Guide to Using Alpha Hydroxy Acids

If you love using skincare products, you’ve likely encountered products that contain some type of hydroxy acid. Well, it may sound like a very powerful acid when you hear or read it, but hydroxy acids have a lot of benefits that can help in transforming your skin. Hydroxy acids come in different types depending on the needs of each kind of skin. There are alpha hydroxy acids or AHA like glycolic acid, which can help smoothen uneven skin textures, tighten sagging skin, and as well as brighten the complexion. 

However, AHAs are potent, and if you use them without properly caring for your skin, it can cause more damage instead of getting lots of benefits. If you want to learn how to use alpha-hydroxy acids, then read on because we are going to let you know how it can help deal with a wide range of skin problems, from scars to acne, hydration to pigmentation, sun damage, and as well as aging. We’re going to explain its different types, benefits, and how it should be used. 

What is Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)?

There are two most common hydroxy acids used in cosmetic products for hydration and exfoliation, and one of those is alpha hydroxy acid or AHA. You can commonly find this ingredient in anti-aging skincare products. They can either be naturally derived from fruits, nuts, sugar, and dairy products, or they can also be synthetically created. 

There are also other common hydroxy acids, like beta hydroxy acid or BHA. However, BHAs are soluble, while alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble, meaning they cannot penetrate the skin like BHAs do. This makes AHA great for aged skin thicken skin, or sun-damaged skin that does not have any acne issue. AHA is very potent when it deals with the skin at the surface. It can exfoliate the top layers of skin by breaking the bonds between the skin cells on the outer layer. It can slough off dead skin, revealing new and undamaged skin underneath. 

AHA is also hydrophilic, or it attracts water molecules. Therefore, it can help the skin to retain more water, making it feel bouncy and hydrated. However, it can also make your skin more sensitive from the sun. This means that if you want to add AHAs to your skincare routine, it is a must to always wear sunscreen. If you don’t, you’ll be exfoliating to be able to get new, undamaged skin only to damage the young skin further when exposed to the sun. 

There are different concentrations of AHAs, from 1% to 50% or even higher, which are stronger exfoliants. You will need to build up your skin’s tolerance from a lower to high concentration so that you won’t risk over-exfoliation. Keep in mind that over-exfoliation is difficult to repair, and it can take months. 

AHA can also help in speeding the process of dead skin removal on the topmost layers of the skin. Though it does not happen overnight, it will still become faster when you use AHA, bringing new skin to the surface that is bright and full. This is why AHA is common in products that help reduce acne scars, sun damage, and hyperpigmentation. 

Benefits of Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Alpha hydroxy acids have different benefits that are backed by science. Here are some of them:

AHA can help treat acne

Since alpha hydroxy acid can break the bonds between skin cells and speed up exfoliation, it means that it can also open up or loosen clogged pores that are at the surface of the skin. Based on studies, AHA is effective when it comes to treating mild to moderate acne. Aside from that, it can also help fight against future breakouts after a stronger treatment for acne. 

AHA can help treat hyperpigmentation

Based on studies, alpha hydroxy acids can also help reduce scars, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, sun damage spots, and other discoloration on the skin. This is also because of how it speeds up exfoliation at the surface level of the skin. 

AHA is an anti-aging treatment

Some might think that using alpha hydroxy acid to remove the topmost layer of the skin would make the skin thin, but actually, the opposite happens. Aside from the reversal of age and treating discoloration, one study found out that AHAs can also help thicken the skin and increase its elasticity and collagen density. All of these can help fight age-related skin issues, including fine lines and wrinkles. 

How Do You Use an Alpha Hydroxy Acid?

AHA is an active acid. It means that it has a direct and active action on the skin. And for an active acid to work best, it should be in direct contact with the skin for several minutes before washing it off, or before applying other products on top. Leaving AHA on the skin for a few minutes lets it make contact and penetrate the skin undisturbed. If you do not leave it long enough or if you wash it immediately, it may not act or penetrate the skin completely. 

Alpha hydroxy acid can work best between 5 and 6 pH environments, which is a bit acidic. If you put on more products on top of AHA too soon, it can change the pH environment of your skin, not allowing the AHA to work well, hence, making it less effective. 

