All Your Questions About Acids for Skin Care—Answered!

Trust us; these acids won’t create a Harvey Dent situation. Quite the opposite, actually…
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Jan, 2022
acids for skin care

If you’re longing for an insanely luminous glow, clear pores, and your friends badgering you to spill the “secret” behind your healthy-looking complexion—but can’t get to a dermatologist or esthetician’s office—your next best bet is to look for acids for skin care in your products. 

Skincare acids are a type of skincare active, meaning their purpose is to address specific skin issues. YOU may have heard of acids for skincare in products used for exfoliating, but not all acids are exfoliating acids. You may find acids in cleansers, toners, serums, and even moisturizers. Which means they’re everywhere! 

Acids can be powerful, effective ingredients in your skincare routine. From targeting aging and acne to hyperpigmentation and dullness, acids can deliver targeted results when used correctly.

Here, we answer all YOUR questions about acids for skincare—what are the different types? What do they do? How should you use them? Read on to find out!

What Are The Different Types Of Acids For Skincare (And What Do They Do, Exactly?)

What Are The Different Types Of Acids For Skincare

Ah! There are many different types of acids for skincare. You can use the following hydroxy acids to exfoliate the skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

Several acids fall under the AHA category of skin care acids. These acids are water-soluble and are best for dry, dull, rough, or mature skin. They can be naturally or synthetically made. For example, lactic acid may be derived from milk, glycolic acid from sugarcane, tartaric acid derived from grapes, malic acid coming from apples, and citric acid from… well, we’ll let you guess!

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)

BHA gets a little deeper into the skin than AHA to exfoliate, making it an excellent pick for those who suffer from acne breakouts or oily skin. It can also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin. However, BHA exclusively consists of salicylic acid, so if you’re allergic to aspirin, don’t use BHA, as salicylic acid is from the same chemical group. 

Polyhydroxy Acids (PHA)

The new kid on the block, PHA, is best for sensitive skin types. It provides almost similar benefits for dry and sensitive skin as AHA without harshness. PHA can consist of:

• Lactobionic acid, from lactose

• Gluconolactone acid, from sugar

• Galactose acid, which is also from lactose

But There Are Other Acids For Skincare That Don’t Exfoliate, Right?

But There Are Other Acids For Skincare That Don’t Exfoliate

Yes! The following are some other acids for skincare YOU might find in your products and what they deliver.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid isn’t a true acid, and people don’t use it for exfoliating. Instead, it’s a type of naturally occurring sugar that keeps your skin hydrated. Since we naturally have less hyaluronic acid in our skin as we age, it can be immensely helpful in masks, moisturizers, and serums for combating mature skin. Hyaluronic acid can be synthetic, plant-derived, or animal-derived.

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is a type of exfoliating acid that falls under the dicarboxylic acid category. In its natural form, it comes from grains, but it can also be lab-made (the lab-made version is gluten-free). It’s not technically an exfoliator, but it does have a type of exfoliating effect on the skin. It can help with both acne and hyperpigmentation and tends to be gentle on the skin. Another BENEFIT to azelaic acid is that it’s considered safe to use during pregnancy, whereas other exfoliating acids may not be (always follow up with your doctor to be sure!).

Ascorbic Acid

You know ascorbic acid as our friend vitamin C, which is an excellent antioxidant used in skincare for hyperpigmentation to improve collagen production and have a natural brightening effect on the skin. You can find ascorbic acid in its most common form, l-ascorbic acid, in serums, masks, eye gels, and more. Ascorbic acid can be synthetic or naturally derived from citrus fruits.

Ferulic Acid

Ferulic acid is an antioxidant that you can often find in combination with antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E. They help boost its protective effects on the skin and even help enhance photoprotection (protection against the sun). Ferulic acid can help neutralize free radical damage to combat premature aging, especially when combined with antioxidants. However, it may be too harsh for sensitive skin. Ferulic acid is commonly derived from brown rice, oranges, or apples.

Retinoic Acid

While it sounds similar to retinol, retinoic acid isn’t quite the same thing. They both belong to the retinoids family, but retinoic acid is also called tretinoin and is only available via a prescription. Its main benefit is that it works faster than retinol to provide the same benefits, such as stimulating collagen production and increasing cellular turnover. However, your OTC retinol product will be less irritating and more appropriate for sensitive skin. Retinoic acid can be synthetic, natural, or made from animal sources. 

Succinic Acid

Another dicarboxylic acid, like azelaic acid, is succinic acid. Succinic acid is antimicrobial and antioxidant and also has an anti-aging effect on the skin. This acid can be effective against acne and may work for some people with sensitive skin. Succinic acid in its natural form exists in amber and sugarcane.

What Are The Best Acids For My Skin Type?

It’s really important to know what’s your skin type and to introduce acids into your skin care routine similarly to retinol: slowly and carefully. Remember, although YOU want your acids for skincare to be effective, they shouldn’t burn or irritate your skin, even if they are working!

Normal Skin Type:

Use the following acids for your normal skin: AHA, hyaluronic acid, ascorbic acid, ferulic acid.

Oily Skin Type:

Use BHA, retinoic acid, and succinic acid for your oily skin.

Combination Skin Type:

Go for AHA, PHA, BHA, ferulic acid, and ascorbic acid for your combination skin.

Dry Skin Type:

AHA, hyaluronic acid, azelaic acid, and ascorbic acid are the best bet for your dry skin.

Sensitive Skin Type:

Sensitive Skin Type

Find products with PHA, hyaluronic acid, azelaic acid, ascorbic acid, and succinic acid for your sensitive skin.

How Often Can I Use Skincare Acids?

It depends on the skincare acid you’re using. While ascorbic acid is safe to use for most people every day, other types of acids for skincare should only be used two or three times per week, for example, any exfoliating acid (AHA, BHA, PHA). Always listen to your skin!

Can You Use Acids With Other Skincare Ingredients?

Yes, and YOU should! Many acids go well with retinol, such as exfoliating acids, which can help retinol work better on your skin. You can also combine acids, such as azelaic acid, with AHA and BHA if your skin is up for it. You can also layer acids for skincare, such as ascorbic acid with hyaluronic acid.

Download The FREE Checklist On The No-No Ingredients To Always Avoid

What are some of YOUR favorite acids for skincare, and what do you use them for? Let us know in the comments below! Also, check out our free checklist on the ingredients you’ll definitely want to avoid in your skincare products!

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