For many of us, the word ‘acid’ screams toxic and corrosive. We come across dangerous acids every day (like cleaning solvents) so it’s hard not to paint a mental picture of hazardous substances. However, acids also naturally occur in things like fruits and plants, and a lot of these have the power to heal, hydrate, and even regenerate your skin.
So what exactly can they do? The question is, what do you want them to do? There are a number of benefits of acids in skincare, including exfoliating, hydrating, reducing premature ageing, preventing breakouts, and improving texture and tone. Below, we guide you through some of the main players so you can get a feel of the best ones for your skin.
"Acids have the power to heal, hydrate, and even regenerate your skin."
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
Alpha Hydroxy Acids are a group of natural acids often found in foods like citrus fruits (citric acid), sugar cane (glycolic acid), and apples (malic acid), but they can also be replicated synthetically (and more importantly, sustainably). AHAs are great for their exfoliating properties and have also been linked to a reduction in acne scars, hyper-pigmentation, and other discolourations. Here are two of our favourite types of AHAs:
Unlike Cleopatra, you don’t need to soak in a tub of milk to reap the benefits of lactic acid. It's naturally found in milk and tomato juice, although most skincare products use it in its synthetic form. What you’re likely to notice is brighter, smoother, and softer looking skin. It also moisturises like a pro, and is one of the best remedies for dry skin.
Suitable for all skin types, glycolic acid is a master at penetrating the skin and working at the deepest levels. This is why it is extremely effective for treating fine lines, dullness, breakouts and uneven textures.
Bottom line: make sure you’re slathering yourself in sunscreen daily if you’re using any kind of AHA-infused products. If used on a regular basis it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, making it more prone to damage. In addition, we’d recommend starting off with lower percentages of AHA’s, and observing how your skin reacts.
Citric acid (an AHA) is derived from citrus fruits. Image courtesy Unsplash.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
The key difference between AHAs and BHAs is that the latter is oil soluble. This makes BHAs a great pick for those with oily skin, as they can travel deep into the pores and dissolve oils that clog. BHAs also have exceptional anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, making them a holy grail for those who suffer from frequent breakouts.
One of the most commonly known BHAs is salicylic acid, derived from the bark of a willow tree. Although this can be your skin’s best friend, using too much of it can be counter-productive: higher concentrations and over frequency of application can result in redness, peeling, drying, and irritation. Moreover, try to refrain from using this if you have dry or sensitive skin, as it will more likely do more harm than good.
"BHAs have exceptional anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, great if you suffer from frequent breakouts."
Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHAs)
You’ve heard of AHAs and BHAs, but what about PHAs? These acids are wonderful alternatives for those with sensitive skin because they have a much larger molecule structure than AHAs and BHAs. This isn’t a con; it simply means that PHA’s penetrate and work their magic in a slower manner, making them a super gentle chemical exfoliant.
Additionally, PHAs are great humectants—substances that keep skin hydrated by drawing moisture from their surroundings. But, note that while PHAs are harmless and gentle enough to use daily, if paired with the wrong ingredients they can cause adverse reactions. For instance, we recommend avoiding using PHAs with Vitamin C and retinol.
Salicylic acid (a BHA) is derived from the bark of willow trees. Image courtesy Unsplash.
This gets a special mention because it’s easily one of the best ingredients for glowing skin. Our bodies naturally produce hyaluronic acid – a powerful humectant that keeps the skin well-hydrated – but unfortunately its production slows as we age. To make up for this loss, it’s possible to reintroduce hyaluronic acid to your skin by applying it topically.
Its benefits include boosting vibrancy and freshness, and preserving your youth. Thanks to its high molecular weight, it also forms a thin film on the surface of the skin, which supports its protective mechanism and blocks out all the nasty stuff—think environmental stressors like sun, pollution, and dust.
"Hyaluronic acid is easily one of the best ingredients for glowing skin."
We’re not surprised If you're tempted to give your skin a dose of these acids. However, it’s important to note that over-usage of acids, especially AHAs, BHAs and PHAs can trigger barrier damage, inflammation, and photosensitivity. Always check with your dermatologist or aesthetician before jumping on the acid train, and don’t forget your sunscreen, ever!
P.S. if you’re on the hunt for a super gentle acid-based exfoliant, we've just launched our very own Clean Slate Exfoliating Pads, powered by clean, plant-based ingredients! Check it out below.