If we just look around and notice how many exfoliating products use AHAs for various skin conditions and benefits, it’s only logical that some of the most frequently asked questions over the internet are “What exactly is AHA? What are the benefits of using AHA on your skin? What does AHA do to the skin?”
We’re here to shed some light on these mysterious three letters that apparently hold a lot of skin healing power.
Yes, they can really do a lot for your complexion and the story behind this process really interesting. So, let’s dive in.
AHA stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acids which are - we’ll now put our science hat for a little while - a group of organic carboxylic chemical compounds that are naturally found in several foods and plants.
They have profound effects on the epidermal and dermal layer of the skin, as they diminish the cellular cohesion between corneocytes at the lowest levels of the stratum corneum in the epidermis and increase the production of mucopolysaccharides and collagen in the dermis. And they do all of that without causing inflammation.
Are, you still with us? Let’s put this in simpler terms.
Alpha hydroxy acids are a group of chemicals that have a very strong effect on the top two layers of our skin. AHA can easily shed away dead skin cells from the skin’s surface and also penetrate a little deeper reaching the dermis.
Why is this important?
Well, did you know our skin’s epidermis is avascular (it doesn’t contain any blood vessels) while the dermis is vascular? The ability to penetrate the skin’s surface and reach the living cells within the dermis is crucial in order for the active ingredients in the acid to act and stimulate collagen production, for example.
This is why AHAs are more effective than most physical exfoliators and scrubs that only work on the surface.
The above-mentioned characteristics of AHAs make them a suitable ingredient in products with anti-aging benefits, like removing scars, wrinkles, brown spots, lightening discolorations, tightening the skin and improving the overall appearance of the skin.
If you’ve already heard about AHA it’s inevitable that you are familiar with another powerful three letter ingredient in many skincare products.
And, yes, even though these chemical compounds are close cousins, they are very different in the way they act on the skin and the benefits they can bring you.
BHA stands for Beta Hydroxy acid, or more specifically - salicylic acid, which is the only BHA used in cosmetics.
Overall, BHA has greater bioavailability, penetrates the skin a lot deeper and it’s best for oily and acne-prone skin.
If you are interested to learn more about the differences between AHA and BHA and how are they used, you can check out this article.
Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and not only does it belong to the big AHA family, but it’s also the superstar among them. It’s considered to be the most used and studied acid in the skincare and beauty world.
Glycolic acid has earned this reputation by having the smallest molecules and the greatest bioavailability of all the AHAs. This puts glycolic as the most effective, but also the strongest and irritable acid in the family.
Still, depending on the concentration and pH value of the product, you can find the right fit for your skin type and use glycolic acid for deep exfoliation because simply it’s the holy grail!
What are the benefits of using glycolic acid in your skincare?
Apart from being able to clear out the pores and remove dead skin cells, glycolic acid has a number of anti-aging benefits including the reduction of wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots. It can also increase collagen production and contribute to skin tightening, further preventing damage from aging and dry skin. Because glycolic acid is really strong it can be effective in reducing acne and preventing new acne breakouts.
After making glycolic acid sound like everything you’ll ever need in your skincare, you might be wondering why would brands use another AHA in their product. The truth is, not every skin type can handle the strong glycolic acid. This is why, lactic acid is the best alternative, especially for people with sensitive skin.
Lactic acid is naturally found in milk, and it’s considered the sensitive skin hero that manages to slough away dead skin, clear the skin, eliminate discoloration and superficial lines without causing irritation.
Just like glycolic acid, lactic acid is a liquid type of exfoliant which works by breaking down and dissolving the structure of dead skin cells without causing sensitivity.
Its molecules are a little bigger in size, decreasing the bioavailability of lactic acid, which might not make it as effective in battling deep wrinkles, acne or acne scars.
Other typically used acids:
Citric acid as the name suggests is found in citrus fruit and has amazing astringent properties. It’s effective for sloughing off dead skin cells and speeding the process for new cell turnover. Additional benefits associated with citric acid include reducing the appearance of age spots, acne scars, superficial wrinkles, and discoloration. But be careful before deciding to use citric acid at home, because it can be strong on the skin and cause slight burning, itching, and redness.