Many AHAs have a higher concentration. Some might ask you to gradually increase the contact time over a series of weeks. For example, on your first use, you only leave it for a minute. Then 2 minutes on the following use, working your way up to 5 minutes over several weeks. Remember that the longer you leave it on your skin, the stronger the exfoliation. Never try leaving it on your skin for 5 minutes on your first use as it can lead to irritated or burning skin. 

If you’ve never tried using alpha-shydroxy acids before, or if you do not know how much your skin can tolerate, then doing a patch test is helpful. Put a drop of an AHA on the inside of your elbow in the same way you would apply it on your face. Then, observe if that area will react negatively. If it does, it means that the AHA product you have is not for you, and it may cause negative effects on your face. 

Different Types of Alpha Hydroxy Acid

Where to Buy
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Newport Cosmeceuticals Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Facial Cleanser
LDR by Baysyx Glycolic Exfoliating Cleanser
Toulon Gentle Milk Cleanser with AHA Lactic Acid
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment
Vivant Skin Care Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Wash
Neostrata Mandelic Acid Clarifying Cleanser
NuCelle Mandelic Wash


As mentioned earlier, AHA comes in many types, and here are some of them. We’ve also included links to some products that you might want to try.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid came from sugar, and it contains the smallest molecules among the AHAs found in skincare products. This means that glycolic acid can penetrate the skin deeper compared to the other types of AHA. This makes it one of the strongest AHAs, and also the harshest if your skin is unable to tolerate it. It is not the type of AHA that beginners should use. But for experienced uses of alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid can be very effective. 

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid cam from dairy products, meaning it’s not suitable for people who have milk allergies. Compared to glycolic acid, lactic acid has bigger molecules. It is a gentler AHA, which is great for beginners. It also does everything that glycolic acid offers, but the effects may take a bit longer since it has bigger molecules. It also comes in a different range of concentrations for topical use. Those with 2% and above lactic concentration are for hydration, while those 5% and above are for exfoliation of the skin. 

Mandelic Acid

Mandelic acid comes from almonds. It has even bigger molecules compared to lactic acid, meaning it does not penetrate the skin as fast, showing results for a longer period. This one is great for people who have sensitive skin that is prone to irritation and rashes. You can also use this AHA if you are looking for a routine that will give you a bit of AHA power in it without hoping for fast results. 

Where to Buy
Paula’s Choice Resist Smoothing Treatment with Malic Acid
QRxLabs Renewal Serum with Tartaric Acid
Alana Mitchell Mini Brightening Pumpkin Enzyme Face Mask with Citric Acid
Buttah Skin Facial Cleanser with Citric Acid
Citric Acid Skin Paste


Malic Acid

Malic acid is made using apples, but it can also be synthetically made. Its synthetic version is actually more common compared to the naturally occurring version when it comes to skincare products because it’s easier to stabilize. Compared to glycolic and lactic acid, malic acid’s molecules are bigger. It means that it penetrates the skin slower. It is a great supplementary acid together with lactic or glycolic acid at low concentrations. It’s because they can penetrate the skin at different speeds, giving effects to the skin at different levels. 

Paula’s Choice Resist Smoothing Treatment with Malic Acid

Tartaric Acid

Tartaric acid is found in grapes, but can also be made synthetically. It has a very big molecule. It can exfoliate the skin, but it is commonly used as a pH adjuster to make a stronger acid, like lactic acid, to work. But you can also use it to exfoliate the topmost layer of the skin.

QRxLabs Renewal Serum with Tartaric Acid

Citric Acid

Citric acid comes from citrus fruits. It is also commonly used as a pH adjuster in skincare formulas, to help them stay within a certain range so other more potent acids can have an optimal environment for effectiveness. It is also used for its antioxidant properties. Many people think that citric acid and vitamin C are the same, but they are two different compounds, and vitamin c is not an alpha hydroxy acid, but it is also an active acid that is used in skincare. 

Alpha hydroxy acids are indeed beneficial in making the skin look more beautiful. However, you need to take caution and be careful in using them, as well. If you are going to incorporate products with AHAs to your skincare routines, make sure that you are following all the instructions on how they are used.