Meet AHAs, The Chemical Exfoliant That Really Works

This buzzy ingredient works wonders in skin cell turnover. Here's how to use them.
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You may have heard about it online or seen it in some of your beauty products. AHAs, also known as “hydroxyl acid,” have become increasingly popular in the skincare industry over the years, but to the uninitiated, this may seem like a rather daunting term. Fret not, we’re here to break it down for you!

Most commonly known as a type of chemical exfoliator, AHAs work by peeling away dead skin cells on your skin surface, revealing the fresh new skin cells underneath. It’s an ingredient that works, truly well, making it a worthy ingredient in your skincare arsenal.


What is it

Alpha hydroxy acids are a class of chemical compounds, and come in many forms depending on their origin and structure. They are water-soluble acids and each produce excellent skincare benefits. 

Some of the more common ones include: 

Glycolic acid, from sugar cane. It is the strongest AHA, due to its small molecule size, but makes it the most irritating, too. 

Lactic acid, from dairy products. This is a gentler alternative, making it suitable for sensitive skin. It is also the best researched of the lot. 

Mandelic acid, from almonds. This consists of larger molecules and can be combined with other AHAs to increase exfoliation. Alone, the acid may improve texture and pore size. 

Malic acid, from fruits, such as apples. This often wont do much on it’s own, and you’ll see it typically in combination with stronger AHAs

Tartaric acid, from grapes. This is more often used to stabilise other acids’ pH levels 

Citric acid, from citrus fruits. Similar to tartaric acid that it is used to regulate pH. 

You can find them in a variety of skincare products, from cleansers, toners, moisturisers, scrubs, peels and masks.


Image: Mohamed Joseph on Unsplash

What is it used for?

It’s primary function is to exfoliate the skin. Depending on how high the concentration is, a product may remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, or remove the whole outermost layer. Regardless of concentration, you will notice your skin will be smoother to touch after use, and with no visible flaking. 

This also makes AHAs effective in reducing acne scars over time. Creams and lotions with alpha-hydroxyl acids may also help with fine lines and wrinkles, reducing pigmentation and age spots. 

AHAs at lower concentrations can be used at home, while those with higher concentrations, of up to 70 per cent as chemical peels, require the supervision of a medical professional. 

At lower doses, AHAs are safe to use topically, with various scientific research findings stating that it can be used to easily peel all types of skin with minimal risk.


Why use AHAs?

AHAs are a good alternative to getting smoother skin without the manual exfoliation present in physical scrubs. They work to dissolve the bonds between skin cells to allow the removal of dead cells, for smoother skin. And some acids, such as glycolic acid, which have the smallest molecule size, are highly effective at penetrating skin. 


 AHAs vs BHAs

You may have heard AHAs being mentioned in conjunction with BHAs. BHAs, or beta-hydroxyl acids, are oil-soluble acids unlike AHAs, which means they can get deeper into the pores to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum. This make BHAs a greater chemical exfoliant option for those with oilier skin looking to calm down inflammation and get rid of acne. However, if you’re looking for an all-inclusive anti-aging treatment, or have drier or more sensitive skin, then AHA may be the best fit for you.

How to use AHAs


 Some studies have shown that the side effects of topical application of AHAs can increase the photosensitivity of skin to UVB-radiation, which, when paired with sunlight exposure, can induce uneven skin pigmentation. 

Hence, either use it as part of your evening routine, or pair it with sunscreen in the day. To avoid irritation, start with a product of lower concentration, such as 5%, with a maximum concentration of 10 to 15% percent, and apply it every other day, gradually working up to daily application after about a month of use, to allow your skin to get used to the acids. 

And if you experience any tingling upon application, don’t be alarmed. That means the acid is penetrating your skin.

Ready to give it a go? Here are some of the products we recommend. 


The Ordinary

Lactic Acid 5% + HA, $10.50 

This is one of the mildest options for AHAs and acid exfoliators out in the market, making it useful for those new to acids. The combination of lactic acid and hyaluronic acid makes it gentler and hydrating. If you’re looking to up things up a notch, there is a version for 10% lactic acid.


Kora Organics

Noni Night AHA Resurfacing Serum, $98

Serums are often good choices for AHAs as they can be applied directly on skin and have smaller molecules than creams for deeper penetration. This organic night treatment contains AHAs, BHAs and ferments to increase cell turnover while providing numerous anti-aging benefits. The lightweight formula comes with AHAs from lemon peel ferment and sicilian white grapes, which work to renew skin cells.


That’s Incredi-‘Peel’! Resurfacing Pad, $73

With the key ingredient being 10% glycolic acid, this at-home peel acts as a strong toner. Give your skin a few swipes of Incredi-Peel after cleansing and before your serums and cream. The formula works to gradually release the glycolic acid overnight, so you wake up with dewier, glowier even-toned skin.


Kate Somerville

Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment, $95

Get glowier skin with the added benefits of the three 10% AHAs - glycolic, malic, and lactic acids and fruit enzymes, from pumpkin, papaya and pineapple that aids in exfoliating the skin, while peptides, honey and tea extract works to soothe to prevent skin irritation. This liquid exfoliant works like a toner, so sweep it over your face with a cotton round, followed with your favourite moisturiser.


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