It’s easy to want to slather on every lotion, serum, peel, and eye cream you can get your hands at in the name of youthful, glowing, clear skin. But if you’re using ingredients that don’t match up to your skin concerns, or you’re combining ingredients that completely counteract each other, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
We spoke with two experts, Annie Chiu, a dermatologist at The Derm Institute, and Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City to find out more about glycolic, ferulic, L-ascorbic, and retinoic acids, among others—plus which is the best skin acid for your complexion concerns. Ahead, a primer and the best products to shop.
An alpha hydroxy acid (which means it’s water-soluable, rather than lipid-soluable), lactic acid works on surface skin, making it great for sensitive skin. “It gently exfoliates, promoting turnover of dead skin cells while stimulating new collagen production,” says Chiu. We like Sunday Riley Good Genes.
Another AHA, glycolic acid is found naturally in sugar cane, and Zeichner says it’s the “ideal anti-aging acid for someone with dry or sensitive skin.” It exfoliates skin to boost collagen production, thicken the dermis and epidermis, and get rid of acne and an uneven skin tone by increasing cell turnover. Plus, it’s the smallest of all the acids, which meals it’s great if you want to see results over time, but Zeichner warns that it can cause some irritation if you overdo it. “Start out with a glycolic acid wash and rinse after 30 seconds. If you’re not irritated with continued use, you can graduate to a leave-on glycolic acid product.”
Start with Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, then work up to Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, or Ole Henriksen Invigorating Night Treatment.
MORE: How to Get Rid of Large Pores When You Have Dry Skin
Salicylic Acid/Beta Hydroxy Acid
Probably the first acid you were introduced to via a pimple cream, this acid exfoliates clogged pores by removing the top layer of skin—and it’s “the best at penetrating oil glands and breaking down oil and sebum,” says Chiu. Still, BHAs are less irritating than AHAs, making them great for anyone with sensitive and acne-prone skin. Try Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment for breakouts, or CLINIQUE Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel to prevent blemishes from forming.
Not only can hyaluronic acid pull moisture from the air into your skin, but it can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water—which makes it perfect for dry, thirsty skin. Try Skin Inc. Hyalyronic Acid Serum underneath your usual moisturizer to replenish your skin barrier, or layer on Derma E’s Hydrating Day Crème with Hyaluronic Acid to seal in moisture.
An antioxidant that’s found naturally in apple and orange seeds, ferulic acid fights free-radical damage. “Even though ferulic acid has the word acid in it, it’s an antioxidant extract that doesn’t have the irritation potential of traditional acids,” Zeichner says, noting that it’s often combined with vitamins C and E for “a potent antioxidant trifecta” that’ll keep skin bright and even-toned. “Antioxidants in general may be layered under retinol for an added collagen stimulating benefit.” Try SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic or Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic + Retinol Fortifying Neck Emulsion for quick results.
L-Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C)
The best antioxidant if you want to get rid of brown spots, decrease melanin production, and increase collagen, vitamin C “inhibits pigment enzymes in the skin and brightens the overall complexion,” says Chiu. That translates to a brighter, more youthful glow. But one catch: Because the acid, which is usually found in serum-form for optimal results, “is difficult to formulate and keep stable, it doesn’t play nicely with others,” reminds Zeichner. Don’t use it with retinol, lest you want neither of them to do their jobs.
Vitamin C requires an acidic environment to keep stable. It is a great ingredient, but. High levels of Vitamin C are needed to achieve a strong effect in the skin, which is why it is frequently concentrated in serum form. Try a serum, which Zeichner says enhances delivery into the skin at high levels. We like Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Serum, Garnier’s Clearly Brighter Line, and Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum.
Retinoic acid, also known as Tretinoin, is a prescription-grade anti-aging powerhouse that’s commonly used to treat acne, too, says Zeichner. The vitamin A derivative reduces inflammation and “fights fine lines and wrinkles by reversing photo-damage and boosting collagen production,” adds Chiu. If you’re looking to shave off a few years—or just stave off the signs of aging before they start—retinol’s your guy. Try Roc Retinol Correxion Eye Cream, Verso Super Eye Serum, or Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair.