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What you need to know about exfoliating acids

Although the acid revolution in skin care made a strong appearance in the early 90’s, the use of certain acids date from ancient times. We all have heard of Cleopatra taking baths in sour milk and other cultures using wine to rejuvenate their skin.

The reason why we are still talking about them today? They work.

Sour milk is rich in lactic acid and wine contains tartaric acid.

Exfoliating acids break down dead skin cells and remove them from the skin surface improving the appearance of skin wrinkling and promoting a brighter, softer, smoother complexion.

There are many acid exfoliants and combinations. However; for this article, I would like to mention some very popular ones that are broadly used in home use skincare products and share guidance on their natural characteristics and how they can benefit different skin concerns.

Let me start by saying, “more is not always better”, especially when if it relates to acids. For an acid to exfoliate, it must have a lower pH then 5.5 which is the normal acidity level of the skin.

The lower the pH, the more it will exfoliate, which also comes with the high risk of more irritation, inflammation and even desquamation, commonly known as “peeling” of the skin.

Many times, this is the action that is aimed for, like in the case of chemical peels. But stronger procedures like chemical peels are not performed daily. So, a safe way to use acid exfoliants regularly is to do it in moderation and to listen to your skin carefully. It will tell you if you are causing over-exfoliation which will bring along many not so pleasant side effects such as: dryness, itchiness, redness, sensitized skin, inflammation and even breakouts.

On the other hand, if the pH of the product is not lower than your skin’s pH, it will not exfoliate good enough or give you the full benefits of a well formulated product.

Acid exfoliants are largely found in cleansers, toners, pads, gels, serums, home peels, masks and moisturizers. Careful attention should be paid to the product’s instructions, since there are many formulations that should be rinsed off or removed after a few minutes while others give you directions to leave them on the skin.

Here is a short guide on popular acids and how they help specific skin concerns:

GLYCOLIC ACID: An AHA alpha hydroxy acid, from sugar cane. It works very well to soften lines and wrinkles and to improve the look of sun damaged skin. It brightens the skin and increases radiance and stimulates collagen.

TIP: Glycolic acid contains a very small molecular structure, this leads to a quick penetration and absorption of the acid which must be handled correctly to prevent irritation.

SALICYLIC ACID: A BHA beta hydroxy acid containing very therapeutic characteristics for acne prone skin because it is attracted to oil and offers an anti-inflammatory effect. It penetrates the hair follicle helping to clear the accumulated dead skin cells within the follicular wall improving clogged pores and preventing the formation of new acneic lesions. It is likewise used in conjunction with other acid compounds to improve hyperpigmentation and aging skin.

LACTIC ACID: An alpha hydroxy acid from sour milk. Fantastic for dry, aged, hyperpigmented skin but also suitable for most skin types because it is composed of a larger molecular structure than glycolic acid; which means that it penetrates slower making it more tolerable, even for more sensitive complexions. It increases hydration and has brightening capabilities, leaving the skin luminous, supple and soft.

AZELAIC ACID: It is a saturated dicarboxylic acid holding antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, keratolytic, comedolytic, and anti-oxidant activity. Very effective in treating diverse skin conditions such as: acne, rosacea and hyperpigmentation.

MANDELIC ACID: Extracted from bitter almonds, this AHA alpha hydroxy acid contains a larger molecular structure than glycolic and lactic acid, making it less irritating to the skin. It offers great results when treating conditions such as: hyperpigmentation, photo-damaged skin and acne. This is one of my favorite acids in my professional treatments to treat acne and hyperpigmentation, especially PIH (Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) residual pigment left after a skin injury that caused an inflammatory response like a burn, a pimple etc.

CITRIC, MALIC AND TARTARIC ACID: Belong to the alpha hydroxy acid family, extracted from citrus fruits, apples, berries and grapes. They contain wonderful anti-oxidant qualities, increase radiance, support collagen production, suppleness and elasticity. Regularly found in acid cocktails helping boost the action of other acids such as glycolic, salicylic and/or azelaic etc.



When you use acid exfoliants regularly, you are accelerating cell turn over, constantly removing dead skin cells and exposing newer cells to the skin surface. The new cells are more vulnerable to sun burn and sun damage, so if you don’t use appropriate protection, you will be doing more bad than good and promoting accelerated aging of the skin and even taking the risk of getting hyperpigmentation.

Also, if you notice that your skin becomes dry or irritated, it is important to suspend the acids for a few days to allow the skin to replenish its essential components and restore balance.

How often should I exfoliate with acids?

It is your skin that will tell you that answer. In general, there are certain skin conditions that improve with more regular acid use, such as: acne for instance. However, it is the level of sensitivity of your skin that will guide you into how often you should use acids to exfoliate. Like I previously mentioned above, over exfoliation incites very negative effects. Each skin is unique, and it is only when you find balance that your skin will be the healthiest.

Until next time,

Thank you very much for being here.

Dora Salazar

Medical Aesthetician

Founder of Zkin Fix Skincare 



This article represents my personal opinion and is intended for eductional purposes only.