoids here.

What to avoid with skincare acids

Even though skin acids in your routine can reveal a brighter, more even, and youthful complexion, there are some things to remember so your efforts aren’t counter-productive and to avoid any skin issues such as irritation or harming your skin barrier.

1. Don’t over exfoliate- This includes using acid too frequently, using more than one acid at one time, or using too high of a concentration.

Instead only exfoliate 2 to 3 times a week. Only use one acid at a time. If you are just starting out with an AHA, start with a concentration of less than 10%. With a BHA start with a concentration of .5% to 1%.

2. Don’t mix acids with scrubs or other exfoliants- This can disrupt your skin’s barrier and cause irritation, sensitivity, or dryness.

3. Don’t use too many acids together- Combining acids can be harsh on your skin and will lead to irritation.

4. Don’t mix other acids with retinol- This includes vitamin C. Instead use your retinol at night and your vitamin C or other acid in the morning.

5. Don’t mix acids with benzoyl peroxide- Benzoyl peroxide is exfoliating and drying on its own. So mixing it with acids can cause over drying and irritation.

6. Don’t use retinol and benzoyl peroxide together- Benzoyl peroxide is oxidizing while retinol is an antioxidant. Mixing these two would cancel each other out along with causing excessive drying of your skin and irritation.

7. Don’t mix vitamin C and benzoyl peroxide- These will also cancel each other out.

8. Don’t mix niacinamide and AHAs/BHAs- Mixing them could cause a bad chemical reaction of redness and flushing. Instead use one at night and the other in the morning.

To Sum It Up

In conclusion, facial acids, despite their intimidating name, are powerful allies in our quest for healthy, radiant skin.

From AHAs, BHAs, PHAs to other unique acids like Azelaic, Ferulic, and Hyaluronic Acid, each offers unique benefits that address a wide array of skincare concerns.

They exfoliate, brighten, hydrate, and even treat acne, making them integral components of a comprehensive skincare routine.

However, it’s crucial to remember that these potent ingredients should be introduced gradually and used responsibly.

Always conduct a patch test before full application, be aware of potential side effects, and never forget to protect your skin from the sun.

With the right approach, these unsung heroes of skincare can truly revolutionize your beauty regimen.

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