Which Acids are Good for Acne?

July 03, 2024

If you’re plagued by breakouts, you’re likely already using acid-based skincare (or thinking about it). After all, “acid” sounds extremely potent and just the thing to put acne in its place. And this is one thousand percent true! But not every acid is right for acne, and you need to ensure you have the right mix if you want to quash breakouts. It actually takes more than one acid to do the job effectively. Here’s what to look for when you’re ready to get serious.

What are acids in skincare?

First of all, when we talk about acids and at-home skincare, we typically mean alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Those are the heavy-hitters famous for gently, but effectively, loosening dead cells and helping keep skin clear and bright. But those aren’t the only two acid types on the market. There’s also hyaluronic acid (an acid in name only), which is a popular humectant. And then there are many, many others, like dicarboxylic acid (azelaic acid is the most well-known in this category). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! In this article, however, we’re focusing solely on acids that treat acne, so we’re going to limit our scope to those.

BHAs for Acne: Start here or be sorry

BHA is a breakout sniper. If your acne-clearing treatment doesn’t contain BHA, then it’s not really a remedy for pimples, and you should just pack up your ball and go home. This is why: A clogged pore is the result of dead cells mixed with oil mixed with bacteria. And even though you see the result on the top of your skin, that plug starts forming deep inside your skin.

BHAs like salicylic acid (the most widely used BHA) are lipid soluble, which means they can be absorbed into skin’s oil factory areas. Those happen to be way down at the core of a pore. (AHAs are water soluble, so they can’t get father than the skin’s surface.) Why is this important? Remember that hydroxy acids work by loosening stuck-together cells. If there’s a wad of cells stuffed in your pore and it’s getting mixed with sebum, you’re going to develop a breakout. But if you break apart that cellular clump, both the dead cells and the surrounding oil will flow to the skin’s surface where they can be whisked away by AHAs. The point is, if you don’t use an oil-soluble ingredient that can penetrate to the heart of a pore, you’re never going to fix the inherent, acne-causing problem. Instead, you’ll be continually playing catchup as you try to clear breakouts after they’ve already developed, instead of stopping them from forming in the first place.

More acids for treating acne

BHAs work better with friends. Remember: BHAs deal with what’s inside the pore, but you also need something to help with what’s on top. That’s where AHAs and other acids enter the picture. But they’re not just there for exfoliation (in some cases, they’re not there to exfoliate period). Individual acids have their own unique benefits, which is what makes a product’s formulation the key to its success. It’s not great if your skin clears up, but it turns dry, red, and flaky as a result of your breakout treatment. The right acid blend can work synergistically to eradicate acne (yay) and also keep skin in peak condition (double yay). Here are five to look for on the label: 

Lactic acid

An AHA, lactic acid

Phytic acid

Also an AHA, phytic acid: 

  • Is found in grains, nuts, and legumes
  • Very gently exfoliates surface cells
  • Is a potent antioxidant
  • Helps balance oil production

Pyruvic acid

And another AHA, pyruvic acid: 

  • Is naturally present in our cells
  • Loosens surface cells
  • Is antimicrobial
  • Helps stimulate collagen and elastin formation

Azelaic acid

Not an AHA, azelaic acid is a chemical compound (dicarboxylic acid) that: 

  • Is found in certain cereal grains and also produced by a yeast naturally present on skin
  • Is antibacterial
  • Is an antioxidant 
  • Has anti-inflammatory properties

Hyaluronic acid

And not what you think of as an “acid” at all, hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan (GAG), or chain of sugar molecules, naturally present in cushiony spots, like our connective tissue. Some of hyaluronic acid’s key attributes:

  • Can be made by fermenting bacteria
  • Holds 1,000 times its weight in water
  • Is a humectant
  • Helps replenish skin’s moisture barrier

Acid-rich anti-acne skincare products

We’re so bullish on the power of (the right) acids to vanquish breakouts, we’re introducing two new skincare treatments that are basically built around the concept. 

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta 2% BHA Breakout Solution: We said above that BHA is a non-negotiable if you’re serious about getting rid of acne, and salicylic acid takes center stage here in a two-percent concentration. But we knew that salicylic acid alone wasn’t enough to provide a fully comprehensive treatment, so we added five more to the formula (including all the ones listed above) to create a full-face fix.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta On The Spot Eliminator: If you’re in need of a fast fix for a sudden breakout, you’re going to want three acids in your arsenal — salicylic to sink deep into the pore and break

Keep Reading

Stay up to date on the latest advice from our team of skincare experts.

Sign up to receive a monthly digest of skincare, wellness, and lifestyle tips.