Alpha-Hydroxy Acids Are the Best Exfoliants for Acne & Wrinkles

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids For Skincare

I’m sure you have heard of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) at some point. Glycolic acid this, lactic acid that! Everyone is exfoliating with these to achieve smoother, healthier skin! And if you’re not, you are missing out! On the other hand, knowing how AHAs work before committing to an AHA product is much wiser if you want to get the most out of your skincare. So keep reading to learn everything you need to know about alpha-hydroxy acids in skincare, how they work, their benefits, and so much more.

What Are Alpha-Hydroxy Acids?

Names of Alpha Hydroxy Acids

A subcategory of hydroxy acids, alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acids used in skincare products like serums, toners, and cleansers to exfoliate the skin (1). They’re sometimes called fruit acids as well. They can both be derived from natural sources and produced synthetically.

Besides skincare, alpha-hydroxy acids are also used in professional skin treatments like chemical peels. AHAs help with a variety of skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, scars, wrinkles, sun damage, and rough skin (2).

List of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

Below is a list of alpha-hydroxy acids used in skincare products.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is the most common alpha-hydroxy acid used in skincare products. It’s usually derived from sugar cane and is considered to be the gold standard for exfoliation.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is the second most popular alpha-hydroxy acid commonly formulated into skincare products. It’s derived from milk and is known for being a gentle exfoliant and the best alternative to glycolic acid for people who have sensitive skin.

Citric Acid

Derived from citrus fruits like lemons, citric acid is a less popular member of the AHA family. It usually doesn’t make it as a standalone ingredient in products but rather paired with other exfoliants. Apart from exfoliation, citric acid has antioxidant benefits.

Tartaric Acid

Tartaric acid is usually derived from grapes and is among the gentlest alpha hydroxy acids. It also has antioxidant benefits for the skin.

Malic Acid

Derived from apples, malic acid is another gentle alpha hydroxy acid. It gives superficial exfoliation and also has hydrating benefits for the skin.

Mandelic Acid

Mandelic acid is usually derived from almonds and is one of the gentlest alpha hydroxy acids with additional anti-acne benefits.

How Do These Acids Differ?

All of these acids are unique. They differ in the way they work on the skin because of their molecular structure. Here’s the list of the molecular weight of each alpha-hydroxy acid.

So what does this mean? It means that glycolic acid would be the most penetrative whereas citric acid would be the least. That’s why glycolic acid is so common in our skincare products.

But there’s a catch. Because it’s the most penetrative of the bunch, it’s also the one that carries the most potential for irritation.

Acids that are high in molecular weight, the less penetrating ones, are usually combined to achieve cumulative results. That’s why you don’t see a lot of citric acid serums but you see lactic acid serums that are enriched with citric acid.

How Do Alpha-Hydroxy Acids Work?

The dead skin cells on the top layer of your skin are linked to each other. And alpha-hydroxy acids dissolve the glue that holds those cells together.

As a result, AHAs prompt exfoliation, and slough off dead skin cells. By exfoliating the skin, AHAs give you smoother skin while diminishing other concerns such as acne and wrinkles.

Benefits of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids For Skin

AHAs have numerous benefits. But these benefits can be attributed to the fact that they are exfoliants.

1. They Exfoliate

Alpha-hydroxy acids are primarily exfoliants (3). They stimulate skin turnover, which refers to the renewal of the top layer of our skin. As we age, our skin turnover cycle slows down, resulting in dullness, flaky skin, and rough skin texture. By exfoliating the skin, AHAs accelerate skin turnover, helping you achieve smoother, softer skin.

2. They Stimulate Collagen Production

AHAs are among the most effective anti-aging ingredients because they stimulate collagen production (4). It’s the protein that gives you youthful skin. By stimulating collagen synthesis, AHAs improve skin elasticity and give you firmer, and healthier skin.

3. They Reduce Hyperpigmentation

AHAs are also effective ingredients for treating hyperpigmentation. Whether it’s dark spots from sun exposure or acne marks, AHAs reduce hyperpigmentation, fade discolorations, and give you a brighter, radiant complexion.

4. They Reduce Acne

AHAs also help with congested skin and blackheads because of the way they get rid of stubborn skin flakes. When those dead skin flakes stay on the skin too long, they’re more likely to settle inside the pores and clog them. By getting rid of dead skin cells, AHAs keep the pores clean and prevent acne.

5. Each AHA Offers a Unique Benefit

We’ve mentioned that each AHA is unique because of its molecular weight. But that’s not all. For example, lactic acid has the additional benefit of boosting hydration on the skin, which results in plumper skin. This acid is great for people with dry, dehydrated skin. Additionally, citric, tartaric, and malic acids, besides being exfoliants, are also antioxidants (5). They help treat and prevent free radical damage on the skin.

