The day that I learned that there were more ways to exfoliate my skin than apricot scrubs and loofahs was pivotal. In fact, I can divide my life into BCE (before chemical exfoliants) and ACE (after chemical exfoliants). Those BCE days were … rough.
Introducing acids into my routine has helped me go from full-coverage Cake Face to barely wearing any base makeup at all most days. It was a slow and steady process that was full of missteps, mostly because there wasn’t a good resource for newbies that could help me figure out which products to start with.
Now that I’m a grizzled skin care veteran, I’m circling back and trying to create helpful, simple guides that the next wave of starry-eyed newbies can use to avoid some of the confusion and mishaps that I dealt with.
Introducing acids into my routine has helped me go from full-coverage Cake Face to barely wearing any base makeup at all most days.
What Are AHAs?
AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid. They’re water-soluble exfoliants, which means that they only work on the uppermost layers of your skin.
The most common AHAs are:
What Do AHAs Do?
These acids work by gently dissolving the “glue” that holds the top layers of skin cells together. This sounds scary, but it’s actually a good thing! Those skin cells are dull, dead, and need to be removed. Regular AHA use makes this process easier.
Who Can Benefit From AHAs
Almost anyone can benefit from adding AHAs to their beauty routine! This is especially true for people with dry or sun-damaged skin because they can help to add hydration to your skin. (Funny, I know. Acids are usually associated with drying out your skin, but hey! Misconceptions!)
AHAs really shine when you need help with any of the following issues:
- Exfoliating dead skin buildup
- Boosting collagen production
- Diminishing the appearance of fine lines
- Brightening a dull complexion
- Smoothing rough or bumpy skin texture
- Refining the look of enlarged pores
- Getting rid of hyperpigmentation
What to Look For in an AHA Serum
Just like with other beauty products, what you need might be different than what I need, so I can’t give you a stone tablet etched with precise instructions for choosing a serum. Would that I could.
Instead, I’ll give you the most important information to look for when you’re shopping so that you can feel confident in what you pick!
Most AHA products range from 4 to 15 percent. There are a few hardcore peels that are 30 percent or stronger, but absolutely do not buy those until you too are a grizzled skin care veteran with an excellent sense of what your skin can and can’t handle. Otherwise, there will be regret. Trust me.
Personally, I’ve found that 5 percent is a nice, gentle amount for daily maintenance. If your skin is sensitive, I recommend starting here.
Generally, 7 to 10 percent is where I like to stay for regular exfoliation. If you have normal or oily skin, you’re usually okay to start out here. If you’re worried about overdoing it though, start low and work your way up! This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Anything above 10 percent tends to be too irritating for daily use, at least for me. I usually reserve these for one to two weekly applications, or when my skin is just having a fit and I want to calm it down.
I’ve written before about why the pH of certain skin care items matters, and this is especially true of AHAs. For them to effectively exfoliate, you should get one with a pH of less than 4. All of the products I’ve listed below meet that threshold!
3. Molecule Size
This is something that can get complicated really fast, so let me skip the long-winded explanation and give you the important bit.
Each type of AHA exists as a differently sized molecule. For our purposes, it works like this: The smaller the molecule is, the stronger it is. This means it has more exfoliation potential, but also more irritation potential.
Glycolic acid molecules are smaller and more potent, but there’s more potential to irritate your skin. Lactic acid is a middle-sized, Goldilocks molecule that’s a good balance of exfoliation and irritation potential. Mandelic acid is a much larger molecule, so it’s also much gentler, but you’ll find that it works a bit more slowly. (Which is fine! Marathon, remember?)
The smaller the AHA molecule is, the stronger it is. This means it has more exfoliation potential, but also more irritation potential.