The day that I learned that there were more ways to exfoliate my skin than apricot scrubs and loofahs was pivotal. In fact, I can divide my life into BCE (before chemical exfoliants) and ACE (after chemical exfoliants). Those BCE days were … rough.
Introducing acids into my routine has helped me go from full-coverage Cake Face to barely wearing any base makeup at all most days. It was a slow and steady process that was full of missteps, mostly because there wasn’t a good resource for newbies that could help me figure out which products to start with.
Now that I’m a grizzled skin care veteran, I’m circling back and trying to create helpful, simple guides that the next wave of starry-eyed newbies can use to avoid some of the confusion and mishaps that I dealt with.
Introducing acids into my routine has helped me go from full-coverage Cake Face to barely wearing any base makeup at all most days.
What Are AHAs?
AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid. They’re water-soluble exfoliants, which means that they only work on the uppermost layers of your skin.
The most common AHAs are:
What Do AHAs Do?
These acids work by gently dissolving the “glue” that holds the top layers of skin cells together. This sounds scary, but it’s actually a good thing! Those skin cells are dull, dead, and need to be removed. Regular AHA use makes this process easier.
Who Can Benefit From AHAs
Almost anyone can benefit from adding AHAs to their beauty routine! This is especially true for people with dry or sun-damaged skin because they can help to add hydration to your skin. (Funny, I know. Acids are usually associated with drying out your skin, but hey! Misconceptions!)
AHAs really shine when you need help with any of the following issues:
- Exfoliating dead skin buildup
- Boosting collagen production
- Diminishing the appearance of fine lines
- Brightening a dull complexion
- Smoothing rough or bumpy skin texture
- Refining the look of enlarged pores
- Getting rid of hyperpigmentation
What to Look For in an AHA Serum
Just like with other beauty products, what you need might be different than what I need, so I can’t give you a stone tablet etched with precise instructions for choosing a serum. Would that I could.
Instead, I’ll give you the most important information to look for when you’re shopping so that you can feel confident in what you pick!
Most AHA products range from 4 to 15 percent. There are a few hardcore peels that are 30 percent or stronger, but absolutely do not buy those until you too are a grizzled skin care veteran with an excellent sense of what your skin can and can’t handle. Otherwise, there will be regret. Trust me.
Personally, I’ve found that 5 percent is a nice, gentle amount for daily maintenance. If your skin is sensitive, I recommend starting here.
Generally, 7 to 10 percent is where I like to stay for regular exfoliation. If you have normal or oily skin, you’re usually okay to start out here. If you’re worried about overdoing it though, start low and work your way up! This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Anything above 10 percent tends to be too irritating for daily use, at least for me. I usually reserve these for one to two weekly applications, or when my skin is just having a fit and I want to calm it down.
I’ve written before about why the pH of certain skin care items matters, and this is especially true of AHAs. For them to effectively exfoliate, you should get one with a pH of less than 4. All of the products I’ve listed below meet that threshold!
3. Molecule Size
This is something that can get complicated really fast, so let me skip the long-winded explanation and give you the important bit.
Each type of AHA exists as a differently sized molecule. For our purposes, it works like this: The smaller the molecule is, the stronger it is. This means it has more exfoliation potential, but also more irritation potential.
Glycolic acid molecules are smaller and more potent, but there’s more potential to irritate your skin. Lactic acid is a middle-sized, Goldilocks molecule that’s a good balance of exfoliation and irritation potential. Mandelic acid is a much larger molecule, so it’s also much gentler, but you’ll find that it works a bit more slowly. (Which is fine! Marathon, remember?)
The smaller the AHA molecule is, the stronger it is. This means it has more exfoliation potential, but also more irritation potential.
My Top 5 AHA Product Picks
I’ve listed these in order of AHA strength. In terms of preference, I like them all for different reasons, so I’ll give you a quick rundown of each so that you can make the right choice for your skin.
1. Mizon 8% AHA Serum
This glycolic acid serum is my favorite to use. It’s odorless, comes in a fun dropper bottle, and has a thicker texture that makes it less messy to apply.
The only downside is that the bottle is completely opaque, so it’s hard to tell when you’re running low. Bottle opacity is technically a good thing because it helps to keep the acid from breaking down due to light exposure, but I’ve definitely unexpectedly run out a couple of times.
2. CosRx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid
This is probably the #1 cult favorite in the K-beauty world. It’s definitely the “comfy sweatpants” of AHA serums. It’s a 7% glycolic acid serum that’s odorless, reliably effective, and easy to apply thanks to its slippery gel texture. It comes in a convenient pump bottle, and it lasts forever. I love it, and so does my skin.
3. The Ordinary 7% Glycolic Acid Toner
The Ordinary calls this a toner, but it’s the same strength as the CosRx serum! I assume the “toner” part refers to the fact that it’s a watery liquid. The bottle is huge, and it’s very affordable, so this is a great choice for scalp or body acid application as well.
It has a slightly sweet, chemically odor, but it’s faint and dissipates quickly. The only thing I don’t love about this product is that it tends to make my skin feel a bit more dry than the other AHAs on the list.
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4. Wishtrend 5% Mandelic Acid Prep Water
When I tried this, I didn’t expect much in terms of visible results because it’s a low percentage AND an exceptionally gentle AHA. I was pleasantly wrong though! I love the light, apple-y scent and the soft, hydrated skin that comes with regular use of this toner.
It’s watery, so you’ll need to apply with a cotton pad, but other than that, there are no downsides! It’s a perfect option for beginners or people with sensitive skin.
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5. Pixi Glow Tonic
This one is a cult favorite of skin care enthusiasts everywhere. It’s a watery, 5% glycolic acid toner similar to the Wishtrend and The Ordinary AHAs. It also has a strong, sugary apple water scent that I love, and it’s gentle enough to provide a hydrating glow for all skin types. My skin always looks and feels great when I regularly use this.
For me, the only downside is the cost. Compared to the other AHA options, this one is a bit pricey. However, it’s the only one that’s easy to find in just about any store you walk into, so the few extra dollars might be worth it for some people!
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Do you have more questions or a favorite AHA you want to share? Drop a line in the comments, and let’s talk AHA!