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Exfoliating Acids Cheat Sheet: AHA, BHA & PHA for all your skin concerns

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Hearing that acids are good for your skin may sound odd, but they are definitely something you want to get your hands on to step up your skincare regime! Despite their scientific names, most of these are derived from sources found commonly in nature. But the underlying question remains - what are acids in skincare? How are they good for you? Why must you incorporate them into your skincare regime? We are here to break it down for you in simple terms, and provide you with a quick guide, so the next time you are looking for a moisturiser or exfoliator, you know exactly which acid can work its magic on your skin.

What are acids or chemical exfoliants in skincare?

Chemical exfoliants are acids that react with the skin, remove layers of dead cells and excess oil that may lead to dullness, blemishes or clogged pores. They help in breaking the bonds that hold the skin's cells together, causing the top layer of the skin to shed, resulting in skin regeneration and smoother, clearer skin that glows from within. They can be found in high concentrations in chemical peels that are commonly used by dermatologists or in milder ones in over the counter products such as cleansers, masks, scrubs, moisturisers or toners.

There are three main categories of chemical exfoliants - AHAs, BHAs and PHAs. All of these are acid, but they differ in terms of penetrative ability and gentleness on the skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are usually derived from fruits and have the ability to dissolve in water and work on the skin's surface to improve its texture and make it firmer without causing any kind of collateral irritation. They increase cell turnover and thus encourage the production of new collagen. They are gentle on the skin and thus a suitable choice for sensitive skin. 

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs on the other hand, are oil-soluble, which means they penetrate deeper into the skin, so they not only benefit skin texture but also unclog the pores and control oil and sebum. They are anti-acne darlings because not only will they exfoliate the top layer of the skin, but also target the sebaceous glands all the way in the pores and clear them off any whiteheads or blackheads that may potentially form.

Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHAs)

PHAs have larger molecules than AHAs, so they are the perfect choice for really sensitive skin since they cannot penetrate deep within the skin and work only on its most superficial layer. Gentle and mild, they don't cause any irritations and can be used by those having eczema or rosacea. Great to hydrate the skin from deep within, they are definitely a go-to for dry skin as well!

While the idea of using acid on your skin can seem daunting, some acids can truly do wonders for the skin. Different acids affect your skin in wildly different ways, so finding the right fit for your skin is vital to get on the pathway to glowing skin!

Here are 6 acids most commonly heard of in skin care products:

1. Salicylic Acid

Skin Concern: Acne, blackheads, clogged pores and excessive oiliness

One of the main ingredients in the market that most people are acquainted with, Salicylic acid, is found in acidic fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, etc and works well on oily, combination and specifically acne-prone skin. It is one of the most common Beta Hydroxy acids or BHAs with anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and exfoliating properties. It is an anti-acne darling due to its ability to loosen dead skin cells, relieve clogged pores and blackheads, thereby reducing the growth of bacteria on the skin’s surface as well as in the oil glands. Since it has the ability to bust breakouts, blemishes and acne causing bacteria, it can be effective in multiple forms from a spot gel, to a face wash, to an exfoliating scrub or even a peel. Sometimes, it is found in makeup products too like foundations and concealers because it can dissolve sebum build-up inside the pores & reduce shine and oiliness on the face throughout the day.

 2. Glycolic Acid

Skin Concern: Acne scars, dark patches, pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.

Glycolic acid revolutionised skincare when it was introduced in the early 1990s. Derived from sugarcane and pineapple extract, it is a common Alpha Hydroxy acid (AHA) that works well on oily and acne-prone skin, but its benefits can be reaped by all skin types except sensitive skin. It has small molecules that help to accelerate the sloughing of dead cells on the skin’s surface, to reveal an even and smooth texture. In comparison to other abrasive exfoliating scrubs, it is more gentle on the skin. Moreover, it is an anti-ageing gold mine because it boosts collagen production and softens fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of ageing. 

 3. Lactic acid

Skin Concern: Hyperpigmentation, age spots, dull skin tone and uneven skin complexion

Lactic acid is another AHA that is even gentler on the skin than Glycolic Acid. It is derived from sour milk and cottage cheese, which means it has a moisturising element that other exfoliating acids tend to lack. Its large sized molecules make it the perfect choice for those with sensitive or dry skin, who are looking to reduce hyperpigmentation and speed up their cell regeneration process. Moreover, since it can bind to the skin's top layer and stimulate it, it creates ceramides that help the moisture in and irritants out. Additionally, apart from its hydrating and plumping properties, it also reduces fine lines and wrinkles and has an anti-ageing effect on the skin. This acid is usually used in combination with other skincare acids to achieve a brighter complexion, even skin tone and overall glow to the skin.

