Does your skin feel dull? Do you want to achieve brighter, healthier or younger skin? Exfoliating acids (such as glycolic or salicylic acid) are skincare actives that work wonders on our skin. However, it’s important to use them correctly or you can easily damage your skin. Here are my tips to get the best results!
It’s been a long time since I talked to you about exfoliating acids, and as the winter approaches and, therefore, we will be less exposed to ultraviolet radiation (although sunscreen is still essential), the acid season begins. Some time ago I shared a very detailed guide on exfoliating acids in which I explain everything you need to know about each of these ingredients, but since you have asked me a lot about this subject, I am finally going to publish a guide that helps you understand how you should start using these products and thus get the maximum possible benefit from them.
Specifically, the topics that you will find in this article are these:
- What are exfoliating acids and why you should use them.
- What type of exfoliating acid is best for you.
- How to start using exfoliating acids.
1. WHAT ARE EXFOLIATING ACIDS AND WHY YOU SHOULD USE THEM.
Before going into detail about exfoliating acids themselves, it is important to understand why we should exfoliate our skin. For this, there are two aspects that we must know: the structure of our skin and the cell turnover process.
As I explain in greater detail in this other article, our skin is made up of three main layers: the hypodermis, the dermis and the epidermis (ordered from deepest to most superficial). In the epidermis there are a series of layers of cells that constantly go through cell turnover process that I just mentioned, which causes new cells to be produced in the deepest layer of the epidermis so that they progressively approach the outermost areas until they finally shed (which is known as desquamation). This cell turnover process, which lasts approximately 28 days, slows down over the years, so sometimes we have to give our skin a little help to remove the superficial layer of cells. By doing so we will be able to increase the luminosity of our skin, improve its texture and even improve some types of spots. And why am I explaining all this to you? Because this way you will be able to better understand the function of exfoliating acids.
Exfoliating acids are a very broad set of ingredients that are used in cosmetics with the main purpose of performing a chemical exfoliation on our skin. I know that the concept of a chemical exfoliation might sound scary, especially if you’re just starting to learn about it, but I’m going to explain what it is and why it’s my favorite type. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants (cleansing brushes, gels with small beads, etc.) exfoliate our skin mechanically, scratching it so that the most superficial layer of dead cells of the epidermis comes off, which may cause irritation or even damage to a very small scale that, in the long term, favors aging. For their part, chemical exfoliants break the bonds between the dead cells of our epidermis, helping them to come off in a more respectful way with our skin barrier (as long as we do not abuse them).
As I explain in my guide on exfoliating acids, there is a great variety of them and we can find them in many formats (toners, essences, serums, masks, etc.), which allows each of us to find an acid that fits our skincare needs. Do you want to know which one is ideal for you?
2. WHAT TYPE OF EXFOLIATING ACID IS BEST FOR YOU.
As I said before, when we talk about exfoliating acids we refer to a very wide variety of ingredients, but here I am going to collect some of the most important and common ones on the market. With such a variety of products, it can be difficult to find the one that suits your skincare needs best, but with this little guide you will definitely find what you are looking for.
If you want to start using exfoliating acids:
Although in the next part of the article I will talk in more detail about the proper way to start incorporating exfoliating acids into your beauty routines, there are certain ingredients that are, in general, a gentler solution to our skin, which makes them ideal if you have sensitive skin.
Mandelic acid can be a good option when starting to use exfoliating acids, since it has a very high molecular weight and, therefore, as it penetrates our skin less, it can cause less irritation. If you want to start using it, you can do it with The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA, which you can get on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique.
Another option that you can start using are PHAs or Polyhydroxy acids, a set of ingredients that perform a gentle exfoliation due to their low penetration. Among the PHAs we can find ingredients such as Gluconolactone or Lactobionic acid, available at ByWishtrend Acid-Duo 2% Mild Gel Cleanser, which you can get on Wishtrend, on Yesstyle, and on Amazon.
You could also start using other more powerful acids with lower concentrations, with a higher pH or by spacing their use more, as indicated in the last part of the article.