Malic acid is found in apples and it’s being long used to give some foods and drinks a tart taste but you can also find it in many shampoos, body lotions, nail treatments, and some acne and anti-aging products. Using malic acid for skin can help you hydrate the skin, exfoliate and remove dead skin cells, as well as improve the overall skin health and tone.
Tantric acid can be naturally found in bananas and grapes. It’s one of the chief acids in wine, but for skincare, it’s great because it has powerful antioxidants, can clear the skin, make it smoother and enhance your skin's natural glow. It’s believed that it has the same benefits as the lactic and glycolic acid, but it’s used as much, and the research to back up these claims is still lacking.
Being as popular as they are, it comes as no surprise that there’s been a lot of research done regarding the use of AHAs in skincare products.
In a study from 2014, the researchers concluded that using anti-aging skincare products containing AHAs and vitamins significantly improves the overall skin health including wrinkles and skin texture, as well as elasticity, and it comes without significant adverse effects.
In a review on the efficiency of AHAs used in cosmetic products done in 2012, it was concluded that AHAs lead to exfoliation, and they can thicken the epidermis and dermis, and improve the properties of the skin’s water barrier. Additionally, it was also shown that the skin becomes more tensile, firmer, smoother and more youthful looking after the use of products that contain AHAs.
And, if you need more, in another review from 2013, researchers evaluated data and studies on glycolic acid and its effectiveness in treating various skin conditions. After careful observation, they concluded that glycolic acid is a simple, evidence-based, result-oriented, and cost-effective procedure which might even produce better results when combined with other treatments.
This is not the first time science weighted on the beneficial effects of using glycolic acid on the skin. In fact, studies dating back to 1996 have provided evidence that glycolic acid acts as an antioxidant and accelerates the resolution of erythema.
Deep exfoliation is the primary reason for using AHAs in the first place and it’s also the benefit that enables all the other benefits to be possible.
External pollutants, as well as makeup residue, can very quickly lead to clogged pores and the build up of debris. On top of that, as we age,our skin’s cell renewal cycle slows down, which means dead skin cells build up on the skin’s surface more easily. All this contributes to the development of dark spots, discoloration, wrinkles, and even acne.
AHAs will take care of this problem, as they are extremely effective in loosening the bonds between the cells, which can help your skin shed off dead skin cells and get rid of debris. This way, they make space for the new and undamaged cells to emerge on the surface making the skin look fresh and glowing.
We mentioned that AHAs have the ability to penetrate deeper into the skin and reach the dermis, and they have anti-inflammatory properties which can improve blood flow. With the increase of blood flow, the skin also gets access to more nutrients and oxygen.
This benefit is associated and facilitated by the exfoliation properties of AHAs.
When the dead skin cells and debris are removed from the surface a new and fresh layer of skin is exposed. The new skin cells are unpigmented and undamaged cells, and these can help your skin tone look brighter and more even. Or, in other words, the new skin that will be revealed beneath will be more radiant - so you can take them for a recipe to a glowing look.
The only concern worth mentioning is that by not having dead skin cells on the surface to protect the skin, the newly exposed cells will be vulnerable to damage, especially sun damage. This is why is really important to always apply a sunscreen when you leave the house and expose the skin to sunlight (something you should be doing anyway if you want to take care of your skin properly).
If you want your skin to be tighter, look fresh and smooth without wrinkles or fine lines you need your collagen. Collagen is the key fiber that gives the skin elasticity and makes it look plump and smooth.
But, as we age and continuously expose our skin to direct sunlight, collagen production slows down. This leads to dull, dry, and saggy skin which accelerates the formation of wrinkles.
The collagen can be found in the dermis - and we already know that AHAs can reach the dermis. It’s by destroying old collagen fibers that AHAs help in collagen regeneration, making way for new cells and healthier skin.
