About Hydroxy Acids: AHAs and BHAs and PHAs

Hydroxy Acids AHAs and BHAs

    Winter is a great time to try out hydroxy acids on the skin, so I would like to explain what these are, how do they work and how you can use them. "Acid" may sound scary and toxic, but did you know that the DIY papaya and the aspirin face masks that are so popular work because both these things contain hydroxy acids? Also -- most anti-acne and anti-aging products contain hydroxy acids, so if you use these you really need to know how hydroxy acids work.

      Hydroxy acids are chemical exfoliators. They make the skin look brighter and smoother by removing the dead cells, and they fight dicolourations of all kinds: age spots, pregnancy mask, remains of breakouts, sun damage. They help with fine lines and acne scars and also stimulate cell renewal. Interested? Read on.

   First, it is important to know the difference between AHAs,  BHAs and PHAs, so that you can choose the right one for your skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids aka AHAs:

    They are more powerful than BHAs and are usually used in anti-aging products. They minimize fine lines, help to moisturise the skin, AHAs are water soluble and they cannot penetrate the sebum and cleanse the pores, so they are recommended for dry skin. In lower concentrations the affect only the outer layer of the skin, in higher concentrations they can also work on the deeper layers of the skin.
      The most common AHAs are:
glycolic acid (from sugar cane)
lactic acid (from milk)
malic acid (from apples and pears)
citric acid (from oranges and lemons)
tartaric acid (from grapes)
mandelic acid* (from bitter almonds)

    Side-effects of AHAs include irritation and sun-sensitivity. If you have never used Hydroxy Acids before, start with BHAs rather than AHAs -- ory try out manelic acid
    * Mandelic acid is one of the most gentle of all hydroxy acids -- it does not irritate the skin or cause sun sensitivity. More about it here.

Beta Hydroxy Acids aka BHAs

   There is actually only one BHA -- salicylic acid. BHA is oil soluble, and so are fantastic against skin with blocked pores and acne. It also tightens the pores and It also minimizes fine lines and remove discolourations. It is less likely to irritate than AHAs. Salicylic acid is anti-inflammatory, so it works well against irritation and flare-ups.

Poly Hydroxy Acids aka PHAs

   This is a new generation of hydroxy acids which have all the properties of AHAs but are not as irritating. They don't cause redness or peeling. They are very moisturising, helps with broken capillaries and help the skin to heal. I have written more about PHAs here.

Products with Hydroxy Acids

    Most anti-acne and a lot of anti-aging products contain hydroxy acids. Some will advertise the fact on the packaging while others do not. Look for the names of the acids on the ingredient lists.
   It is important to know the concentration of the hydroxy acid in the ingredient -- often it is mentioned on the packaging. If not, look at the ingredient list to see where the hydroxy acid is mentioned. Concentrations of AHAs between 4%-6% are recommended, so if an AHA is among the top three ingredients, chances are that there is enough of it to actually work. However BHAs work better in lower concentrations (0.5% - 2%), so look for it nearer the end of the list. Start with a product with lower concentrations of hydroxy acids, or anything with mandelic acid or PHA -- when your skin has gotten accustomed it or if you feel it doesn't do anything for you, you can upgrade to stronger stuff. Trained cometicians can also do treatments with much higher concentrations of hydroxy acids -- the results are much more visible and longer-lasting. I'm not an expert on such treatments, but I have heard that it is a good idea to train your skin with normal products that contain hydroxy acids first.
    The pH of the product is also very important -- AHAs need to be between 3 and 4.5 and BHAs between 3 and 4 for the hydroxy acids to work. You can test the pH level with a litmus paper (from a pet store or a diy cosmetics store).
     Hydroxy acids need to be absorbed into the skin to work, so skip cleansers which stay on the face only for a few seconds. Toners and moisturisers / creams work much better. I have tried and like Effaclar Duo which contains LHA (an derivative of salicylic acid) -- it's great for acid beginners, and also I have heard great things about Paula's Choice. For more recommendations, check out the reviews on Makeup Alley (or other review sites in your language).

How to use AHAs and BHAs

    Hydroxy acids should be used like a treatment -- for a couple of weeks, after which your skin needs a break. Because hydroxy acids make your skin sensitive to the sun, it is a good idea to use them in the autumn or winter, apply them in the evening, and use sunscreen during the day. If you don't follow these suggestions, the sun will undo all the good work the hydroxy acids are doing and you may even get discolouration. Obviously, you should not sunbathe or go to the solarium when you are using hydroxy acids.
     You may want to use acids every other night, so that the skin gets used to them. On the remaining days use a rich moisturiser, because acids often dry the skin a bit. Often the skin first reacts with a breakout, which should go away soon -- this is normal and a part of the process.
     Don't apply the product all over the face, only on the areas that need it -- for many people this will mean only the T zone. Some might want to use it only on problem spots.
     The skin might be red and pinch after applying a product with hydroxy acids. If it is only slight, wait it out. However if your skin is really irritated, wash the product out. Next time try either on top of a layer of regular moisturiser, or switch to product with a lower concentration of acids.

   Are you interested in trying out hydroxy acids? Or maybe you use them already -- what are the effects? Any products you'd recommend?

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