If you are concerned about spots:
Skin spots, about which you can read my guide here, are a very common and annoying problem. There is a great variety of them and they can appear due to different reasons, but there are certain cosmetics that may help us. I want to stop and emphasize something very important: sunscreen is essential, you must use it every day and reapply it properly, it doesn’t matter if you already have spots or not. Here you can see a comparison of sunscreens, in case you have not found one that fits what you are looking for yet.
A very effective ingredient in improving the appearance of spots is ascorbic acid or vitamin C (which you can read more about in my guide). In addition to enhancing the action of other depigmentants, it also inhibits the production of melanin. Since ascorbic acid is very powerful, I advise you to start with a mild formula, such as the Vichy Liftactiv Specialist Peptide-C Ampoules, available on FeelUnique, on SkinStore and on Amazon and, if you consider that you need to use more powerful products, progressively advance until you find what what you need. If your skin already has a certain tolerance to vitamin C you can try a more powerful product such as the Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster, available on Paula’s Choice, on Niche Beauty and on Amazon or The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%, which you can find on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique.
If you have sensitive skin, it is probably best to limit yourself to vitamin C derivatives like the one I mentioned earlier, as ascorbic acid can be irritating.
Another alternative if you are concerned about spots is azelaic acid, especially if you have oily or acne-prone skin, which also helps to reduce redness. If you want to start using it, I recommend The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, which you can get on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique and the Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster, available at Paula’s Choice and on Niche Beauty.
When it comes to improving spots, retinoic acid can also help you, it’s a very common ingredient in acne treatments and anti-aging cosmetics, although you should bear in mind that in many countries it requires a medical prescription. However, if you are interested in these types of ingredients you can read my guide on retinoids, in which I explain step by step how to integrate them into your beauty routines.
If you are concerned about acne marks:
Acne marks are a very annoying problem and they can really affect us on a psychological level. Although on my guide on acne I talk in greater detail about them, I want to make a brief mention of an ingredient that can especially help you to reduce those marks and spots, in addition to the redness derived from the inflammation that acne causes: azelaic acid. An interesting aspect about this acid is that it can be used even if you have sensitive skin, which is why it has become a favorite of many. If you want to start incorporating it into your beauty routines, you can do it with The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, which you can get on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique and the Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster, available at Paula’s Choice and on Niche Beauty.
If you are concerned about blackheads and the appearance of your pores:
On my guide on acne I talk in more detail about how our pores get clogged and lead to the appearance of pimples. To keep your pores clean and in good condition it is important to maintain a proper facial cleansing routine. You can also incorporate into your beauty routines a good antioxidant such as niacinamide (which helps rebalance oil levels and reduce redness), which you can find in the Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster, available at Paula’s Choice and on Niche Beauty and on the The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, which you may find on DECIEM, on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique.
An exfoliating acid that can help you in an excellent way to keep your pores clean is salicylic acid or BHA. In addition to having antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, salicylic acid not only acts on a surface level, but is able to penetrate inside the pores and help unblock them to minimize blackheads. If you want to start using salicylic acid, I recommend this Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant from Paula’s Choice, available on Paula’s Choice, on Niche Beauty, on Amazon and on FeelUnique.
In addition to salicylic acid, if your pores have a tendency to clog, azelaic acid, which I talked about before, can also help you due to its keratolytic properties, which help prevent the appearance of comedones. In addition, it is also very useful if you have small marks or redness derived from acne (about which you can read more in this other article). I recommend The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, which you can get on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique and the Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster, available at Paula’s Choice and on Niche Beauty.
If you want brighter skin:
Sometimes, especially as the years go by, the skin gets a duller tone, as if it lacks life. This is due to the slowing down of the cell turnover process, which I talked about at the beginning of the article. Because of this, the cells produced in the deeper layers of the epidermis take longer to reach the surface. When this happens, we must look for ways to accelerate the cell turnover process or to remove the surface layer of dead cells, for which we can incorporate different ingredients into our beauty routines.
