To have a discussion about skincare at the current moment is to have a discussion about acid; virtually all of the buzziest products out there are wielding some of those powerful ions and molecules in order to exfoliate, hydrate, plump, and perform various other small miracles on your skin.
But connotatively speaking, acid has something of a bad reputation (cueJoan Jett). Blame it on the D.A.R.E. campaigns of our youths, alkaline diet fads, and that scene fromBreaking Badwhere Jesse accidentally dissolves his entire bathtub and bathroom floor along with some dead bodies; on the surface, acid seems v scary. And acid in its most potent forms is definitely no joke (just Google “chemical face peel gone wrong” if you’re into giving yourself nightmares).
In recent years, though, chemical exfoliants have made their way out of the dermatologist’s office and into over-the-counter products that promise a safe way to brighten, tighten, clarify, and otherwise give you that glowy glow.
While various acids have emerged as skincare superstars, two of the most common that are used as exfoliants (aka they burn your face off a lil bit) are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which typically take the form of glycolic, lactic, citric, and tartaric acids; and beta hydroxy acid (BHAs), which most commonly takes the form of salicylic acid.
“Physicians will use higher concentrations of AHA and BHAs for chemical peels,” explains Dr. Amanda Zubek, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale. “These higher concentrations must be used by experienced clinicians, as great care is taken to control the amount of time of exposure and many other factors are considered.” But the at-home products that have emerged on the market in recent years are quite safe, as their concentrations are generally under the 10 percent range and formulated to “limit potential adverse effects and maximize beneficial effects,” she says.
If you’re looking to bring some acid into your life on the regular, here’s what you need to know in order to reap those benefits without having your skin end up resembling an uncooked steak.
Acid, but make it foolproof
Zubek explains that both the short-term and long-term effects of AHAs and BHAs have been studied extensively, and the over-the-counter products on the market today have been formulated so that they’re quite difficult to misuse.
“While they are indeed acids, they are not extremely potent acids in the corrosive sense,” she says. “I recommend the over-the-counter AHAs frequently for common skin conditions such as acne, dry skin, psoriasis, and seborrheic dermatitis.”
Zubek also points out that, in addition to exfoliation, these acids thicken the epidermis (your top layer of skin) and increase collagen and hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring compound in your body that keeps your skin hydrated. “They also improve the quality of the elastic fibers in the supporting middle layer of skin, called the dermis,” she says. “Overall, this leads to improved texture, decreased fine wrinkles, improvement in skin tone, and [an evening out of the] pigmentation of the skin.”
But even using products formulated for minimal irritation doesn’t guarantee your skin is immune from a freak-out sesh. Renowned aesthetician and celebrity skin guruJoanna Vargasrecommends testing the waters before jumping all the way in: “Always test a patch of skin on the neck and jaw to make sure there are no adverse reactions to the product being used,” she says.
Additionally, both Vargas and Zubek recommend using only one acid at a time. Products such as vitamin C and hyaluronic acids generally shouldn’t be layered with AHAs and BHAs. Zubek suggests using one in the morning and one at night, noting that combining them may increase your risk of skin irritation.
Options for the acne-prone
For those trying to put the kibosh on their acne, chemical exfoliants can be a dream come true. “Mechanical exfoliants are a bad choice for active inflammatory acne,” says New Orleans-based dermatologistDr. Mary Lupo, warning against products like a coarse, granular scrub or an exfoliating brush. “Mechanical exfoliation can de-roof the lesion and increase the risk of scarring or dyspigmentation.”
A BHA like salicylic acid, on the other hand, can effectively combat acne because it is oil-soluble and can therefore penetrate into the pores of your skin, encouraging exfoliation and cell turnover on a deeper level. It can also reduce sebum production, which can help keep acne at bay.
Salicylic acid is commonly found in products like the ubiquitous Oil-Free Acne Wash from Neutrogena, which is on the mild end of the spectrum. For something a little more intense, swoop a leave-on version like theSalicylic Acid 2% Solutionfrom The Ordinary. Salicylic acid also makes an appearance in much-hypedSupernova Serumfrom Joanna Vargas, and the more potentShiffa Tri-Acid Radiance Peel, which backs a three-pronged wallop with glycolic acids, lactic acid,andsalicylic acid.
Here comes the sun
Of course, you’re alreadywearing sunscreen every day—just like you’re flossing after every meal, drinking copious amounts of water, andregularly contributing to your retirement account. But just a heads up that if you are using AHAs, BHAs, or retinoids in your skincare routine, it’s super imperative that you’re protecting yourself adequately against the sun, because these products increase your skin’s photosensitivity.
“This means it will be easier to get a sunburn,” explains Zubek, “especially when if [you’re using acids in] a stronger prescription form.” On the other hand, she notes that while long-term use of AHAs and BHAs can increase overall photosensitivity, AHAs have also been shown to improve photodamage incurred from sun exposure. In other words, take advantage of AHAs’ ability toundodamage from the sun, but be careful not to get caught up in a Catch-22 where you’re increasing your risk for damage, then attempting to undo it, and so on and so on.
“Obviously, sun protection plus a hat are key,” Vargas says, adding that implementing a calming cream or serum after a dose of acid can maximize benefits.