All About Acids – The Key to Glowing Skin

Acids in skincare hold the key to glowing skin, and no- we’re not talking ingestibles. Remember when you were a kid and the villains from your favorite cartoons would always threaten the superhero with acid? Well, in real life acids can actually be used in quite beneficial ways for the skin.

There are two main types of acids: Most of the “anti-aging” and “skin-toning” acids are Alpha Hydroxy Acids which include Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, and Malic Acid. This is a water-soluble acid that works mainly on skin surface so they’re more like resurfacing treatments that leave skin surface smooth and renewed. Of these, Glycolic Acid is the most active due to smaller molecular size that penetrates more deeply into skin, while Lactic Acid is more gentle but also less active in the same concentration. If you’ve had acne-prone skin, chances are that you’re already quite familiar with one type of acid already – Beta Hydroxy Acid, or most commonly known as Salicylic Acid. Beta Hydroxy Acids exfoliate dead skin cells and they’re ideal for oilier skin because the acid is oil soluble which makes them more effective for clearing out oily pores.


Since introducing acids into our routines, here are the benefits we’ve experienced firsthand:

Increased firmness and plumpness

Alpha Hydroxy Acids such as glycolic acid are known to stimulate fibroblasts that aid collagen production. They also act as a humectant, or an ingredient that serves a water-binding function to give skin a plumper appearance.

Improved skin texture

Acids primarily exfoliate the skin, dissolving the bonds that keep dead skin cells from shedding and loosening trapped excess sebum from the pores. They also improve the depth of fine lines and wrinkles. In short, acids help to reveal fresh skin that is soft and smooth.

Acne Management

It doesn’t matter if you choose AHA’s or BHA’s, introducing your skin to acids seems to quash acne in it’s tracks and regular interval use does a great job at keeping them at bay. The acids will also regulate sebum production to prevent new zits from developing and work to fade the marks left behind by existing breakouts.

Even Skin Tone

Through increasing cell turnover, many acids are able to fade discoloration and hyper-pigmentation, leading to a brighter and more even skin tone. Want glowing skin? With revealing new skin and brightening the complexion – acids are one of the primary actives that will deliver the glow.

Overnight results

Acids get to work immediately and modern formulas achieve the balance between efficacy and irritation. Gone are the days of splotchy, flakey, red skin, the acids on the market today can have you waking up to fresh, more enlivened skin with just one treatment.

No Abrasiveness

Acids are preferable to scrubs (physical exfoliators) that can leave sensitive and more delicate skin inflamed and damaged. Also, unlike retinols, acids do not trigger skin’s inflammatory response making them ideal for skin that is sensitive.


Sound good? Now for a couple of things to watch for:

Increased skin sensitivity

Acids may sensitize the mucus membrane and although formulas have made significant progress, super-sensitive skin can still experience irritation if the acid is too strong or used too frequently. We recommend using an acid three nights a week and increasing/decreasing based on how your skin manages.

Spot Test

As with all active ingredients, there is increased potential for irritation. Acids formulated with a low pH under the 3-4 range can be irritating. Also, not all skins will like all acids so it’s best to test them individually to figure out how your skin works. Some team members saw the least results with Salicylic Acid and felt Glycolic Acid was too harsh, and others had the opposite experience. The concentration of acid and overall ingredients are important to consider as well. If in doubt, test it out.

It could get worse before it gets better

Because acids expel the dead skin cells and excess sebum that has been trapped, skin could experience everything from breakouts to overly shiny complexions when first introduced.

Beware of sun exposure

Although acids can help fade sun damage by increasing cell turnover, they’re also known to increase sun sensitivity and the likelihood of sunburn so be mindful of exposure and always wear sun protection. We’d also recommend limiting acid usage to evening routines.

Too much of a good thing

Too much acid can be harmful and skin can get dried out, flakey, and damaged so be aware of the strength of your acid products so you can adjust for proper usage.

 


The trick to picking a good acid product is to look for one that is balanced with soothing ingredients to help offset any irritation with a pH range of 3-4. We’ve went ahead and picked out our favorite acids that spans across the budget spectrum with fairly solid ingredient lists that aren’t laden with nasties.

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

The All Star: Although marketed as a glycolic acid serum, this exfoliator is very comprehensive with 12% glycolic acid, and a blend of tartaric acid, lactic acid, citric acid, as well as high concentration salicylic acid. Due to the varied acids, this serum really targets skin issues at multiples levels (clogged pores, uneven skin tone/texture, anti-aging) and provides a full scope of benefits. Soothing ingredients include aloe vera leaf juice, anti-inflammatory horse chestnut, cactus extract, and green tea extract, as well as Drunk Elephant’s signature marula oil.  This explains why the powerful lightweight gel still feels gentle on the skin without any aggressive tingling or redness even at first use. Don’t let the percentage of acids keep you away, this acid is remarkably gentle – results without the pain is always a win.

An ideal 3.8-4.0 pH means the acids are working without unnecessary irritation, add on a air/light protective pump design, fragrance-free formulation and a layer-able light gel texture, and this is one of the most well made acid-products on the market today that manages to be as powerful as it is user-friendly. Good for everyone.