A lot of products marked for their anti-aging properties and reduction of wrinkles and fine lines use AHAs in their formulation. This is because, science has proven AHAs work - and on numerous occasions. The fact that glycolic acid can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, as well as protect the skin and prevent new wrinkles from forming is especially well-researched.
AHAs penetrate the skin,and stimulate collagen production and cell turnover. These changes help the skin heal much faster and regenerate itself more efficiently - which reduces the formation of lines and wrinkles.
It’s important to note that AHAs work for surface lines and wrinkles only, not deeper wrinkles. For deep wrinkles and acne scars, you will have to consult with your dermatologist and get a professional chemical peel, a filler or laser resurfacing treatment.
Although the better option for oily and acne-prone skin would be BHA because they penetrate deeper into the skin and work specifically on the sebaceous glands and dissolve the excess oil, research shows that AHAs can also be effective against mild acne.
The weight of this claim falls on glycolic acid as the strongest one of the AHA family.
The exfoliating properties of AHAs help loosen and remove clogged pores. With regular use, they can also prevent future debris buildup and cell clogging to occur. So, if you are facing comedogenic acne (acne caused by the clogging of cells), AHAs will help you keep those breakouts at bay.
And, some AHAs products, containing citric or malic acid, can help soothe the inflammation.
One of the best thing about AHAs is that they will make your skincare products more effective. How?
The answer is very simple - by exfoliating the skin and removing dead skin cells. Sometimes your moisturizer doesn’t work because it can’t reach the living cells and actually hydrate them, because there are a ton of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin. When you apply an AHA product (like a glycolic acid toner) it will effectively dissolve all the dead skin cells and allow your favorite product to work its way deeper into the skin. This is how AHAs contribute to better absorption of other skincare products.
Before we head down to the uses of AHA products, we should warn you about the possible side-effects. Because no, we are not that fortunate to have found such an amazing and effective ingredients that come with no side-effects whatsoever.
The first thing you should be careful of when using an AHA product is its concentration and pH value. Too low pH and high concentration can burn your skin and cause more damage than good. Always start with gentler products.
If you are using AHA on your skin for the first time ever you might experience a temporary burning sensation, itching, and redness.
Additionally, AHAs will make your skin really sensitive to sunlight and prone to sun damage. Never leave your house without applying sunscreen. Experts advise to keep using sunscreen on a daily basis, for at least two weeks after you have stopped using AHAs.
Choosing the right product for your skin means everything and can be the difference between dull, problematic skin and flawless skin.
So, how to choose?
There are a few things to consider.
The first thing is the pH value and the concentration of the product. The concentration alone might not give you much information, because a product with neutral pH value won’t be as effective as less concentrated products with low pH value.
The second thing to take into consideration is the type of acid used.
If you are using AHAs for the first time or have sensitive skin go for a less concentrated, low to neutral pH value product using lactic acid. But, if you are dealing with more severe symptoms and really want to hit hard you should go with more concentrated, low pH value products that contain glycolic acid as their active ingredient.
If you are using over-the-counter products then a safe concentration would be less than 10%, with a pH value higher than 3.5. On the other hand, some professionals in beauty salons can use products that contain up to 30% of acid and have a pH value higher than 3.
In order to make sure that you are going to receive the benefits and nothing but the benefits from the use of AHAs, you need to follow these safety measures.
If you want to exfoliate your skin, get a more glowing complexion, and reduce the common imperfections on the skin’s surface then AHAs are here for you. You can find them in creams, lotions, toners, and other acne or anti-aging products.
Depending on your skin type and your condition you can choose from a variety of acids in the AHA family. The most famous and commonly used is the glycolic, followed by the lactic acid which is an alternative for people with sensitive skin.
There’s heavy research supporting the benefits associated with the use of AHA for the skin. The only thing you need to have in mind though is that you need to be careful not to use too concentrated and strong products which can damage your skin.
Start slowly and gently, and after you give your skin time to adjust increase the strength or frequency.