Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are extremely well studied cosmeceutical active ingredients that have been used and sworn by for decades.
For skin care novices, AHAs are very effective exfoliants that have the ability to even skin tone and texture. For this reason, they are commonly used to manage congested, bumpy skin and to restore skin radiance. But that’s not all they can do.
Scientific studies on AHAs also confirm their anti-aging effects. AHAs achieve this effect because they have the ability to boost collagen production and increase collagen density in the dermis; a key task that helps to reduce and prevent the appearance of wrinkles. Not to mention, AHAs also brighten skin tone and can be used to treat all forms of hyperpigmentation, such as melasma, sunspots, and acne marks.
On that last point, it’s important to note that this ingredient isn’t just limited to facial-use. It can be used on your chest and other acne-prone areas as well. This won’t only get rid of acne marks but it’ll also prevent and clear-up acne. Essentially, acne is produced by pores being clogged with dead skin cells. Among other things, AHAs can work to unclog those pores as well as make pores smaller to reduce the chance of future clogs.
There are two main ways to use AHAs: either through skin care alpha-hydroxy acid products or via medically-administered peels. The former is safe for adding to your daily skin care routine and will take roughly one to two months to see results. On the other hand, the latter should only be done infrequently since they contain a higher concentration of AHAs.
In regards to topical skincare, you can get it in the form of a wash-off product, such as an exfoliant, or a leave-on product. Of course, it’s totally up to personal preference which one you choose, since both of these methods will yield similar results. This is yet another reason why AHAs are great - they are so widely available and thoroughly researched that you can use them with ease and confidence.
Having said this, a small disclaimer does need to be issued. If you have pre-existing skin-conditions such as rosacea or eczema it would probably be a good idea to consult your doctor before purchasing a product containing AHAs. Similarly pregnant women should get the green light from a medical professional before they start, or continue, using this ingredient.
Apart from that, whichever way you choose to use it, you’ll be sure to love this natural, multi-purpose ingredient. That’s right - AHAs are actually found in a multitude of different places ranging from fruits to animals. There are a number of different AHAs that can be used in serums but the most common are glycolic and lactic acids, since these seem to have the least potential for side-effects. This does not mean that any of the other sources are harmful in any way. Rather, it’s simply due to the fact that most of the research done around this subject has revolved around those two acids.
Along with all the other alpha-hydroxy acids benefits listed above, AHAs also aid product absorption so they’re a perfect addition to your toners and/or cleansers. This is because AHAs main job is to break down dead skin cells and make way for new ones, hence its status as an exfoliant. If you have a bunch of dead skin cells on your face then the product you are using will just sit on top of those rather than being absorbed by the skin. With AHAs added to your routine, those products will be able to get into the skin and work their magic.
This leads quite nicely into a comparison between AHAs and beta-hydroxy acid (BHAs). Although both of these ingredients are exfoliants, and good ones at that, BHAs are only really better if you have oily or sensitive skin. The reason is that BHAs are derived from one source - namely, salicylic acid - which is, admittedly, less irritating than any of the AHA sources.
Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a class of cosmeceutical skincare acids. They have been used for generations to treat a variety of skin concerns and conditions such as acne and photoaging.
Put simply, AHAs exfoliate the skin. The skin’s outer layers are composed of dead skin cells called corneocytes. The skin naturally sheds its outer layer in specific cycles. However, oftentimes dead skin cells build up on the surface of the skin. The result is either dullness, acne, uneven texture or any combination of the three.
In case you need a refresher, exfoliation removes excess dead skin cells from the surface of the skin which promotes a clear, radiant complexion. In the case of AHAs, exfoliation occurs by breaking apart the bonds that hold dead skin cells to each other and to the surface of the skin.¹ This allows for any dead skin to be shed and make way for new skin cells which will help give you that radiant glow.
Exfoliation with AHAs has benefits over traditional, physical exfoliation with scrubs. This is because scrubs can cause micro scratches and inflammation in the skin thus leading to subpar results.
Not to mention, AHAs also help improve skin that has aged from environmental elements, such as skin that has experienced photoaging. For example, studies have shown measurable decreases in skin roughness, discolouration (hyperpigmentation), as well as an increase in collagen production after using alpha-hydroxy acids products.
That last one is important because collagen actually helps give the skin a fresh, filled-out look. The problem is, as you age, the collagen in your skin breaks down which leaves your skin sagging and dull.
By using AHAs you basically rid your skin of all those damaged fibres in order to make way for new ones. This particular benefit, one of many alpha-hydroxy acids benefits, is particularly helpful if your skin has been damaged by the sun.
With daily use, alpha-hydroxy acids products will also increase the thickness of the dermal layer and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.² Just keep in mind that you should only be using AHA serums with up to 5% concentration of the ingredient if you plan on adding them to your skincare routine permanently. After all, AHA is an acid meaning it can cause irritation, flaky skin or blotchy skin if you overuse it.
The product should also have a pH of 3.5 or more to prevent any imbalances in the skin. That is why it is incredibly important to read the label before buying products containing this ingredient.
Another point to make is that AHAs have been scientifically proven to increase sensitivity to UV rays. So make sure you’re putting on plenty of sunscreen while using this great exfoliant. Don’t get overly concerned though, because this sensitivity will be reversed one week after you stop using the ingredient.
All in all, although it is meant for casual use, and 99.9% of the time you can use it without any repercussions, you’d rather be safe than sorry when it comes to looking after your skin.
Common AHAs found in many skincare formulations include lactic acid, glycolic acid, and mandelic acid. As mentioned previously, depending on their concentration, AHAs may cause some stinging or itching on the skin. They must also be used with a broad-spectrum daily sunscreen. If you experience any of these symptoms while using this product make sure to stop immediately and contact your doctor.
Understandably, the side-effects may seem daunting but the truth is, as long as you’re using products containing AHAs responsibly there’s no reason for you to worry about anything except showing off your shining skin. The benefits and efficacy of this ingredient are too good not to give it a go.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Cosmetics alpha hydroxy acids [Internet]. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA; Available from: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/alpha-hydroxy-acids.
Green B, Yu R, Van Scott E. Clinical and Cosmeceutical Uses of Hydroxyacids. Clinics in Dermatology. 2009;27(5):495-501.
Kornhauser A, Coelho SG, Hearing VJ. Applications of Hydroxy Acids: Classification, Mechanisms, and Photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2010 Nov 24;3:135-42.
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