A Beginner’s Guide To Skincare Acids
One mention of the word ‘acid’ is usually enough to make anyone run a mile - so it’s no wonder that it can be slightly unnerving when used to refer to skincare. But skincare acids aren’t as scary as they sound - and can actually be very beneficial to your skin. Whether your skincare regime is in need of an overhaul, or you’re tackling specific skin concerns like acne or pigmentation, an acid might be a good place to start. We spoke to Alice Henshaw, founder of Harley Street Injectables, to tell you everything you need to know to get started.
What are skincare acids?
“Skincare acids are active topical ingredients that are used in formulas for their skincare benefits,” Alice says. “They can be plant or animal derived and some are used for exfoliation, and some are used for hydration. Despite the name ‘acid’, they are not as scary as they may sound and are perfectly safe for use on the skin - although they do come in varying concentrations, and some can have a more intense effect than others,” she continues.
What are the different types of skincare acids?
There are Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) which are water soluble acids that naturally occur in fruits, sugar cane and sour milk. AHAs have an exfoliating effect, as they work to loosen the top layer of skin cells by breaking down the bonds that keep the cells joined together. “This encourages the skin to grow more cells, increasing cell turnover and revealing a renewed complexion,” Alice explains. “They also increase collagen synthesis and help to protect the skin from damage, making them great ingredients for anti-ageing formulas.”
Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are oil soluble acids, meaning they can go deeper into pores to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum. They work well with oily skin and are often used to improve acne and signs of sun damage because they’re able to penetrate the skin deeper.
What are the main skincare acids, and what do they do?
Glycolic acid is a type of AHA that is most well-known for its ability to help shed dead skin, while also increasing skin hydration. It’s the smallest type of acid so is very effective at getting into the skin and targeting signs of aging, like fine lines. It can also help with mild hyperpigmentation and enlarged pores.
Another type of AHA. Due to its antioxidant and exfoliation properties, Tartaric acid is most often used for reducing fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, acne, large pores, and dull/uneven skin tone.
Salicylic acid is known for its power to treat acne by reducing swelling and redness, and unplugging blocked skin pores to allow pimples to shrink. It treats other skin conditions by softening and loosening dry, scaly, or thickened skin so that it falls off or can be removed easily.
Lactic acid is helpful for smoothing and softening rough or scaly skin, whilst also being gentle and hydrating.
Citric Acid works by exfoliating the upper layer of dead skin cells to help clean pores, even skin tone and soften and smooth the skin.
Are there specific skincare acids that should not be used together?
‘You do need to be careful as you can easily dry out the skin when combining certain skincare acids,” Alice says. “It’s best to use either AHAs or BHAs separately rather than combining them in order to avoid irritation. For example, Glycolic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA) are best used separately but you can use Glycolic acid with Mandelic acid which is also an AHA,” she explains.
It’s also best not to layer retinol or Vitamin C with AHAs and BHAs as this could seriously affect the moisture barrier. The best way to use acids alongside retinol would be to do ‘Skin Cycling’ - alternating them each evening, so that you’re not overloading the skin.
Does potency make a difference in skincare acids and how do you navigate this?
The concentration of acid will help determine how strong the product is - so if you have sensitive skin or are just starting out with acids, you may want to start with a lower concentration like 5-7%, which you can gradually build up to 8-10%. “Depending on your unique skin type you may find that a higher concentration irritates your skin, or you may find it works wonders for exfoliation,” Alice adds. “In-clinic we can use 20-30% concentrations for chemical peels, but these should only be used by professional clinicians as they are powerful exfoliants.
“The pH of the product will also determine its potency - and a pH of 3-4 is best. The individual strength of the acid you’re using along with the product formula will alter its effectiveness.”
Which skincare acids are suitable for each skin type?
AHAs are recommended for dry or sun damaged skin as they are able to exfoliate whilst helping the skin’s surface to retain moisture, so they are effective but gentle. They’re also good for addressing hyperpigmentation. BHAs, however, are better for oily and acne prone skin. If you suffer from acne but also experience dry skin, you might wish to use both AHAs and BHAs, cyclically.
Is there anyone that should not use skincare acids?
“Different acids are suitable for different skin types, concerns and conditions, so it’s important to research what the best acid is for your skin type before using, to avoid irritating the skin,” says Henshaw. “For sensitive skin especially, you need to be careful with how harsh the acid is and the concentration. You’ll also need to be religious with your SPF application when using acids as they can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage.”
What are the side effects of overusing skincare acids?
Overusing acids, layering the wrong active ingredients or using the wrong acid for your skin type can result in dryness, flaking skin, irritation, redness or inflammation, which is why it’s super important to start with gentle products, lower concentrations, cycle your skincare and research active ingredients. They can be so effective, but it’s important to use them in moderation!