What You Need To Know About Skin-Care Acids

They’re not as scary as they sound

Hear the words "acid" and "skin" combined, and it's hard not to be a little scared. You probably can't help but picture a bubbly liquid eating through your skin, leaving nothing in its wake. But get rid of any negative connotations, and instead realize that skin-care acids can actually leave your skin free of clogging and breakouts. Not so scary anymore, right?

Skin-care acids come in many forms, meaning formulas. For the most part, though, they work in three ways: exfoliating, slowing down the aging process, and hydrating. We’re going to go through six acids we think you should know about ahead, but first, let’s back up to why people are so threatened by the idea of putting an acid on their face. We blame that episode of Sex and the City where Samantha gets a chemical peel, and it looks like her face has been dipped in literal fire; Laura Dyer, PA-C, blames it, too. Well, kind of.

“I think, historically, people are scared of what the old-school acids were, the big big acids, the TCAs, the phenol peels that were done way back in the day,” she says. “All of that is definitely a misconception in and of itself because, when used properly, they can leave the skin looking super fresh, glowing, improve fine lines, texture, acne, pigmentation, all those different things with zero downtime and no noticeable side effects.”

Anyone can use skin-care acids, but everyone should proceed with caution when using them for the first time. Always start with the lowest concentration, to see how your skin responds, then feel things out from there. Don’t use it every day, cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson warns. Start with every three days to get your skin used to a lower pH. She notes that those with darker skin should be particularly careful because you can create unnecessary hyper-pigmentation or dark marks. “But once you get used to it, they are awesome ingredients, they work like no other,” she says.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, types of acids out there, but we’re going to focus on the ones we think are the most important in terms of benefitting the appearance of your skin. We’re discussing them separately, but, Dr. Harold Lancer, celebrity dermatologist, says it’s not uncommon to see multiple acids on the ingredient list for a product. “If you’re the kind of person who cooks, and your favorite ingredient is pepper, well you don't just put pepper into the water and expect to make it a soup,” he explains. Basically, don't be afraid when more than one acid is in a product; they probably work well together and will only aid you on your path to glowy skin. 

Get to know our favorites and what they do, ahead. 

Many acids fall into the AHA, or alpha hydroxy acid, category, but they all essentially do the same thing, which is exfoliate the skin and slough off dead skin cells. The ones you’ve probably heard of the most are glycolic acid, which is made from sugar cane, and lactic acid, which is derived from milk. (Citric, malic, and tartaric acid are some of the others). When used, AHAs help brighten the skin, smooth fine lines, as well as improve the texture and tone.

It’s a do-a-lot ingredient with great benefits. Though cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller warns about using glycolic acid, especially in high concentrations, as it can be pretty intense. “People need to be careful when working with these ingredients because even though they can be purchased on the internet, they can be quite dangerous,” he says. “High concentrations of these ingredients should be administered only by aestheticians or dermatologists.”