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When it comes to exfoliation, I'm a proponent of chemical over physical methods every day of the week! But - where a face scrub is pretty straightforward - chemical products (which will 'unstick' dead skin cells from one another) aren't as easy to navigate. Today I'm going to sit down and talk through which ingredients work for which skin types and other considerations you may have when picking you perfect acid...
This ingredient is an AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and considered one of the mildest options in this sub-category of chemical exfoliators. Lactic acid is generally derived from milk sugars and is recommended for more mature skin and dry skin types, because it's great at getting rid of dark spots, can help fine lines and can promote cell turnover. It even has humectant properties, meaning it's actually hydrating for the skin. It's a gentle option, making it perfect for beginners, though it might not be as crazy-effective as other acids out there for those of you who are seasoned pros.
Lactic acid products to try...
Fourth Ray Beauty Reveal 10% AHA Serum | $15 | full review
REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic* | £25 | full review
- GLYCOLIC ACID -This is probably the most famous acid exfoliator out there (it's been extensively researched so is a well-trusted ingredient) and the one I kind of compare everything else to! Like Lactic Acid, it's an AHA, and Glycolic Acid has a small molecule size, meaning it can easily penetrate the skin. It's derived from sugar cane and fruit. It can help reduce the appearance of scarring and give the skin an overall glow-boost by breaking down the 'glue' between dead skin cells so they become loose and fall away.
Glycolic acid products to try...
Alpha-H Liquid Gold* | £33.50 | full review
Pixi Glow Tonic* | £18 | full review
Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Serum* | £85 | full review
- SALICYLIC ACID & WILLOW BARK -We're moving into BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids), which are oil-soluble so can penetrate into your pores, making them perfect for oily, spot-prone skin. Not only do they exfoliate, helping surface blemish scars, but they get in there and treat active breakouts. I've bunched these two together because salicylic acid is derived from willow bark; it just goes through a further chemical process. Willow Bark used in its pure form does not have the same level of scientific backing when it comes to treating acne as salicylic acid, however some people have a preference for 'natural' ingredients and this could be an alternative for them.
Salicylic acid products to try...
The Ordinary 2% Salicylic Acid Masque* | £9.90 | full review coming soon
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant* | £28 | full review
Caudalie Vinopure Clear Skin Purifying Toner* | £18 | full review
Willow bark products to try...
REN ClearCalm Non-Drying Spot Treatment* | £15 | full review
- POLYHYDROXY ACIDS -This ingredient is a little newer to me - PHAs have a large molecule size so definitely give more of a surface exfoliation when compared to AHAs and BHAs. However the upshot of this is that they're sensitive-skin-friendly. Glycolic acid can irritate some people's skin, causing a tingling or even burning sensation, whereas PHAs are unlikely to cause such issues. They come in two main forms; gluconolactone and lactobionic acid. These ingredients are also antioxidant-rich so can even help to repair the skin. They also don't increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, unlike other chemical exfoliants (we'll discuss that a little later on).
Polyhydroxy acid products to try...
The Inkey List PHA Toner | £9.99 | full review
- OTHER CONSIDERATIONS -Vegan status
PHAs and Lactic Acids are generally not vegan and even some AHAs may not be vegan, so if you follow a vegan lifestyle; be sure to research the product in question before making your purchase.
Not even all of the products mentioned above are fragrance-free and - particularly if you have sensitive skin - fragrance and acid exfoliation could be a bad combination. You're putting your skin through a sensitising process and then adding another potential sensitiser into the mix when your skin is already compromised. Be sure to check the ingredient list and ensure there are no components that cause you irritation before committing to an acid.
Not all acids are pregnancy-safe - salicylic acid is usually the one singled out - so if you're pregnant or breast-feeding, make sure you check with your GP what is safe to use on your skin.
Acids are essentially removing the uppermost layer of skin from your face, so it isn't surprising that they can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun. I recommend either using your acid in the evening or ensuring you're diligent about applying sunscreen before heading out - no matter what time of year it is.
Some people just have more sensitive skin than others (though, as I'll cover off next, you can build a degree of tolerance to acids) and might not be able to tolerate what others can. If you're experiencing anything more than a mild tingling sensation; the acid, the product's concentration or the frequency of use aren't right for you. Listen to your skin; exfoliation shouldn't make your skin noticeably red or cause burning.
Concentration and frequency
I definitely recommend starting out with a product between 0.5% concentration and 2% if you're wanting to try AHAs or BHAs for the first time. I would use the product no more than three times a week initially and see how your skin takes it over a month or two. If you can tolerate it, the maximum concentration you're really going to get is 10%, however if you want something to use every other day then go for a 5% formula. Try not to over-exfoliate; you don't need to use your acid every single day.
Generally, whilst cleansers can deliver results to an extent, and masks will give you an intense quick hit of the ingredient; I find leave-on products to be most effective at exfoliating the skin. Serums are good and toners are the best - perhaps because you also have the very slight manual exfoliation of the cotton wool pad to buff away the dead skin cells your acid has loosened up.
One little note for those who bleach hair on their face such as their upper lip; I've had several friends tell me that acids tend to 'remove' the bleach. In addition to this, you don't want to use an acid immediately before or after bleaching because it will probably inflame the area. A way around this would be to use a more powerful mask or treatment once a week, a good day before your bleaching (as opposed to a toner, which will be milder and designed to be used regularly).
Finally, acids don't mix with all ingredients. Different actives work best at different pH levels and whilst you may come across, say, a Vitamin C and Lactic Acid cleanser, those products have been specially formulated so the ingredients work together. If you're mixing and matching separate products yourself, you risk damaging your skin or just cancelling out the benefits of both ingredients. Likewise, retinols and acids generally aren't great to mix together; they're just both very intense products that can cause irritation, so combining them will be too much for a lot of people.
Do you use acids in your skincare routine? What's your favourite?