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AHAs: Your Answer to Chemical Exfoliation

January 1 | 6 minute read

Memo Aha Hero 16x9

Words by Gemma Dawkins

Originally published on | May 30

Ever looked at the ingredients list of your moisturiser (or serum, or toner) and felt engulfed in a wave of confusion?

MECCApedia is here to decode the science, unravel the jargon and give you the knowledge to understand the actives you're slathering on morning and night. Let your skincare education commence!

Prepare for a major ‘aha!’ moment. And by that we mean AHA, or alpha hydroxy acid, if you want to get technical. If you’ve been seeing those three little letters peppered throughout your skincare routine and wondered what exactly they were all about, well, that’s what we’re here for.

One of the two most common forms of chemical exfoliants (the other being BHA), AHA are popping up in everything from cleansers to body scrubs and serums. And they offer a host of major benefits. We’re talking supporting exfoliation of dead skin and instead revealing skin with an improved appearance, including reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, a brighter-looking complexion and the correction of pigmentation marks and scarring. Sounds good, right?

Now if you don’t have a chemistry degree, rest assured you won’t be needing it. But here’s what you do need to know about AHAs.

What are AHAs?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are a group of usually naturally-occurring acids that can be both plant or animal derived. You’ve probably heard of some of them, like lactic acid (responsible for that jelly-legged feeling you get halfway through your gym class) and glycolic acid (found in sugarcane.) Other notables include citric acid – three guesses where that comes from… hint: lemons – and tartaric acid, from grapes. You’ll find AHAs in your skincare because they are a natural exfoliant. But beware, AHAs can also cause some irritation, so if you’re new to the AHA game you’ll want to start slowly (by patch testing and starting with low concentrations) and tread lightly until you see how your skin tolerates it.

What are the benefits of AHAs for the skin?

We’ll be the first to admit that the thought of putting acid on your face might not sound super appealing. But AHAs are relatively gentle in the scheme of things, with glycolic and lactic being the least likely to cause irritation. They offer a whole host of benefits. Rather than physical exfoliants (for example, scrubs containing crushed seeds or microparticles, which can cause minor tearing and trauma to the skin), AHAs dissolve the substance that binds the skin cells together, allowing them to be washed away to reveal soft, youthful-looking skin.

They can also aid in managing breakouts, by preventing the build-up of pore-blocking oil and grime, as well as generally brightening your complexion. And because the deeper layers of skin have less exposure to sun and the elements, regular use of AHAs can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by whisking away the surface layer of skin. Like a (very mini) peel.

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Are there different types of AHAs used in skincare?

There are seven different types of AHAs commonly used in skincare, although they all have the same general effect (unless, of course, you have an allergy or reaction to one specific type of AHA.)

The other main difference between AHA products will be their concentration or intensity. Certain types of products containing AHAs, such as a cleanser, may be designed for everyday use. Generally, these products will contain a lower concentration of AHAs than a leave-on or overnight treatment, such as an AHA serum. Many skincare products will list the percentage of AHA that they contain, with high concentration products such as peels designed to be used infrequently.

What skin types can use AHAs?

While all skin types can use AHAs, because they are considered active ingredients, it’s especially important for those with sensitive or breakout-prone skin to start slowly. It’s usually recommended to begin incorporating AHA products into your routine every other day, giving your skin time to adjust and reset between applications.

When your skin is reacting or breaking out, it can be tempting to go harder with the AHAs in order to clear away surface skin. However, it’s worth noting that sometimes this can do more harm than good. If your skin is inflamed, it may be the result of a compromised skin barrier, and AHAs will only exacerbate that issue. Moderation and a gentle approach are key here.

How do you use AHA skincare in your routine?

If you’re new to AHAs, a cleanser featuring those three little letters is a great place to start. Because you rinse it straight off, you give your skin a chance to adjust without prolonged exposure.

If you find you tolerate them well, try using an AHA serum at night, to wake up to refreshed skin. There are also AHA moisturisers and toners which you can apply with a cotton pad. On the more intense end of the spectrum, you can experiment with at-home peels, which feature a higher concentration of AHAs. Remember to always start by using these products only once every two to three days and patch test before use.

Are there any ingredients that work well with AHAs? And are there any to avoid?

AHAs are often paired with their sister ingredient BHAs, which are oil soluble and therefore able to penetrate deeper into the skin. The two combined offer a deep exfoliation. However, it’s best to avoid using multiple AHA products, as this can damage the skin’s surface. Some products will contain more than one AHA, which is perfectly fine as the concentration will have been adjusted accordingly. But don’t be tempted to combine your AHA toner with an AHA serum and then back it up with an AHA moisturiser. Stick to the one AHA product per routine.

It’s also best to avoid using AHAs with other actives such as vitamin C or retinol. If you’re incorporating these products into your routine, do them on separate days or times (for example, apply your vitamin C in the morning and use your AHA at night. Alternate your retinol night routine with your AHA night routine.) This way you will be less likely to irritate your skin.

Is there anything else I should know about AHAs?

Finally, always, always use SPF when your skincare routine incorporates AHAs (and even when it doesn’t!). AHAs dissolve the surface layer of your skin and expose fresh new skin beneath it. This is more prone to sun damage, so it’s extra important to make sure you’re using sun protection at all times. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s also a good idea to check with your doctor prior to using anything with AHAs in it.

Transient stinging or irritation may occur when using this product. If irritation persists, discontinue use. Not recommended for use on children or infants.

Related topics and brand tags

Skin careBody careExfoliantSerumCleanser

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