6. They Make the Skin More Permeable

Exfoliation is like a deep cleanse. It removes the barrier that’s preventing your skincare products from penetrating the skin. That’s why exfoliation is one of the best ways to increase the benefits of your skincare products. Your skincare products absorb better and work better.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids vs Other Hydroxy Acids

Think of these acids as a big family under the name hydroxy acids. Besides the sub-group alpha-hydroxy acids, we have beta hydroxy acids and polyhydroxy acids.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHA) include mainly salicylic acid whereas polyhydroxy acids (PHA) include lactobionic acid, gluconolactone, and maltobionic acid.

In the grand scheme of things, AHAs are the best at exfoliating the skin. They differ from BHAs, which are oil-soluble and work best for oily skin.

PHAs are the gentlest exfoliants with additional hydrating and antioxidant benefits. But when pure, unadulterated exfoliation is concerned, AHAs, especially glycolic acid, are the absolute best.

Drawbacks of AHAs For Skin

Because of the way they penetrate the skin, alpha hydroxy acids can cause irritation on the skin and cause stinging and burning. However, this does not apply to all.

Because of its molecular weight, glycolic acid is the one that has the most potential for irritation for people with sensitive skin.

But this side effect can easily be mitigated simply by using a low-concentration glycolic acid product. Similarly, you can choose an AHA like tartaric acid, which is very unlikely to irritate.

Another common side effect of alpha-hydroxy acids is photosensitivity. When you exfoliate with acids, your skin becomes more sensitive to sunlight and more prone to sunburn. Again, this can be prevented simply by wearing SPF regularly.

Can You Use AHAs With Other Active Ingredients?

Exfoliating acids do not go well with other active ingredients. They don’t even go well with each other unless they’re in one single product.

For example, do not use a glycolic acid cream over a glycolic or lactic acid serum. The combination will result in a much higher concentration of the acids, which will probably irritate your skin and cause inflammation.

Additionally, avoid using AHAs with other hydroxy acids like beta hydroxy acids. And avoid using vitamin C or retinol in the same routine you use AHAs. When in doubt, stick with one active ingredient.

What Can You Use With AHAs?

Some ingredients go perfectly well with AHAs even if you use them in the same routine. These are harmless on their own and harmless when used with others.

You can use hyaluronic acid, which is a humectant that hydrates the skin. You can use ceramides in the form of a moisturizer, which will moisturize the skin. Basically, anything hydrating, moisturizing, or soothing will be OK to mix with AHAs.

How To Use Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

Well, knowing what AHAs are and how they work is the first step if you want to get the most out of them. Now that you’ve got that covered, here’s how you can use AHAs and how you can incorporate them into your skincare routine.

First of all, take another look at the molecular weights of the acids and decide which one to go for. AHAs come in serums, exfoliating toners, peel pads, and even cleansers.

For daily use, cleansers, toners, and pads are great. At-home peels and treatments tend to be more concentrated and should be used once or twice a week.

But as a general rule of thumb, it’s always in your skin’s best interest to start slow with active ingredients. No matter which acid or product you use, start slow and let your skin adjust to it.

AHAs are great for normal, combination, oily, and acne-prone skin types. Because these skin types tend to be more tolerant towards actives. But people with very dry and sensitive skin and people with rosacea are not the best candidates for AHA products.

For best results, use your AHA products on dry, clean skin. They’ll be more penetrating and effective. Then follow with your serums and moisturizers.

So this is what alpha-hydroxy acids are, how they work, and what they do. Even though all of these 6 acids are alpha-hydroxy acids, they’re usually marketed with their names. So instead of looking for an alpha-hydroxy acid product, it’s best to shop for the exact acid in whatever form you prefer like a toner or serum. Now that you know what each one does, hopefully, your search should take a lot less. You can start with our round-up of the best glycolic acid serums or if you’re looking for something gentler, try our round-up of the best lactic acid serums.


  1. Tang, S. C., & Yang, J. H. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland)23(4), 863.
  2. Moghimipour E. (2012). Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging AgentsJundishapur journal of natural pharmaceutical products7(1), 9–10.
  3. Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology3, 135–142.
  4. Baran, R., & Maibach, H. (2017). 6. Organic acids with novel functions: Hydroxy, bionic, n-acetylamino acids and n-acylpeptide derivatives [E-book]. In Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology (Series in Cosmetic and Laser Therapy) (5th ed., pp. 56–70). CRC Press.
  5. Draelos, Z. D. (2011). Chapter 40: Clinical uses of hydroxy acids [E-book]. In Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures (pp. 327–334). Wiley-Blackwell.
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