When it comes to improving our skin’s brightness, you may find help from ascorbic acid (vitamin C), of which you can read my complete guide here. Vitamin C is an excellent ingredient when it comes to improving our skin tone, although you should incorporate it into your beauty routines progressively, allowing your skin to acquire tolerance, for which you can start with a serum like this Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster, available on Paula’s Choice, on Niche Beauty and on Amazon or the Vichy Liftactiv Specialist Peptide-C Ampoules, available on FeelUnique, on SkinStore and on Amazon.
In addition to this, there are other exfoliating acids that can help you improve your brightness simply by the effect of the chemical exfoliation they perform. If you are looking for a mild acid, you could incorporate mandelic acid into your routines, since it has a very high molecular weight and, therefore, penetrates less than other acids (so it can cause less potential irritation). A good option for adding mandelic acid to your skincare routines is The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA, which you can get on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique. If you are looking for a more powerful solution, you could include glycolic acid in your skincare routines, although you should bear in mind that this acid has a low molecular weight, so it penetrates a lot and, therefore, it is not highly recommended if your skin is sensitive. When you start using glycolic acid, you can do it with a toner like The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution, which you can get on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon, on SkinStore and on FeelUnique.
If you are concerned about wrinkles:
Wrinkles are one of the biggest concerns in cosmetics. They appear, among other causes, as a consequence of the degradation of collagen and elastin fibers, responsible for giving our skin its firmness and elasticity, but there are certain cosmetics that can help us delay its appearance.
Retinoic acid, although not an exfoliating acid, not only helps to repair damaged collagen and elastin fibers, but also accelerates the cell turnover process that I talked about at the beginning of the article and, in addition, it helps to rebalance oil levels (making it a classic acne treatment). If you are interested in using this effective ingredient, I advise you to read my guide on retinoids, in which I explain how to do it step by step.
In addition to retinoids, there are other ingredients that can help you improve the length and depth of wrinkles, such as peptides. These act in different ways: promoting the repair of collagen and elastin fibers, promoting the production of these molecules or even preventing us from making certain movements. The best peptide serum I have used so far is, without a doubt, the NIOD Copper Amino-Isolate Serum 2:1 (CAIS 2), available on DECIEM (recommended), on Amazon and on FeelUnique.
If you are concerned about the hydration of your skin:
Although it is not an exfoliating acid, hyaluronic acid must be familiar to you. This ingredient, very common in our cosmetics, is a humectant, which is why it attracts water into our skin so that it remains balanced and, in addition, helps to maintain the correct balance of our skin barrier.
Although today many cosmetics include hyaluronic acid among their ingredients, you may be looking for a specific product to improve the hydration of your skin. I know that there are many options on the market, so I advise you to take a look at my comparison of hyaluronic acid serums, in which you will surely find one that suits your preferences and the needs of your skin. Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), which I have talked about before, also help improve skin hydration, so incorporating them into your beauty routines can be an interesting option too.
3. HOW TO START USING EXFOLIATING ACIDS.
Now that you know which exfoliating acid is the most suitable for your skincare needs, it is important that you know how you should introduce them into your skincare routines. Although exfoliating acids are very effective ingredients when it comes to treating various skin concerns, we must take into account that, generally speaking, they are potentially irritating ingredients, so if we use them incorrectly, we can damage our skin. With this I do not mean to be alarmist, but you must bear in mind that these ingredients must be used wisely, being aware of how they act and how our skin is reacting to their use.
When it comes to using exfoliating acids, we can adopt different strategies to help our skin acquire tolerance and get used to their use. One possibility is to start using low concentrations of the acid that interests us and, very progressively, increase it (always according to our needs, since we do not have to use the most powerful option to achieve the result we seek). In addition to the concentration, you should also consider the pH of the product you are using. Keep in mind that the pH of our skin is between 4.5 and 5.9, so a product with a very low pH exfoliates more than one with a higher pH at the same concentration. Another option is to start using gentler exfoliating acids (with less penetration) and, if necessary, switch to using others that penetrate our skin more. Finally, we can also start by spacing out the use of the acid that we want to incorporate into our skincare routines and, very gradually, increase its frequency of use (without abusing it, since normally we do not need to use more than two or three times per week).
