Flawless Skin 101: Know Your Acids

Nowadays, skincare products are packed with acids to combat common beauty problems like dull skin, acne, hyper-pigmentation and wrinkles. These acids can derive from natural and chemical sources. Pick up any skincare beauty bottle and read the label. You are bound to run into familiar skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid, retinol, AHA, BHA, ALA and salicylic acid.

Earlier versions of acid-based treatments can slough away dead skin effectively leaving your complexion visibly smoother and more radiant. But the problem is if done too frequently or done using the wrong acids, the skin layer can thin out and cause redness. Latest acid-based skin formulas no longer use one type of acid in high concentration. Instead, for example, they combine many different acids at lower strength. This is less irritating and overall much better for the skin.

Understanding acids can be overwhelming because different acids treat different skin concerns. You must know what your skin needs. (read Flawless Skin 101: Know Your Skin Type) Choosing a product with the wrong ingredients can not only be of no benefit to you, it can potentially exacerbate any preexisting skin issue you may have; leading to prolong skin woes, endless visits to the skin specialist and even permanent scarring.

Let’s highlight common skincare-related acids and exactly what they do.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (AHA)
Suitable for: All skin types, even dry and sensitive skin.

Alpha-hydroxy acids are a class of active compounds used for many years to improve the look and feel of skin. AHAs have super exfoliating properties and can penetrate into the upper layers of the skin to unlock the bond that holds dead cells together. This allows the layer of dead skin cells to break down and slough off revealing smoother and more evenly toned skin. At the same time, AHAs help bind water in the skin’s cell improving hydration and giving skin a healthy glow. Under this group of acids, you have:

  • Glycolic acid: the most common AHA. It can be made synthetically or naturally derived from sugar cane.
  • Lactic acid: derived from sour and fermented milk, this acid is safe when applied to skin.
  • Tartaric acid: primarily derived from plants and fruits. Grapes and cranberries are one of the best sources.
  • Malic acid: found naturally in unripe fruits. Apples is one of its best source.
  • Mandelic acid: derived from bitter almonds.
  • Citric acid: derived from citric fruits like lemons, oranges and berries. It has powerful antioxidant properties that stimulate collagen production and strengthen the skin’s defense against free radicals.

Beta-Hydroxy Acid (BHA)
Suitable for: Acne-prone and oily skin.

BHAs are another class of active compounds used to improve the appearance of skin. BHAs have super penetrative properties allowing the acid to effectively penetrate pores to rid clogged pores, remove blackheads, inhabit oil production to surface on the skin and cure acne.

  • Salicylic acid: the most common BHA. While this acid can be naturally derived from blueberries, blackberries, mushroms and raisins, it is mostly chemically made for commercial use.

Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA)
Suitable for: Dull and aging skin.

Alpha-lipoic acid is known as the universal antioxidant or miracle in a jar for its anti-aging effects on skin. It is 400 times stronger than vitamin C and vitamin E combined. This ultra-potent antioxidant fights against and repairs skin damage. Being soluble in both water and oil, this acid is extremely versatile in entering into all parts of the skin’s cellular makeup. Due to this advantage, alpha-lipoic acid provides the greatest protection against free radicals compared to other antioxidants. It can diminish fine lines, shrink pore size and regulate production of nitric oxide, which controls blood flow to the skin, giving skin a healthy glow and radiance.

Hyaluronic Acid (HA)
Suitable for: Dull, aged and dehydrated skin.

Also known as the key to the fountain of youth for its ability to secure moisture and create fullness in skin, hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in humans and animals and is found abundantly in young skin and tissue and joint fluid. It has the power to stimulate collagen production and increase skin’s elasticity and hydration by penetrating well into skin layers. Hyaluronic acid is often used in conjunction with vitamin c (l-absorbic acid) products.  In the past, hyaluronic acid was extracted from chicken’s crests. Today, with modern technology, this substance is primarily extracted from species of friendly bacteria.

Suitable for: Dull, aged and pigmented skin

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A which has a molecular structure small enough to enter into the lower layers of the skin where it can locate collagen and elastin. Retinol is proven to improve mottled pigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone, skin color and skin hydration. This class of substance is also known by many names depending on their degree of potency:

      • Tretinoin or retinoic acid (strongest)
      • Retin-A
      • Retinol
      • Retinyl Palmitate (weakest)

While some retinoids are chemically-produced, most retinods can be derived from foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes and mangoes. If your skin is too sensitive to tretinoin and retin-A, retinol is an alternative. If your skincare product contains retinyl palmitate, you may need more of it to get the same effect as one that contains retinol. Note: Pregnant women and nursing mothers are advised not to use retinol.

Suitable for: Age spots and hyper-pigmented skin

Hydroquinone is a chemical compound most commonly referred to as skin’s bleaching agent for its proven ability to be a strong inhabitor of melanin production. It is established as one of the most effective ingredient for reducing and eliminating brown spots on the skin. Unfortunately, its efficacy comes with potential side effects such as skin thickening, darkening and inflammation (red and blotchy); resulting in its ban of use in some countries. In Singapore, skin products containing 4% hydroquinone is controlled and only available by prescription only. Another problem with hydroquinone is that it works only on the skin’s upper layers. Whilst the skin appears lighter after hydroquinone treatment, skin on the deeper layers remain pigmented. This means that once you stop your hydroquinone treatment, age spots and hyper-pigmentation may resurface.

Kojic Acid
Suitable for: Age spots and hyper-pigmented skin

Kojic acid is a recent remedy for treating pigmented skin and age spots. Having the similar effect of hydroquinone, kojic acid is derived from fungus in mushrooms and malted rice. It has the ability to inhabit melanin production in the deeper layers of the skin and is proven effective as a lightening agent. It has been said that kojic acid is safer than hydroquinone, its stronger counterpart. However, kojic acid has oxidation problems and is structurally unstable when formulated in skincare creams and lotions – making this a safer, but not necessarily, an as effective alternative.

Suitable for: Age spots and hyper-pigmented skin

Arbutin, a recent discovery, is listed as another natural hydroquinone alternative. Derived from mulberry, cranberry and blueberry plants, arubtin works similarly like hydroquinone in suppressing excessive production of melanin, without the adverse side effects. The biggest point is arbutin is proven effective as a lightening agent and extremely stable.

This is the the second of a 2-part series. Read previous Flawless Skin 101: Know Your Skin Type

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