Sunday Riley Good Genes

The luxury pick: They say ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ but Good Genes’ beautiful bottle and catchy moniker had us sold from the start. A cream-serum exfoliator, Good Genes is described as an “all in one Lactic Acid treatment”. It claims to brighten, exfoliate, plump, oxygenate and fade hyper-pigmentation. Ingredients such as licorice and lemongrass assist the Lactic Acid in delivering on the claims. This also relies on aloe vera and cactus extract to soothe skin which is needed as the pH of 2.6 is on the aggressive side.

Good Genes is a treatment that you’ll definitely feel, and while the tingling never ventures into being unbearable – we think it’s best left as a once or twice weekly treatment, either one pump as an overnight exfoliator or two pumps as an instant mask. This luxury option is for performance junkies, those who want to feel fancy, or the person who cannot tolerate glycolic acid.

First Aid Beauty Radiance Pads

The best value: A budget friendly glycolic and lactic acid treatment pad to sweep over skin. The acid has a pH right under 4 and has a 5% acid concentration which means it is actually very mild. Aloe, Cucumber Extract and Green tea provide soothing benefits to an already mild formula. What does this all mean?

These pads are a great option for those with super-sensitive skin or those who are fearful yet curious about acids. Although we don’t recommend daily acid treatments, this is a good option for daily treatment that won’t irritate skin. Easy, quick, no fuss.

Arcona The Solution

The Sleeper Hit: A glycolic acid based active nighttime repair treatment for resurfacing with what’s called a “glycolymer complex” for cell renewal, deep exfoliation, and decongestion of pores. The pH of 2.2 is pretty scary at first but it’s balanced by amino sugars and proteins. This acid treatment has a solid price point for those looking for a treatment under $50. The results match that of products at higher price points.

The Solution is so successful for Arcona that it is also available in pad form, and a more gentle version is available (called The Gentle Solution that actually sells more units).

Immunocologie Exfoliating Lotion

The Cleanest Acid: The Exfoliating Lotion is actually a transparent gel made of lactic acid and glycolic acid, two AHA heroes. Although the pH and concentration of acids is not disclosed , this treatment is said to adjust to skin’s pH and sebum levels. What makes the Exfoliating Lotion special is it’s natural ingredients that make it one of the only “green” acid treatments on the market. And it really performs, you’ll feel the tingle almost immediately signifying the acids dissolving dead skin cells. This lotion can be rinsed off or left on as an overnight treatment – both work well. The adaptive nature of the lotion left skin with no redness or discomfort.

This luxe, natural pick also earns bonus points for it’s larger size (3.4 oz) which makes it around three times the size of other acid treatments. For those who love acid treatments, or those who want acids with the highest quality of “clean” ingredients, this would make a wonderful investment.

Somme Institute Transport Pads

The Modernist: Somme Institute uses MDT5 technology (called Molecular Dispersion Technology) which allows improved penetration of vitamins into skin and it is at the core of their products, including their 8% Glycolic Acid exfoliating pad. The idea is fuller penetration and delivery of the actives. The pads are thoroughly soaked so we ended up cutting them in half, doubling the life of the product. The Transport Pads are designed to target tone, texture and clarity, and are definitely on the stronger side. Green Tea, Chamomile and Aloe are present to provide a soothing counterbalance although the pads still left a noticeable tingle that became kind of addictive. The pads themselves are of a really nice quality that feels cooling and dense on the skin.

These would be best enjoyed by users who look for high performance and acid-veterans who want to try a new technology.

Written by Eddie, views from GW team

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  • Catherine

    Thank you for another very informative post, I am always paying attention to your recommendations. I am curious what you suggest layering over the acids, should it be just a moisturizer or can I use retinol and vitamin c?

    • Acids + Retinol/Vitamin C could be a bit much. If you need to use them together, try something less along the lines of a acid-serum and more like First Aid Beauty’s Radiance Pads that are more of a toner step. In general we do acid and then something moisturizing like an oil or moisturizer.

  • K-Rock

    If lactic acid is gentler than glycolic acid, should the Sunday Riley be gentler than Drunk Elephant? I’ve been thinking of which to buy for my skin which is acne prone. Thank you!

    • People have different sensitivities so give both acids a chance to see which one your skin responds to better. Because glycolic acid has a smaller molecular structure, it’s seen as more active as it goes deeper into skin. If your skin is on the oily side and acne prone, salicylic acid works best.

  • Mary

    Just discovered your site and LOVE your reviews! So glad to find a green acid toner, that was the only step of mine that was still “conventional”. Will give Immunocology a try!

    • Thanks! The Immunocology Exfoliating Lotion is definitely a very worthy green option that people should know about.

  • Nello

    What does your team think of the Biologique Recherche P50 lotion? It is supposed to be one of the best that Caroline Hirons and Into The Gloss likes as well!

    • P50 is a great product, definitely on the strong side. There are many versions of it so it’s better left for an in-depth, comparative review.