By now, you should be convinced of the need for hydroxy acids in your life. (If you’re still on the fence, go here and here.) The next step is figuring out which hydroxy acid is your dream date. Will it be the OG of the AHAs, glycolic acid? Or perhaps the anti-acne stalwart, salicylic acid? Base your decision on your skin type and its needs, then go from there. Believe it or not, there truly is a hydroxy acid out there for everyone, so dive in!
Determine Your Skin Type
Facial skin falls into one of four basic categories, listed below. See which one best describes your current situation, then use that information to determine the ideal hydroxy acid to meet your needs.
It Me: Skin is often shiny or greasy, and pores are frequently clogged, as well as enlarged.
It Me: Skin can be dry in some areas and oily in others. Blemishes happen more often than not, and pores are visible.
It Me: Neither flaky nor oily, skin is smooth with minimal discoloration. See also: unicorn.
It Me: Skin has flaky or dry patches, may feel dehydrated overall, and can often exhibit signs of irritation or redness.
Breaking Down The Acids You Need Based On Your Skin Type:
- Glycolic Acid
- Salicylic Acid
Benefits of Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid
Dealing with a complexion manufacturing excess sebum (and the trickle-down effects that occur as a result) requires the one-two punch of the tiniest AHA, along with the tried-and-true, derm-favored BHA. Glycolic acid, the most well-researched of all the AHAs, also has the smallest molecular size.
This allows it to go deeper into skin than the rest of the AHA family. It clears out the surface gunk that’s contributing to clogged pores, while also assisting the skin in holding onto moisture (good news since acne treatments can sometimes be drying). Plus, it revs up collagen growth, improving your skin’s appearance overall.
Salicylic acid, a BHA, sinks deep into the core of a pore to break apart the clump of dead cells that’s blocking the pore’s opening and preventing sebum from flowing freely to the surface. And it has antibacterial properties, so it helps quash the P. acnes bacteria that’s exacerbating your plugged-pore situation.
- Mandelic Acid
- Tartaric Acid
Benefits of Mandelic Acid and Tartaric Acid
With skin that’s oily in some places and balanced in others, the tightrope you’re trying to walk is preventing a pimple without overdrying other areas of your face in the process.
This is where mandelic acid comes in. Its antibacterial qualities mean it vanquishes acne, but it boasts anti-irritant properties as well, so it won’t provoke skin into an inflamed rage. And collagen-depleting free radicals don’t stand a chance with tartaric acid—it’s an antioxidant.
- Citric Acid
- Malic Acid
Benefits of Citric Acid and Malic Acid
Yes, both will get rid of dead cells, freshen skin, and stimulate the formation of new collagen. But those are just table stakes for an AHA. Citric acid is an antioxidant, so it neutralizes the free radicals intent on breaking down the collagen and elastin in your skin.
But that’s not all! This AHA also possesses astringent properties, which help keep skin’s oil production on an even keel. On the other hand, malic acid, another AHA, boasts humectant qualities. As a result, it can pull moisture from the surrounding air into skin, ensuring it stays soft and supple.
- Lactic Acid
Benefits of Lactic Acid
This AHA, which is most frequently derived from milk (but can also come from vegan sources), does more than increase cell turnover. (Yes, you still need to exfoliate dry skin. For one thing, it eliminates immediate flaky patches. But secondly, exfoliation helps create a more even and consistent skin surface over time.)
Lactic acid has also been shown to stimulate ceramide production. Ceramides are basically lipids that hold skin cells together. Make more of them, and it’s like repointing the brick walls of your house. You’ll end up with a stronger skin barrier, which has the dual benefit of holding moisture in and keeping irritants out.
How To Know If Something’s Not Right
It may take a bit of trial and error to find the hydroxy acid (or acids) that checks all the boxes for your skin. If you’re experiencing flaking, burning, or peeling, that’s a pretty good indication that a change in your regimen is required asap. Your choice of acid may be too strong, or you could be using it too frequently. Or you may need a switch to a completely different product format or acid type. If all that sounds overwhelming, you’re right! Every person is unique, which is awesome, but also confusing, when you’re trying to plot out a skincare routine. For that reason, you may want to book a one-on-one consultation with a dermatologist or professional aesthetician, who can help you determine the best way to meet your individual skin needs and goals.
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