Beauty 101: Alpha Hydroxy Acids.


The turning point.

If there was one ingredient that marked the turning point in my career in beauty it would have to be Lactic Acid. From the moment I started using this clever ingredient on my skin, I was hooked. That was over 10 years ago now and I remain forever the devoted fan. 

We could just stop there, but of course, you have more questions and I have plenty of answers. 


Let the revolution begin.

Lactic acid is one of a handful of Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s) and they’ve been around for quite some time and not only marked a turning point in my career and my skin, but for many, the inclusion of AHA’s in skin care preparations and clinic and spa treatments remains at the forefront of the move towards what we now know as cosmeceutical skin care.


Why do I love thee so?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are a class of chemical compounds with the most commonly used AHA’s being Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Mandelic Acid as well as Citric, Malic and Tartaric Acids.  
Alpha Hydroxy Acids loosen the bonds or the intercellular glue that anchor dead cells to the surface of your skin; of course, your skin does this naturally, but it tends to slow down with age. The beautiful thing about AHA’s is the two-fold benefit to the skin. Firstly, by dissolving the dead cells of the stratum corneum (SC), the uppermost layer of the epidermis encourages the skin to function optimally. A build-up of dead cells gives the skin a dull appearance and a lack of light reflecting luminosity.  Secondly, by encouraging better surface exfoliation the activity of cell differentiation in the epidermis is increased for improved cell turnover. 


Going deep.

But there’s something else, not often talked about. The wonderful thing about AHA’s is the benefits for the skin don’t stop at the epidermis, your dermis, where most ageing starts will get a reboot from the increased synthesis of compounds supporting the dermis known as Glycosaminoglycans (GAG’s), I know, what? One GAG, in particular, is hyaluronic acid, if you know anything about hyaluronic acid then you know it’s one of the most beneficial substances in your skin as it provides moisture to the dermis, cushions the skin and provides a healthy environment for your collagen and elastin. 


All AHA’s are naturally derived, but many are commercially produced in the cosmetic lab to replicate the chemical compound. The most commonly used AHA is glycolic acid, followed closely by lactic acid and mandelic acid. All have similar actions on the skin and its improvement. But as similar they are, they all have their place with specific and notable differences and benefits depending on your skin type.


Three of the most commonly used AHA’s.


Glycolic Acid

Naturally derived from sugar cane and even though it’s the most commonly used AHA it has its limitation.  One of it’s most defining features is the small molecular structure. This enables a faster penetration into the skin, more so than other AHA’s. Great if you have a resilient skin with a strong lipid barrier. A resilient skin needs the action of an AHA able to penetrate efficiently passed the lipid barrier. Glycolic acid is perfect for stronger skins or oilier and thick skins. Despite its benefits for more resistant skins, it can easily be used for skins with a little less resistance, the key is choosing the correct strength for your skin type to avoid excessive irritation. 


Lactic Acid.

Cleopatra was more than just a great beauty of her time, she knew the secret or two for beautiful skin. Yep, bathing in milk. As it turns out lactic acid is derived from sour milk but unlike its cousin glycolic acid, lactic acid has a slightly larger molecular structure which means there is a slower penetration into the skin, this doesn’t lessen its effectiveness, it just means you are less likely to suffer redness or irritation when using it. 
I favour lactic acid as it’s a substance already found in the body giving it a better affinity with your skin, especially if your skin tends to be a little on the reactive side. It’s also been suggested this affinity is more effective in the synthesis of Glycosaminoglycans (GAG’s) in the skin, leading to better collagen and elastin performance in the dermis.


Mandelic Acid.

Coming from bitter almonds, mandelic acid with a large molecular structure makes it ideal for skins where there is a tendency to redness, irritation and sensitivity. Even skins suffering Rosacea can better tolerate this AHA. Of course, if your skin has any underlying sensitivity caused by poor lipid barrier structure then you need to address those issues first. Mandelic is brilliant for acne, hyper-pigmentation and age spots and gives those who thought they were too sensitive to use AHA’s new options. 


Anti-Ageing at its best.

With all the new ingredients continually emerging there are still mainstays that continue to stand up to the test of time and are supported by scientific evidence; although when it comes to AHA’s the best proof is in the use of them. If the concentrations and the pH are correct they rarely disappoint.
Every serious anti-age regimen or cosmeceutical brand should have a well-formulated AHA/BHA serum formulation in it. The concentrations in your AHA home care will depend on your skin and an experienced skin care professional will be well versed in AHA’s will guide you in the best concentration and formula for you.


One last thing before you rush out.

AHA’s are used in high concentrations in beauty and cosmetic clinics, usually known as chemical peels, but they are now widely used in cosmetic preparations with the best formula combinations coming from cosmeceutical brands. Ideally, you would combine your home use with regular chemical peel treatments.
There are a couple of precautions with AHA’s to consider. If you use them regularly you should also insist upon yourself the daily use of a well-formulated sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.  As good as AHA’s are, they are best in serum, cream or gel formulations and while an AHA cleanser certainly has its benefits, it’s probably best as a short-term or alternative option to your regular cleanser.
If you are having trouble finding a cleanser you may like to read this article. Cleanse your way to healthy skin. Part 1 & Part 2


And now you.

Have you found an effective AHA serum that’s changed your skin for the better? Why not share your stories or if you have a question you can always shoot me an email over here
See you next time
The Beauty Issue