4. Mandelic acid

Skin Concern: Signs of ageing, acne, enlarged pores and pigmentation from sun exposure or acne scarring 

Mandelic acid originates from bitter almonds and works well for sensitive, oily and acne-prone skin. It has the largest molecules of all the AHAs, which penetrate into the skin slowly and gently, thereby reducing the risk of irritation for those who have sensitive skin. Mandelic acid also treats acne, blackheads and enlarged pores as it balances oil production in the epidermis. It softens any fine lines, wrinkles or pigment that may be leftover from acne on the skin. It is usually combined with Salicylic, Lactic or Glycolic acid as it is not enough of a power player by itself to improve exfoliation. 

5. Malic acid

Skin Concern: Signs of ageing, uneven skin tone and skin dehydration

Malic acid commonly originates from peaches, plums and pears and works on all types of skin other than sensitive skin. It is a humectant, which means that it has the ability to attract moisture from the air and trap it in the skin. This is why it's commonly found in moisturisers owing to its wonderful hydrating properties. It has the power to open the pores to clear out excess sebum on the face and hence provide mild exfoliation. In addition, it helps in the turnover of old skin cells, which promotes the production of collagen, a fibrous anti-ageing protein found in the body that slows down the ageing process.

6. Tartaric acid

Skin Concern: Fights fine lines and wrinkles, acne, skin irritation

Tartaric acid, something we may have heard of in Chemistry class, is a naturally occurring AHA that’s found in plant sources such as grapes, apricots, apples, avocados, sunflower seeds, tamarind, etc. It helps give the wine its tart-like taste, so we know you probably love it already! Its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help improve the skin’s texture and reduce signs of ageing, as it amplifies the cell shedding process in the outer layers of the epidermis. Furthermore, it restores hydration and regulates the pH level of the skincare formula to ensure that it doesn't feel too oily or dry. Most acids are infamous for morphing the pH levels of a product, but Tartaric acid has the power to keep things stable. This makes it the perfect addition to other acids like Glycolic or Lactic acid to strengthen their cell sloughing power. 

If you are stumped about which acid will suit your skin, refer to the infographic below to find out which acid suits what skin type:

This is cheat Sheet for Exfoliating Acids in Skin care based on skin types and skin concerns

PRO-TIP:  Before using any acid on your skin it is recommended to do a small patch test and start with a low concentration, moving upwards as you build your skin’s tolerance for it.

Always read the main ingredient to ensure that the acid is an active ingredient and will perform as it claims to do!

Products we recommend for you:

1. MartiDerm Platinum Night Renew

These ampoules are perfect to regenerate and reaffirm your skin's structure as you sleep at night, with 5% Marine Collagen and the goodness of AHAs. 10% Alpha Hydroxy Acids come in the form of Glycolic acid, Lactic acid, Malic acid, Tartaric acid and Citric acid. They help promote firmness and gentle exfoliation to the skin's outermost layers.

This is an image of Night Renew Super serum in ampoules from Martiderm2. Sukin Super Greens Detoxifying Facial Scrub

Enriched with the wonders of citric acid, and super greens like Kale, Spirulina and Parsley, this facial scrub helps brighten the complexion and improve the texture of the skin. It works wonders for those with dull, sensitive or dry skin and plumps it up to give a youthful glow.

This is Sukin Supergreen Facial Scrub

3. Etsley Ever young Glowing Serum- Ultra Glow

A powerhouse of skin-loving acids such as Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, and Ascorbic Acid, this serum is an antioxidant powerhouse that reduces dullness and visible signs of ageing. It nourishes the skin and brightens skin tone, for smoother, stronger and even-toned skin.

This is a Glowing Serum from the brand Etsley

4. Sukin Purifying Facial Masque

This antioxidant-rich mask contains Citric Acid, and Red Reef Australian Clay which absorbs toxins, deeply purifies the skin and moisturises for a clean, revitalised and hydrated complexion.

This is purifying mud mask from Sukin

5. Etlsey Ultra Clarifying Serum - Anti Acne

Enriched with the holy grail of skin ingredients - AHAs and BHAs. This fast-acting serum has Salicylic Acid, Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid which help to soothe the skin, address blemishes and acne to reveal clearer and fresher looking skin. 

This is clarifying serum from Etsley

- By Krisha Jhaveri

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