A beginner’s guide to acids

They’re fast becoming a skincare staple – but what are they and what should you choose for your skin type and concern?

Acids have become the skincare industry’s new favourite type of ingredient. They might sound scary, but they’re actually just another way to exfoliate. Instead of scrubbing away at superficial layers of skin using grainy products, we’re now opting for chemical solutions.

‘Acids have a number of potential effects on skin’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk. ‘These include loosening the cement between dead skin cells to help smooth and brighten dull skin, unblocking pores and reducing fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen density,’ she explains.

They’re usually either AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) or BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids) – the former are, as Kluk explains, are a group of naturally-occuring acids such as glycolic (derived from sugar cane), lactic (from sour milk) and mandelic (from almonds).

‘When these types of ingredients are incorporated into skincare products or chemical peels, they can help to fade pigmentation, smooth out skin tone and minimise fine lines,’ she says.

BHAs are better known as salicylic acid, which works in much the same way as an AHA, but – importantly – it’s a comedolytic agent, which means its primary action is to help unblock pores. ‘In short, that means it’s more effective at reducing oiliness and treating blackheads than AHAs are,’ says Kluk.

Can anybody use acid in their skincare routine?

The type of acid you choose should be tailored to your particular skin concern. Kluk advises strict caution before introducing an acid if you’re already using other potential skin irritants, like retinol.

‘Care should also be taken if you’re combining acids, too – unless you’re a seasoned user and have already built up your skin’s tolerance,’ she says.

That’s because the risk of peeling, redness, stinging or burning can become a lot higher. She also says that people with dry or sensitive skin – or those who suffer from conditions like eczema or rosacea – shouldn’t use acids without seeking expert guidance first.

‘It’s almost important to note that results are cumulative, but due to their exfoliating action, acids can leave your skin looking immediately refreshed. Overuse of them can cause harm though, so always follow instructions – and remember that using them more won’t give you better, quicker or faster results.’

What acid should you choose?

We’ve rounded up the five most common, what they do and who they are best for.

Glycolic acid

Best for: eradicating fine lines and wrinkles.

What does it do? Cited as the most effective, glycolic acid can also be the harshest on skin. “The smaller size of the molecules means they can penetrate more deeply in the skin, stimulating collagen and elastin to increase firmness and elasticity of skin,” says Kluk.

Try: Skinceuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, £80

Azelaic acid

Best for: reducing redness and inflammation

What does it do? Regarded as an unsung hero, it’s more gentle than other acids, making it suitable for many acne and rosacea sufferers (always seek expert advice if you’re unsure though). It also helps get rid of ingrown hairs post-shave.

Try: Sesderma Azelac Lotion, £18.20

Mandelic acid

Best for: increasing skin’s radiance

What does it do? Mandelic acid can give your skin an instant glow with minimal downtime by providing superficial exfoliation to brighten dull skin. ‘The larger particle size means it won’t penetrate as deeply as say, glycolic, but it may be better tolerated by reactive and sensitive skin types,’ says Kluk.

Try: The Ordinary Madelic Acid 10% + HA, £5.80

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Lactic acid

Best for: improving hydration and improving skin texture

What does it do? ‘It’s an excellent humectant, meaning it’s good for improving hydration by drawing moisturiser into the skin,’ says Kluk. It’s also a good one to help exfoliate away any roughness and getting rid of bumpy skin – it’s especially recommended for things like chicken skin, otherwise known as keratosis pilaris, that some people get on the backs of their arms.

Try: Ameliorate Fragrance Free Transforming Body Lotion, £22.50

Salicylic acid

Best for: oily, congested skin

What does it do? ‘It helps eliminate blackheads by unblocking pores and soaking up any extra shine that oily skin types can be prone to,’ explains Kluk. It can also be directly applied to spots because of its anti-inflammatory properties.

Try: Murad Rapid Relief Spot Treatment, £17

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