If you look at the ingredients of your favourite hard-working skincare products, you might find acid-based ingredients like lactic, glycolic, salicylic and hyaluronic acids. At first glance, the word “acid” might sound alarming, but there is no need to panic. We tapped a leading dermatologist to find out why you should use acids for your face, including a breakdown of each.
What are skincare acids?
Skincare acids are used for exfoliation. There are two different types: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). They both work to keep your skin glowing and bright by loosening the fluids that bind cells on the upper layers of your skin. Depending on how powerful it is, this shedding of skin cells could be visible to the naked eye (yeah, those flakes you’ve noticed after getting a face peel? Dead skin cells).
According to Debra Jaliman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York, acids are a great addition to most skincare routines. “Skin types such as acne-prone and those with hyperpigmentation can really benefit from acids, [as they] help to slough off dead skin and bring out brighter skin,” she says. These acids can typically be found in “masks, cleansers, moisturisers and some body washes.” You might find concentrated formulas by way of serums or some at-home treatments.
To dive deeper into the skincare benefits, we asked Jaliman to break it down for us. Here are the best skincare acids for every skin type:
Acne-Prone or Oily Skin: Salicylic, glycolic, lactic, and azelaic acid
In your anti-acne arsenal, you might reach for a toner or cleanser formulated with an acid. These acids can help penetrate pores and reduce sebum, and should improve your skin.
“Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that lessens the symptoms of acne,” notes Jaliman. It is best known for its ability to ease inflammation, unclog pores and encourage exfoliation. It can also help with discolouration and improving skin tone over time, making it an effective rosacea treatment. However, those with darker skin should note that sometimes salicylic acid can cause irregular darkening or lightening of the skin.
Glycolic acid, which falls into the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) group, can help unclog pores. This gives it an advantage over breakout-causing aggressors like dry skin buildup and excess oil. Lactic acid, on the other hand, can be more hydrating and works to improve your complexion.
For severe acne, Jaliman recommends azelaic acid. “Azelaic acid brightens the complexion while visibly improving the skin texture and reducing the look of blemishes,” says Jaliman. “It helps fade the appearance of acne marks and other skin discolourations,” she adds. It’s also one of the best acids for hyperpigmentation, and can be great for treating rosacea and melasma.
Dry Skin: L-ascorbic, glycolic, and hyaluronic acid
It should come as no surprise that dry skin can benefit from these skincare acids since one of their key benefits is to provide deep exfoliation to slough off dead skin cells. And the top four to look out for are L-ascorbic, hyaluronic, ferulic and glycolic. L-ascorbic acid is most commonly used for skin brightening — one of skincare acid’s biggest benefits — because of its antioxidant properties. Glycolic acid might be more popular for acne-prone skin types, but it also combats lackluster skin which results in brighter, glowing skin. It’s also great for healing scars and shrinking pores.
For all skin types, Jaliman recommends hyaluronic acid thanks to its moisturising properties, which “helps prevent water loss from the skin,” she says. “It’s [also] super hydrating and has anti-ageing properties,” Jaliman adds. Known for its water-retention abilities, it’s perfect for those who have fine lines.
Mature Skin: L-ascorbic, lactic, retinoic, ferulic acid
Acids can help combat some key concerns in mature skin types, too.
“Lactic acid plumps the skin,” says Jaliman. “Any fine lines you have will look less visible.” In addition, she says “lactic acid also gently exfoliates to reveal smoother and more glowing skin, as well as help to reduce wrinkles and other signs of ageing.”
Ferulic acid is an antioxidant worth trying. “It is a potent antioxidant used to stabilize vitamin C in products,” says Jaliman. Much like your vitamin C-enhanced products, ferulic acid can benefit the skin by creating a brightening effect and improving skin clarity and texture. It’s also an antioxidant that can help fight free radicals. It works best when combined with other skincare products like vitamin C or E. However, those with sensitive skin should use this acid with caution.
Retinoic acid is a little less known than other skincare acids, but it’s equally as beneficial. According to Jaliman, it is synthesized from vitamin A and great for oily, acne-prone and aging skin, and it helps with fine lines and wrinkles. “You will find retinoic acid in prescription-strength products such as Retin-A, [or in] retinol, which is a form of retinoic acid, but less potent,” she says.
Check with your dermatologist first:
With all the exfoliation talk, you might wonder: Can sensitive skin types use acids? In short, yes. “Certain acids such as glycolic acid in a low percentage would normally be fine for someone with sensitive skin,” explains Jaliman. That said, she recommends always doing a patch test first to test your skin’s sensitivity before applying all over.
Jaliman says hyaluronic acid and lactic acid are usually the safest bets for those with sensitive skin. However, she warns that “people with very dry or sensitive skin or people who suffer [from] eczema or rosacea should not use acids without asking a physician.”