When most of us hear the word “acid,” we immediately think of something that burns and causes discomfort. But in the context of skin care, it’s actually quite beneficial to keeping our skin clear of the things that become breeding ground for breakouts. There are many ways to incorporate acid cleansers into your regimen, but first, let’s get into what a refresher is, how it works and why experts love recommending it.
For starters, all acids, regardless of the category they fall into (more on this in a sec), are renowned for their exfoliating powers. According to board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Melissa Doft, “they remove the dead cells along the top layer of your skin, allowing new cells to populate the surface and thus making your skin look more radiant and decreasing fine lines.” She also says they help to remove sebum, which can clog pores and stimulate acne.
Most acids fall under one of two categories: BHA or AHA. BHAs, or beta-hydroxy acids, are oil-soluble, meaning they can dissolve in a water or oil solution and are able to deeply penetrate the skin. This makes them an especially smart choice for anyone with oily layers. Doft says BHAs are most often found in willow bark and salicylic acid, which is often used in spot treatments.
AHAs, or alpha-hydroxy acids, are sort of the opposite. Doft says these “are not oil soluble, so they tend to treat the surface of the skin by exfoliating the top layer.” They’re most commonly found in glycolic from sugar cane, citric from citric fruits, lactic from sour milk, malic from apples, and tartaric from grapes.
Acids, overall, aren’t exclusive to a specific skin type or lifestyle. Most of us can benefit from them, although Doft says “patients with sensitive skin will want to look for formulations with lower concentrations of citric or glycolic acids, as they can be irritating and cause redness.”
More often than not, a lot of products on the market will combine several acids to better target skin issues. You can expect to feel nothing at all or a little tingling upon application, but see a doctor if you experience excessive dryness, redness, or significant burning. With all that being said, there are a ton of options for adding acids to your routine. Ahead are some of our favorite picks, from masks to cleansers and toners.
A version of this article was originally published in January 2018.