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Your Guide to the Confusing World of Skincare Acids

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We don't blame anyone for being afraid of venturing into the acid skincare game. My greatest fear when first trying acids was that I would go through something like the face melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What really happens is skin cell turnover—old cells make way for new ones, and depending on the kind of acids (and their molecular size and strength), your skin can undergo different transformations.

Thanks to our smart perfect beautiful and honest community (we could go on and on and on), we have hundreds of reviews of skincare products that contain acid. But first, let's learn about what each of them can do for you. Whip out your notebooks, because this lesson is a doozy.

First of all, what the heck are AHAs and BHAs?

Most acids fit into the category of either AHA and BHA. They're kinds of hydroxy acids and their job is to encourage cell turnover. In doing so, they can reduce signs of acne, inflammation, and rosacea, and they can even out your skin's tone and texture. If we can give you one piece of advice when using acids, it's to also wear sunscreen diligently; they make your skin extra sensitive to the sun. Now let's get into how they're different.


Alpha hydroxy acids are chemical exfoliants that come from fruit and milk sugars. They help remove dead skin cells and they also have humectant properties. Over time, AHAs can also thicken your skin and help produce more collagen. Here are the most common kinds of alpha hydroxy acids in skincare:

Lactic acid. This acid is used to exfoliate your skin, lighten dark spots, and reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Try Glossier Solution or The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10%.

Glycolic Acid. This acid has the smallest molecular size, meaning it penetrates the deepest into your skin. Experts suggest that you start with a low percentage and work your way up. Try L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Bright Reveal Cleanser or Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser.

Tartaric Acid. This acid is the lesser known AHA, and it's one of the main acids in wine. It has antioxidant properties just like the others, and tartaric acid salts are used as pH adjusters in cosmetics. Try The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% or MD Skin Care Clinical Concentrate Radiance Booster.

Citric Acid. This acid adjusts acidity and promotes skin peeling and re-growth when incorporated in anti-aging products. Try SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub or OSEA Ocean Skincare Cleansing Mud.

Malic Acid. This acid is a popular ingredient in anti-aging products because it improves hyperpigmentation (darker patches of skin) by decreasing the production of melanin. Try Herbivore Prism Exfoliating Glow Potion or Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment.

Mandelic Acid. This acid is also popular in anti-aging products because it helps speed up cell turnover and removes dead skin cells that can cause a dull-looking complexion. Try The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA or Stratia Soft Touch AHA.

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution 240ml
The Shortcut Overnight Facial Peel
Glycolic Foaming Cleanser


Whereas AHAs are water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble. They can get deeper into your pores and remove dead skin cells and excess sebum, so BHAs are more about fighting acne. Here are the most common kinds of beta hydroxy acids in skincare:

Salicylic acid. This acid is an acne treatment, but it can also help reduce redness and inflammation. Try The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% or Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel.

Citric Acid. This acid is the lesser studied BHA, and it's formulations can be found in both AHAs and BHAs. It's an exfoliant that dries out excess sebum in your pores and clean out dead skin cells. Try Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator or Tatcha Pore Perfecting Cleanser.

Zit Stick
T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Face Wash

The Outsider Acids:

Hyaluronic acid (HA): The word acid is a little misleading here, because this acid is not like the others (we we included it anyway, since it's one of the most talked about ingredients in skincare). Your body is already full of hyaluronic acid, and roughly half of it is already in your skin, where it performs a function of binding to water to retain moisture in your skin and keep it looking plump. And that's exactly what products containing hyaluronic acid do; they allow your skin to hold more water, thus keeping it hydrated, bouncy, and looking like glass.

Try Glossier Super Bounce serum, Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydrating Serum, The Ordinary Hyaluronic acid 2%, or Tata Harper Hyaluronic Reparative Moisturizer.

Ferulic acid: This acid is an antioxidant that is found in the cell wall of plants. FYI, antioxidants are compounds that stop oxidation, which is a chemical reaction that produces free radicals, which damages the cells of organisms. This kind of acid can protect your skin from free radicals (toxic byproducts of oxygen metabolism that damage cells and tissue) which prevents fine lines and wrinkles, and it's frequently paired with Vitamin C and E.

Try The Ordinary "Buffet" serum, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, Timeless Skin Care 20% Vitamin C Plus E Ferulic Acid Serum (dupe!), Mario Badescu Vitamin C serum, or Paula's Choice BOOST C15.

B-Hydra™ Intensive Hydration Serum
Vitamin C Serum
The Ordinary Buffet 30ml
What are your favorite skincare products that contain acids? What do they do for you and why do you love them? Add your review!


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