The Definitive Guide to Skincare Acids

The mere thought of applying acid to your skin might sound scary to most but if you consider yourself a skincare enthusiast then you know what we’re talking about. From AHAs to Salicylic acid—here’s everything you need to know about these often overlooked skincare elixirs.

By Adarsh Soni
22 Jan 2022

Like most of us that studied chemistry in high school, whenever you hear the word acid, you automatically think of the pH scale. A simple guide that deems any substance with a value of seven, neutral and everything that falls below as acidic. But what does it actually mean in terms of skincare? Going by the scientific definition, several common skin care products can be put in the acid category. Think of your humble Vitamin-C serum for example. That’s definitely acidic in nature, right? But why don’t we club that with something like say, salicylic acid or even glycolic acid? The answer is simply one word: exfoliation. 


Dermatologists recommend skincare acids for several reasons but exfoliation comes at the top of the list. Think of that as their USP. And more than anything else, it’s alpha (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA) that provide the exfoliating benefits typically associated with acids. In most formulas, these acids loosen the fluid that binds cells to the upper layers of skin, allowing the dead cells to fall away. This increase in cell turnover helps lessen breakouts, smooth fine lines, and gives an overall brightening effect. So it’s safe to assume that anyone looking for healthy, blemish-free skin must introduce at least one of these potent potions into their skincare routine. 


Allow us to give you a brief overview of all the heavy hitters that you should use for your skin type. Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as you probably think.


What are the different types of acids used in skincare?

Skincare acids are majorly divided into two sub-groups: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA). AHAs are water-soluble and work mostly on the skin’s surface, making them a good option for treating fine lines, texture, and dullness. BHAs, on the other hand, can penetrate deep into clogged pores and are therefore helpful in treating and preventing acne.


The AHA family

Lactic acid

Remember Cleopatra and her camel milk baths? Seems like her beauty secret was not much of a secret after all. Lactic acid is derived from fermented milk and is both an exfoliant and a moisturiser. Its larger molecule size makes it gentler than other acids and helps it draw moisture to the skin, making it ideal for hydration. The best thing about lactic acid is that it can be adopted by people of almost all skin types.


Related Story: How to Pick the Perfect Moisturiser for Your Skin Type


Glycolic acid

One of the most well-known acids out there, glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane. One of the main features that differentiates it from other AHAs is its molecule size—something that helps it penetrate into the deepest corners of your epidermis, the topmost layer of your skin. As expected, it’s great at exfoliating your skin and can also help reduce discolouration, while also improving your skin’s texture. If you have less irritable skin and you’re looking for something that can help combat signs of ageing, then this is the right acid for you.


Malic acid

Made from apple extract, this acid isn’t as effective as other AHAs. Which is why it’s mostly used in conjunction with other skincare ingredients. SUCH AS


Mandelic acid

Derived from almond extract, this acid has a considerably larger molecule size and is usually used for improving skin texture.


Tartaric acid

This acid is made from grape extract and is known to reduce signs of sun damage.


The BHA family

Salicylic acid

Arguably the most commonly available skincare acid out there—salicylic acid is a mainstay in anti-acne treatments. Be it your face cleanser or that off the counter acne cream you’ve been using, there’s a high chance that salicylic acid will be the primal ingredient in there. Beta hydroxy acid, more popularly known as salicylic acid, is derived from willow tree bark and is oil-soluble. Which is something that helps it penetrate even further than AHAs and get deeper into your pores to dissolve sebum and help remove dead skin cells. Salicylic acid is one of the best skincare ingredients for people will excessively oily or acne-prone skin. Just be careful because it can also dry out your skin. 


Citric acid

While primarily classified as an AHA, some formulations of citric acid are also known to be BHAs. As the name suggests, they are derived from citrus fruits and help dry out excess oil and clear dead skin cells. They are also good for unclogging pores, something that makes them a common ingredient in toners and anti-acne formulations.


Related Story: The Real Reason Behind Your Acne Breakouts


What about hyaluronic acid?

While hyaluronic acid is technically an acid because its pH is lower than neutral, it can’t be compared to AHAs and BHAs because its molecular composition is different from them. It is really a humectant best known for its moisturising properties and can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water. Following your AHA peel with a generous application of hyaluronic acid is a good way of keeping your skin hydrated after all that heavy exfoliation. 


Related Story: The One Ingredient That Dermatologists Swear by For Super Hydrated Skin



What’s the correct way of using acids?

Mainly because acids can be slightly more potent than your average skincare products, experts advise a patch test before actually applying anything on your face. A general rule of thumb is testing the formula on your inner arm and waiting for at least 24 hours before making any decision. If you experience low to mild stinging, then you’re good to go, but if you feel a painful burning sensation, then it’s best to consult a licensed dermatologist before using the product. 


Another important point to note is that the skin on your face is sensitive, which is why acids or products containing acids should not be applied more than once a week, even once every fortnight in some cases. Always cleanse your face before applying an acid, leave it on for a couple minutes, and once you’re done, follow it with a soothing moisturiser because these formulas can leave your skin feeling extra soft and vulnerable.


The above information includes inputs by Dr Chytra V Anand, CEO & Consultant Cosmetic Dermatologist, Kosmoderma Clinics, Bengaluru.


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