By Talia Abbas-Self
The thought of using skin-care acids used to scare me for the longest time. (Now, I’ll gladly take one of each.) In reality, incorporating the right acids into your beauty routine could actually be beneficial for addressing a number of skin-care concerns that may be bothersome to you.
Also a reality: the fact that store shelves are spilling over with all kinds of cleverly packaged serums, moisturizers and oils that promise to brighten, tighten, and exfoliate your skin. All of that is great—in theory—but who wants to turn themselves into a science experiment in the name of skin care? (OK, I know some of you do, but not me!) That’s why I reached out to two dermatologists to help me put together a cheat sheet on everything you need to know about the most popular skin-care acids they recommend to their clients, and what they can and can’t do for you.
- Hyaluronic Acid
Good for: dullness, aging skin
If you’ve ever seen people rave on Instagram or Reddit about products that give them dewy skin, it’s probably because of hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it helps skin attract and retain moisture. Jacqueline Schaffer, M.D., founder of Schique Beauty, tells SELF that hyaluronic acid is naturally produced in the body, and is what helps gives our skin a youthful glow.
As we age, the amount of hyaluronic acid our body produces decreases, which can leave us with duller-looking skin. Products containing hyaluronic acid can improve the skin’s ability to absorb and hold water to keep it looking plump and hydrated, Dr. Schaffer says, which is why she recommends incorporating hyaluronic acid serums into your nighttime skin-care routine, about three or four times a week. It’s generally well tolerated by most skin types.
Dr. Schaffer suggests using Skinceuticals’ Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier, $98, but there are other more affordable options too, like Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Gel-Cream, $16, or cult-favorite The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5, $13, both of which are top sellers on Amazon.
- Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
Good for: exfoliating, improving mild textural issues, skin brightening
Alpha hydroxy acids are acids derived from food and plant sources like sugar, milk, and fruits. There are several different types of alpha hydroxy acids used for skin care, like citric (derived from citrus fruits), mandelic (derived from plants), or lactic acid (derived from milk), but the most common one is glycolic acid (derived from sugar). Sejal Shah, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology, tells SELF that because of their exfoliating properties, AHAs are a great option for skin brightening and improving mild textural issues like hyperpigmentation from sun exposure. Note that since AHAs are water soluble they don’t penetrate the pores as deeply, so they’re best for addressing surface skin issues. Generally, AHAs are pretty well tolerated by most skin types, but experts say that people with sensitive skin should use AHAs carefully since they can be potentially irritating.
Because of my dry skin, I’m a huge fan of this gentle Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum, $88, which contains seven types of AHAs (along with BHAs—more on those below). You can also try Aveeno Positively Radiant 60 Second In-Shower Facial Cleanser, $20, which is formulated with glycolic acid.
- Salicylic or beta hydroxy acid (BHA)
Good for: unclogging pores for oily and acne-prone skin
Unlike AHAs, beta hydroxy acids bind to oil, not water. The most common BHA for skin care is salicylic acid, which works as a deep exfoliator in your skin. “Because it’s oil-soluble, salicylic acid is able to break through the buildup of bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells in the pore lining and dissolve it, which unclogs pores and can help prevent breakouts from happening,” Dr. Schaffer explains. BHAs tend to penetrate deeper than AHAs, so they are good for oily or acne-prone skin. For an effective treatment, Dr. Schaffer recommends Tata Harper’s Resurfacing Mask, $62, or Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Exfoliant 2% BHA Liquid, $28.
Dr. Shah says that salicylic acid is best for people with oily and acne-prone skin, but people with sensitive skin should it use with caution since it can be drying. She recommends using salicylic acid in the evening, unless you are using a retinoid at night (more on the benefits of retinoic acid below). Experts don’t advise applying retinoids and salicylic acid together to reduce the possibility of irritation and dryness. If you use salicylic acid in the daytime, be sure to apply a sunscreen over it.
- Vitamin C or ascorbic acid
Good for: Brightening skin, antioxidant protection, stimulating collagen
Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) is a powerful antioxidant found in serums, exfoliants, and moisturizers. Like other antioxidants, vitamin C helps protect the skin from free radical damage from environmental factors like pollution or the sun. “It can also prevent signs of aging by boosting collagen synthesis and brighten and even skin tone,” Dr. Shah says. She recommends using it in serum form in the morning before applying moisturizer and sunscreen (remember to always apply products from thinnest to thickest). Vitamin C is generally well tolerated by all skin types, and works well if you’re looking to address hyperpigmentation concerns.
Our experts recommend keeping an eye out for a specific type of vitamin C, tetrahexyldecyl (THD) ascorbate, which is a stable form of ascorbic acid. Some experts consider it the most effective form of vitamin C for skin care since it’s fat-soluble and can penetrate more deeply than water-soluble forms in order to stimulate collagen, but more research is needed to confirm this theory. Also, some experts say that since THD ascorbate is stable, the formulation may last longer than vitamin C that is in active form. In any case, many companies that use ascorbic acid (the active form of vitamin C) have stabilized it in their formulations, although you should still be careful when storing and handling the product by limiting its exposure to air and light so it doesn’t oxidize quickly.
Dr. Shah likes Drunk Elephant C-Firma,, $80, which contains ascorbic acid along with other antioxidants. Another option is Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum, $85, which contains THD ascorbate, or our SELF Healthy Beauty Award winner, Vichy LiftActiv 15% Pure Vitamin C Serum Brightening Skin Corrector, $29, which contains ascorbic acid.
- Retinoic acid
Good for: Stimulating collagen and cell turnover, exfoliation
Retinoic acid is a vitamin A derivative that helps increase collagen production and stimulate cell turnover. Over the counter retinol products, like the CeraVe Skin Renewing Cream Serum, $10, are converted to retinoic acid when you apply them to your skin. Prescription products, such as Retin-A, contain retinoic acid so that no conversion is required (as such, they are stronger, harsher, more effective, and more expensive).
After sunscreen, many dermatologists say that retinoic acid is one of the best products for aging skin. “It’s so effective in keeping your skin looking youthful and goes directly to stimulate collagen,” Dr. Schaffer says.
Retinoids—prescription or OTC—can irritate the skin, so it’s best to take baby steps to get to a full-strength product. Experts always recommend applying the product at night and starting with a lower concentration—OTC retinols come in different strengths, ranging from 0.1 to 1.0 percent—and increasing slowly. For more tips check out this post on how to use retinol safely and effectively.
No matter what acid you use, remember that patience and realistic expectations are key.
Before you get started on your skin-care acid routine, make sure you understand how it can affect your skin, and avoid combining products that might lead to more irritation. For example, Dr. Schaffer recommends using any acid treatment at night when your skin cells are repairing and it’s not exposed to sunlight and environmental pollutants (and if you are wearing acids in the day, make sure you have sunscreen on).
The bottom line: While acids can be really effective, there’s no one size fits all when it comes to addressing skin-care concerns. Some acids may not be recommended for people with sensitive skin or for people with skin conditions like rosacea, eczema or psoriasis. Be sure to talk to a dermatologist if you have any questions before you take the (acid) plunge.