To be honest, I didn’t discover the wonders of acid-infused skin care until my mid-twenties. Before that, my routine was limited to three basic steps: cleanse, tone and moisturize. However, the tides have changed and now I’m afraid I’m doing the absolute most and putting my skin’s health in jeopardy. Knowing how to use acid on the face is important, but knowing when and how frequently is like, really important.
If you’ve yet to pop your chemical acid cherry, here’s a quick overview. Chemical acids are generally split into two categories: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), though there are also gentler enzymes like papain and pumpkin too. AHAs are water-soluble fruit acids that exfoliate the top skin layers while BHAs–the most common being salicylic acid–are oil-soluble substances that treat deeper layers. Experts routinely recommend incorporating these into your routine because while our skin has a natural cell turnover process, it slows down as we get older and poor lifestyle choices, like unhealthy eating and not wearing sunscreen, usually make it even worse.
Thankfully, there’s hardly a shortage of acid-infused products. Whereas it used to be difficult to find them outside of a cleanser, now we’ve got serums, moisturizers and even toners made with exfoliating properties…which brings me to my current debacle. That initial worry settled into the pit of my stomach soon after discovering two products and deciding to start using them at the same time.
The first, Farmacy’s Honeymoon Glow, has next-level word-of-mouth. Ever since its debut last year, I’ve seen countless reviews on Twitter and Reddit dubbing it best thing since sliced bread. Truth be told, it was all of the before-and-afters that sucked me in. In short, it’s an overnight AHA serum meant to hydrate and clarify the skin as you sleep. It’s even got willow bark, a natural source of salicylic acid (aka BHA) so I can also rest knowing that it may get rid of a pimple or two in the process. I saw no reason to not start using. So it became the last part of my routine a couple days a week.
Here’s where things got sticky. Ole Henriksen literally made me squeal at my desk when they dropped the Glow2OH™ Dark Spot Toner. Not to be confused with your basic witch hazel version, this one is made with glycolic and lactic acid, two crazy-popular AHAs frequently used in products to reduce dark spots, also known as the bane of my existence. My skin is super oily this time of year, so a toner isn’t negotiable–I have to use one. And I figured since this nighttime version also promised to address hyperpigmentation, it would be like knocking out two birds with one stone. So I started using this every night on top of the Honeymoon Glow, plus my go-to retinol of the moment–Sunday Riley’s A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum and current cleanser–Specific Beauty’s Purifying Salicylic Acid Cleanser.
So now I’m dealing with acid on acid on acid on acid and my skin literally feels squeaky clean, but so much so, that it’s starting to flake. As it turns out, the one thing I’m getting right is using my acid products at night. According to Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, founder of Specific Beauty Skincare, this is because any treatment with potentially irritating side effects should be done when sun exposure is minimized. Also, she says “acne washes with salicylic acid are mild and non-irritating for most people, so they would be fine for everyday use.”Okay, so rule number one: limit your acid products to nighttime and if your cleanser includes salicylic acid, it’s approved for daytime use too.
Now back to those nighttime products. Dr. Woolery-Lloyd advises adopting the “less is more” mindset. “Combining too many treatment products at once can definitely be a recipe for disaster,” she says. “If your goal is to be aggressive with your skin care regimen, start with a retinol at night and after a few weeks and you are certain your skin is accustomed to using a retinoids, you can consider adding in and acid-infused toner and moisturizer.”Lesson learned: I should’ve eased my way into using all of these products instead of going all-in at once. I’m glad my skin spoke up before I inevitably threw more into the mix. Some may be able to use multiple acid products and some may have to choose just one. At the end of the day, everyone’s skin is different, so listen to your’s and tread lightly.
As for what is actually safe to use everyday, start by reading the label to see if it was designed for everyday use. If that doesn’t provide a clear indication, Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says light glycolic acid products like pads or lotions are most common and appropriate for all skin types to use everyday. The exception would be rosacea-prone or those with eczema. They should stick with acid products just a few times a week.
Also, don’t forget to consider the concentration of ingredients in each of your acid-infused products. For most of the fruit acids, up to 10 percent is considered safe, while a concentration of up to 2 percent is safe salicylic acid. Anything higher than these will most definitely irritate and damage the skin.
“I have had many patients over the years who have tried to do strong ‘at home peels’ they bought online and they end up burning their skin and are left with deep hyperpigmentation that can take months to fade.” Long story short: next time you fall head over heels with multiple products at the same time, leave a little wiggle room in between each one so you don’t burn your face off.