There are many friendly acids used in skin care, such as AHAs, BHAs and PHAs. They each have their own particular benefits. AHAs or, Alpha Hydroxy Acids, are used for their ability to exfoliate and promote greater moisturisation and collagen synthesis. BHAs, or more correctly Beta Hydroxy Acid as there is really only one type, are better known for reducing sebum production, controlling breakouts and limiting pigmentation. And then there are PHAs that function similarly to AHAs, however are gentler on the skin.
Enzymes are also used in skin care products, ranging from cleansers to creams, to exfoliate and soften the skin, however they are considered gentler and therefore more likely to be tolerated by less robust skin types.
AHAs, BHAs and PHAs have increasingly replaced physical scrubs because they remove dead skin in a more controlled and non-abrasive way, which is less damaging to the skin. When used as part of a home routine, they can promote a smoother, softer and more glowing looking skin, as well as help other ingredients better absorb – and this is a must if you want your actives and correctives to do their job.
These exfoliants can be great for the skin, however because of their lauded benefits they are being overused. By applying them everyday, you could compromise your skin barrier. Try using them only a few times a week, and avoid applying them on days you use retinoids.
Peels too can be powerful skin anti-ageing agents, however it is best to have these professionally done to ensure they are tailored to you and they improve your skin, rather than harm it.
Read on to find out more about AHAs, BHAs and PHAs, and get into the nitty gritty of what they do so that you can decide whether they should be part of your skin care routine.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids work on the surface of your skin to gently dissolve the bonds between the dead skin cells so they can be easily removed, leading to softer and smoother skin. They can also reduce the appearance of fine lines, acne scars and pigmentation.
AHAs are water soluble and only penetrate the surface of the skin, leading to softer skin. Despite this, there is some research that Glycolic Acid, the most well known of these treatments, can deliver deeper benefits by increasing the production of collagen by the fibroblasts in our skin, even more so than AHAs Lactic Acid or Malic Acid. Despite this, A 0.05% Retinoic Acid is still considered more effective than a 10% Glycolic Acid in tackling signs of ageing in the skin.
Even though Glycolic Acid is the best known and most used. Lactic Acid, Malic Acid, Mandelic Acid and Citric Acid are other types that are often used.
When overused, AHAs have the potential to weaken the protective barrier of the skin and cause irritation, inflammation and damage in the longer term. It is generally recommended not to use them at the same time as retinoids.
AHAs suit most skin types, except possibly sensitive and rosacea skins.
Beta Hydroxy Acid is more commonly known as Salicylic Acid. It is oil-soluble and can penetrate beneath the skin’s surface to clean out excess sebum from the pores and reduce oiliness.
Less well known is Lipohydroxy Acid (LHA), a derivative of Salicylic Acid, that also helps to clean pores and exfoliate. Lipohydroxy Acid penetrates less deeply than Salicylic Acid and therefore is gentler, however its lipophilic properties means it is better able to dissolve in lipids.
Salicylic Acid was originally derived from the bark of the willow tree, however these days it is created by laboratories. Nonetheless we do see some products using it in its naturally derived form. Both forms have anti-inflammatory properties, help exfoliate and encourage new cell growth in skin. BHA is more active in its Salicylic Acid form rather than as Willow Bark Extract.
BHA is best suited to those with acne or oily skin, however because of its broader benefits Salicylic Acid also shows up in anti-ageing products. While effective, it can also dry out the skin, lead to skin irritation, redness and sunburn or potentially even stimulate further oil production, the very thing someone with blemish-prone skin was trying to address in the first place. This is more likely to be a problem if it is over-used.
If you just need to manage a mildly oily skin or prevent occasional breakouts, you may find that using a cleanser with BHA works for you. Otherwise you may need to also incorporate BHA into your leave-on products, again being careful not to overdo it.
It is generally a safe ingredient, but anyone who is pregnant, breast-feeding, diabetic or is taking Aspirin regularly, should always talk to their doctor before using it. Despite Salicylic Acid often being used for acne, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 19 do not take Salicylic Acid or other Aspirin-like ingredients.
Azelaic Acid is another acid used in skin care. It is typically used to combat acne and skin blemishes, but it is not a BHA or an AHA, rather it is a Dicarboxylic Acid. It has been found to work similarly to Salicylic Acid in that it helps unclog pores and refine the skin.
Due to its strong pedigree, Azelaic Acid is even found in prescription only topical products for those with acne, in concentrations of 15-20%. This is due to Azelaic Acid’s remarkable ability to interrupt what is happening in the top layers of the skin and have effect on blemishes, hyperpigmentation and post-blemish marks.
Additionally, Azelaic Acid has been found to have antioxidant benefits and to lessen blemishes and calm down sensitivity.
Azeleaic Acid is not as strong an exfoliator as AHAs or BHA, but this also means that it is better tolerated in leave-on products and by more pernickety skin types.
Polyhydroxy Acids are the least well known of the skin care acids. PHAs are similar to AHAs, but with larger molecules. This means they penetrate the skin less thoroughly and are less likely to induce side effects.
Suffer from sensitive skin? PHAs may well be the answer for you. Look out for ingredients such Gluconolactone, Galactose, Lactobionic Acid and Maltobionic Acid on your product labels to be able to identify them. Not only are they well tolerated, it has been found that most Polyhydroxy Acids also have antioxidant properties.
Like AHAs and BHAs, PHAs exfoliate dead skin cells, help achieve a more even skin tone, smooth the surface of the skin and make it easier for active ingredients and treatment products to work their magic.