What are AHAs?

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a class of plant and animal-derived acids that are found in a wide range of skincare products. These include anti-aging products used on a daily basis, such as serums, toners, and creams, as well as concentrated treatments such as chemical peels.

There are seven different types of AHAs that are commonly found in skincare products. These are some examples:

  • the citric acid (from citrus fruits)
  • glycolic acid (from sugar cane)
  • hydroxy caproic acid (from royal jelly)
  • hydroxycaprylic acid (from animals)
  • lactic acid (from lactose or other carbohydrates)
  • malic acid (from fruits)
  • tartaric acid (from grapes)

There has been a lot of research done on the uses and efficacy of AHAs. However, of all the AHAs available, glycolic and lactic acids are the most studied. These two AHAs are also less likely to irritate the skin. As a result, the majority of over-the-counter (OTC) AHAs contain either glycolic or lactic acid.

AHAs are mostly used to exfoliate the skin. They can also assist in the following ways:

promote collagen and blood flow

  • correct discoloration from scars and age spots
  • reduce the visibility of surface lines and wrinkles
  • prevent acne breakouts
  • brighten your complexion
  • increase product absorption

1. They help exfoliate

AHAs are mostly used to exfoliate the skin. In fact, this is the foundation for all of the other advantages that AHAs provide.

Exfoliation is the process by which the skin cells on the surface are shed. This not only removes dead skin cells, but it also allows for the generation of new skin cells.

As you get older, your natural skin cell cycle slows down, which can lead to a buildup of dead skin cells. When you have an abundance of dead skin cells, they can build up and make your complexion appear dull.

The accumulation of dead skin cells can also exacerbate other underlying skin issues, such as:

  • wrinkles
  • age spots
  • acne

However, not all AHAs have the same exfoliating ability. The type of AHA you use determines the amount of exfoliation. As a general rule, the higher the concentration of AHAs in a product, the more powerful the exfoliating effects.

2. They help visibly brighten skin.

Dead skin cells are broken down when these acids exfoliate your skin. The new skin that has emerged is brighter and more radiant. AHAs containing glycolic acid can aid in the breakdown of skin cell accumulation, while products containing citric acid can brighten your skin even further.

3. They help promote collagen production

Collagen is a protein-rich fiber that aids in the maintenance of plump and smooth skin. These fibers degrade as you age. Sun damage may also hasten the breakdown of collagen. As a result, the skin may become sallow and sagging.

Collagen is found in the skin’s middle layer (dermis). When the top layer (epidermis) is removed, products like AHAs can begin to work on the dermis. AHAs may aid in the production of collagen by destroying old collagen fibers to make way for new ones.

4. They aid in the reduction of the appearance of surface lines and wrinkles.

Surface lines are no exception to the anti-aging effects of AHAs. According to one 2015 study, 9 out of 10 volunteers who used AHAs for three weeks saw significant improvements in overall skin texture.

However, keep in mind that AHAs only work on surface lines and wrinkles, not deeper wrinkles. Deep wrinkles can only be treated with professional fillers from a doctor, as well as other procedures such as laser resurfacing.

Related article: Common Anti Aging Treatments

5. They promote blood flow to skin

AHAs have anti-inflammatory properties that can aid in the circulation of blood to the skin. This can help to improve the appearance of pale, dull skin. Proper blood flow also ensures that skin cells receive the nutrients they require via oxygen-rich red blood cells.

6. They aid in the reduction and correction of discoloration.

As you get older, your chances of developing skin discoloration increase. Sun exposure, for example, can cause flat brown spots known as age spots (lentigines). They most commonly appear on areas of the body that are frequently exposed to sunlight, such as your chest, hands, and face.

Discoloration can also be caused by:

AHAs encourage skin cell turnover. The pigmentation of new skin cells is even. Long-term use of AHAs may reduce skin discoloration by encouraging the turnover of old, discolored skin cells.

7. They help treat and prevent acne

For stubborn blemishes, you may be familiar with benzoyl peroxide and other acne-fighting ingredients. AHAs may also aid in the treatment and prevention of recurring acne.

Acne pimples form when your pores become clogged with a mixture of dead skin cells, oil (sebum), and bacteria. Exfoliating with AHAs can assist in loosening and removing the clog. Continued use may also help to prevent future clogs.

AHAs may also help to shrink the size of enlarged pores, which are common in acne-prone skin. Exfoliating glycolic and lactic acids can even reduce acne scars by increasing skin cell turnover. Other AHAs, such as citric and malic acids, are found in some acne treatments to help soothe inflamed skin.

AHAs aren’t just for the face! AHA products can be used on other acne-prone areas, such as your backside and chest.

It may take two to three months to notice significant acne improvement. It is critical to be patient as the products work to alleviate acne over time. You must also use the products consistently—skipping daily treatments causes the ingredients to take longer to work.

8. They help increase product absorption

Aside from their own distinct benefits, AHAs can improve the efficacy of your existing products by increasing their absorption into the skin.

For example, if you have a lot of dead skin cells, your daily moisturizer will just sit on top of them instead of hydrating the new skin cells underneath. AHAs, such as glycolic acid, can penetrate this layer of dead skin cells, allowing your moisturizer to more effectively hydrate your new skin cells.

How much is AHA needed?

The FDA recommends AHA products with an overall AHA concentration of less than 10% as a general rule. This aids in the prevention of AHA side effects.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, products containing more than 15% AHA should be avoided.

Lower AHA concentrations are found in daily-use products such as serums, toners, and moisturizers. A serum or toner, for example, could have a 5% AHA concentration.

To reduce your risk of side effects, highly concentrated products, such as glycolic acid peels, are used less frequently.

Are side effects possible?

If you’ve never used AHAs before, you might notice some minor side effects as your skin adjusts to the product.

The following are examples of temporary side effects:

AHA products are recommended to use every other day to reduce your risk of irritation. After your skin becomes accustomed to them, you can begin using AHAs on a daily basis.

When going out in the sun, use extra caution. Because of the peeling effects of highly concentrated AHAs, your skin may be more sensitive to UV rays for up to one week after use. To avoid sunburn, wear sunscreen every day and reapply it frequently.

If you have any of the following conditions, you should consult your doctor before using this product:

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also consult their doctor before use. If your doctor says it’s okay for you to use AHA products, consider something targeted to pregnancy.

The bottom line

If you’re looking for significant exfoliation, AHAs might be the right product for you. You can exfoliate your skin on a daily basis with AHA-containing serums, toners, and creams, or you can do a more intense peel treatment once or twice a week.

Because of their powerful effects, AHAs are among the most researched beauty products, but they aren’t for everyone. If you have pre-existing skin conditions, consult your dermatologist or a skincare specialist before using these products. They can advise you on the best AHA to use based on your skin type and skincare objectives.

Over-the-counter AHAs do not have to be scientifically proven to be effective before being placed on the market, so only buy from manufacturers you know and trust. You could also visit your doctor’s office and get a professional-strength peel.