AHAs + BHAs + PHAs: The Powers Of Acid In Skincare

I first began researching acids after a particularly persistent resurgence of adult acne reared up like a redneck mob to terrorise my face. I had one course of Roaccutane under my belt and, I sorrowfully suspected, a second one in my future. Trying to prolong the inevitable return to prescriptive drugs I thew myself into the world of skincare; researching and testing innumerable products and treatments with the tireless energy of an evangelist. After two years of experimenting, I can honestly say that incorporating acids into my beauty routine has transformed my skin. It did not, however, cure my acne. This may sound counterintuitive, but I truly believe that is entirely possible to have both acne and good skin. Yes, there were red, inflamed, confidence crushing mounds on the cheeks of my face. The skin around these cystic blemishes, however, was smooth, glowing and free from pigmentation. The beginnings of a superficial line above my left eyebrow (payment for a lifetime’s worth of quizzical raising) faded more level with the right. My T-zone, neck and chest had never looked better. Ultimately, I chose to think of my acne as not ‘my skin’ but as a temporary and tiresome tenant whose lease would soon expire and, when it did, I wanted my skin to be in the best condition possible. Acids can help everyone, acne or not, to achieve that.

What will acids do for me? 

Different acids will target different skin concerns but at a base level, acids will lower the PH balance of your skin, speed up cell regeneration and exfoliate the skin without the harsh and harmful beads found in traditional ‘scrubs’, allowing other surface products such as serums to penetrate more deeply and work more effectively.

Where in my routine should I use them? 

I follow the advice of beauty expert Caroline Hirons, using my acid products after I cleanse and before applying serum. Certain acids such as Pixi Glow Tonic can be used twice daily while others such as Alpha H Liquid Gold are designed to  be used no more than two or three times per week. Directions for each product will vary but as a step in a routine the place will rarely change. It is vital to use an SPF every day when using acids (and when not, obviously, but even more so) which I sandwich between my moisturiser and my primer. I currently use an SPF50 as I like the ingredients, consistency and affordability of this particular product but, as research suggests that the difference between an SPF30 and SPF50 is negligible, anything containing an SPF30 or above is perfect.

AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids)

AHAs can be summarised as liquids that exfoliate the skin, sloughing away the dead cells to encourage new cells to generate and boosting the production of collagen. Continued use will resurface and smooth the skin while fading acne scars, sun damage and pigmentation.

The most common AHAs include:

  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Fruit acid

Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane and has the smallest molecular structure, allowing it to penetrate the skin effectively. Lactic acid is derived from fermented milk and is considered more gentle on the skin that glycolic acid. Fruit acids will rarely be listed on an ingredients list as such, except in the case of natural enzyme peels that contain whole ingredients such as pumpkin or papaya. Look out for malic acid (occurs in most fruits, notably apples), citric acid (oranges, lemons) and tartaric acid (mostly derived from grapes).

BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids)

BHAs are more commonly referred to as salicylic acid, the sebum regulating, anti-inflammatory agent added to the majority of acne fighting off-the-shelf products. The beauty of salicylic acid is that it is oil soluble which means, in lay terms, that it utilises the excess oil present in problem skin to penetrate the pores and clear them out. If using salicylic acid I tend to favour products that also contain glycolic acid. Cane + Austin Acne Treatment Pads containing 5% glycolic and 2% salicylic are a good place to start.

For something containing purely BHA acid I like Korean export Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (available via Amazon UK ) and the Paula’s Choice BHA range which comes in both 1% and 2% strength. 

PHAs Polyhydroxy Acids

PHAs are lesser known and extremely similar to AHAs. The difference between them comes down to molecule structure. PHAs have a larger molecule structure meaning that they penetrate the skin less deeply, making them a gentler option. I have something of an aversion to the words ‘more gentle’, usually equating it with ‘less effective’ in my mind. However, for the more cautious or more sensitive skinned among us, PHAs could prove a more comfortable place to start.

The most common PHA ingredients to look out for include:

  • Gluconolactone acid
  • Lactobionic acid

Gluconolactone holds water and forms a barrier on the skin to prevent the moisture from evaporating. Lactobionic acid performs a similar function to glycolic but can cause less irritation. Zelens are a brand at the higher end of the price scale, but these Bio-Peel Resurfacing Pads have received rave reviews and contains a mixture of PHAs, AHAs and BHAs to create an all in one treatment that, owing to the PHA content, should be the perfect, cover all bases product for use on sensitive skin. 

Hyaluronic Acid 

A slightly different kettle of fish, hyaluronic acid is compound that occurs naturally in the skin that can hold over 1000 times it’s weight in water, making it a powerful plumping agent. I incorporate hyaluronic acid at the serum stage of my routine with Indeed Labs Hydraluron Moisture Booster so, for me, it performs a different function to the other acid types listed. However, an increasing number of peel products feature sodium hyaluronate, the sodium salt of hyaluronic acid, in their composition so that the benefits can also be reaped at the exfoliation stage. Kiehls Overnight Biological Peel has combined it with PH balancing HEPES and cell renewing urea to create gentle overnight treatment that can be used up to three times per week.

Note: I am not a trained aesthetician, all opinions expressed in the beauty section of this site are the result of my own research, trials and errors. 

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