There are several tips that you should follow whenever you use exfoliating acids that will help you achieve a better result without damaging your skin barrier:
- Always do a patch test. With this tolerance test you will be able to know if, in principle, your skin reacts negatively to the new ingredient that you are going to start using.
- Use exfoliating acids in your night routine. Using exfoliating acids increases our sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, so in general they should be part of your night routine. An exception is found on certain formulas of vitamin C, which being a powerful antioxidant, could be an interesting addition into your morning routines so that, along with sunscreen, you prevent the damage that free radicals cause to our skin when exposed to the ultraviolet radiation.
- Stay out of the sun if you are using acid exfoliants. You already know that sunscreen is essential, it must be part of all your morning routines, without exception, and you must reapply it correctly. As I have indicated in the previous point, the use of acids increases our sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, so it is easier for you to burn if you expose yourself a lot to the sun and do not protect yourself properly. Here you can see a comparison of sunscreens, in case you have not found one that meets your needs and preferences yet.
- Don’t rush things, allow your skin to develop tolerance. As I have indicated in this very section of the article, exfoliating acids can damage our skin if we use them wrong or abuse them (which is known as overexfoliation). We must be aware of how powerful they are, so when introducing them into our skincare routines we must do it little by little. Start one day a week, and if your skin reacts appropriately and you consider that you need a greater frequency of use, increase it very gradually (taking into account the needs of your skin and the type of product), in general, using them two or three times a week is enough.
- Do not combine different exfoliating acids in the same routine. When it comes to taking care of our skin we shouldn’t hurry, and if we start to use several exfoliating acids at the same time it is likely that we will end up damaging our skin barrier, with irritated skin or even with a burn. If you have several concerns that you want to address at the same time, I recommend you follow the instructions in my basic guide on how to create a skincare routine.
- Don’t use acids if your skin is damaged or irritated. Our skin can be damaged for various reasons, not necessarily related to our skincare routine. If this happens, it is important to reduce our skincare routines to the bare minimum (cleansing, moisturizing and sun protection) and, once our skin regains its balance, we can begin to gradually reincorporate the potentially irritating ingredients that we used before (such as exfoliating acids).
- Be careful when combining exfoliating acids with other potentially irritating ingredients. When we use powerful active ingredients (such as the exfoliating acids, retinoids or vitamin C) we can sometimes consider the possibility of using more than one in the same skincare routine. I personally consider it unnecessary since, as I said before, we should not rush things when taking care of our skin. Instead of combining the active ingredients, I am in favor of alternating them between the different night routines and thus not risking the balance of the skin barrier. In any case, if you consider the possibility of combining powerful active ingredients, do so when your skin already has a high tolerance to them and, in case of observing any type of adverse reaction, use them every other day.
- When you use acids, add to the same routine ingredients that help maintain the balance of the skin barrier. Although in my article on irritation I talk in more detail about them, there are certain ingredients that can benefit you, such as ceramides, fatty acids, cholesterol, etc. to counteract possible irritation and dryness that exfoliating acids can cause.
- If you have any questions, allergies or adverse reactions, consult your dermatologist, as they will be able to evaluate your case in a more exhaustive way, determining the cause of this adverse reaction and assessing whether you should stop using the new product that you have incorporated into your routinesy. In addition, in these situations it is important that you contact the brand, as they will be able to tell you if your case is isolated, if it is a common reaction, etc. In my article on labelling I explain how to find the contact details of the brand and how to contact the health authorities in these cases.
I hope this article has helped you better understand the proper way to incorporate acids into your beauty routines and that, from now on, if you dare to use them, you will do it correctly. Have you used exfoliating acids before? Which ones do you use? Let me know in the comment section!
If you liked this article and want to continue learning how to properly care for your skin, you will surely be interested in these other posts:
- How to create a skincare routine: basic guide.
- Did you get pimples when using a new product? It may be a purge.
Do you want to learn to take better care of your skin? You can see an index of all my informative posts here.
*I have received some of these products as PR | Read more about my transparency code.