Is It Time To Rethink The Acids In Our Skincare?

Photo: Kate Anglestein
Acids are no longer reserved for monthly facials with a dermatologist, having become a mainstay of our bathroom shelves. Cult Beauty has over 200 products containing the word 'acid' and Space.NK has nearly 300. But are they for everyone? We have a tendency in beauty to follow the leaders, whether or not our skin agrees, but with something as harsh as an acid, this isn't always wise.
First things first; it's important to understand the distinctions between acids. "There are different kinds of acids used in skincare – some are very beneficial. For example, hyaluronic acid, which helps refill the skin's moisture reservoirs due to its very high ability to bind water," celebrity facialist and dermatologist Dr. Barbara Sturm explains. "Hyaluronic acid is a natural component of our skin whose production diminishes with age. We can replenish it through topical application or supplemented oral intake."
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Next up, there are AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids). "All acids have an exfoliating effect but AHAs can be used by all skin types, while BHAs are good for people with problematic skin as they have an antibacterial effect and prevent clogged pores," Lixir Skin founder Colette Haydon tells Refinery29. "Each acid offers a special benefit: Lactic acid improves hydration, lactobionic acid reduces oxidative stress (which makes your skin look dull and grey) and phytic acid eliminates heavy metals to detoxify the skin. Salicylic acid is antibacterial and prevents clogged pores and azelaic acid controls sebum."
When there are so many options, how do we know what will work for our skin type? Should someone with sensitive skin be using it as much or in as high a concentration as someone with dry skin? And does age come into it at all? "The 'good' acids like hyaluronic acid or citric acids support the skin with moisture, strong anti-oxidative effects and other valuable benefits," Dr. Sturm says. "The acids that damage the skin, however, cause a serious disruption of its protective barrier and often cause dehydration. They accelerate the cell renewal and cause a long-term effect of the skin thinning out, as the cells cannot divine infinity. This affects all skin types, but someone with very sensitive skin might suffer a faster negative response, which could lead to serious cases of hyperkeratosis."
While this sounds scary, rest assured that the acids you'll find on the market are regulated by the EU. "The critical point is the concentration used on our skin," Dr. Mirela Mitan, CEO and founder of MMXV INFINITUDE, states. "The safety level in cosmetic products is if the concentrations are lower than 10% at final formulation (pH > 3.5) and when formulated to avoid increasing sun sensitivity or used with daily sun protection. When applied by trained professionals, in beauty salons, the AHAs are safe at concentrations less than 30% at final formulation and a pH higher than 3. If applied according to a dermatologist's recommendation, an even higher concentration of AHA preparation could be considered safe to use."
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So once you've found a good acid that works for your skin type, and made sure it's lower than 10% in concentration and above 3.5% pH level, the next step is making sure you apply it properly. "It’s very important to only apply acid at night and never use it on holiday when you’re exposed to the sun," Haydon warns. Of course, apply SPF every day when using acids, too.
If you think your skin is too sensitive, or you've had bad reactions in the past but still want that cobweb-blasting exfoliation, there are alternatives to acids. "Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, is an acid but it’s not an AHA, so it won’t exfoliate your skin and it will just give you a magic quick fix of radiance," Haydon says. "It’s a wonderful ingredient, one of the most active of them all and is increasingly beneficial to your skin with continued use."
"An alternative to AHAs are called PHAs (Polyhydroxy Acids) and bionic acids, which carry similar effects of AHA without the possibility of skin irritation," Mitan explains. "PHA is more compatible with sensitive skin, has better moisturisation activity and enhances skin barrier function." So whether you stick with the popular acids in your skincare routine, or you try out their alternatives, there are countless ways to get the glow this winter.