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What Are Alpha-Hydroxy Acids?

Get the lowdown on these exfoliating acids.
  • Cat Matta
June 10, 2024

If your beauty goals include achieving smoother, more even-looking skin, you may want to consider adding alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) to your skincare routine. These popular ingredients can help address a variety of skincare concerns, including dark spots, fine lines, and rough skin texture. As such, they’ve been a mainstay in the skincare industry for more than 40 years, and you can find them in a wide variety of products, including alpha-hydroxy face creams, lotions, serums, and more.

Incorporating alpha-hydroxy acids into your skincare routine is simple once you’re familiar with the basics. Ahead, we’re covering everything you should know when using these multi-tasking acids, including how they work, why they’re so popular in skincare, and a few tips to help you get started. We’ll also share a few of our favorite alpha-hydroxy acid products worth adding to your daily (or nightly) routine.

What Is an Alpha-Hydroxy Acid?

Alpha-hydroxy acids are naturally-occurring organic acids found in sources such as milk, fruit, and sugarcane. When used topically, these unique compounds help exfoliate the skin to promote a more radiant, even-looking complexion.

There are several different types of alpha-hydroxy acids that are used in skincare, including glycolic acid and lactic acid. Choosing the right type of AHA for your skincare routine will depend on several factors (like your skin type and primary skin concerns). Ahead, we’ll share the benefits and uses of some common AHAs used in skincare.

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Types of alpha-hydroxy acids

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is among the most common alpha-hydroxy acids used in skincare. Like all AHAs, it helps exfoliate the skin to promote a smoother, softer, and more even-toned complexion. Studies also show that it can help hydrate the skin, making it a great pick for those with drier skin types.

Lactic acid

Lactic acid, like glycolic acid, helps exfoliate the skin to reveal a smoother, more even-toned complexion. It’s typically derived from sour (in other words, fermented) milk, but also occurs naturally in the skin’s moisture barrier. Because of this, it tends to be less irritating than other AHAs and is often touted as an ideal exfoliant for those with dry or sensitive skin.

Citric acid

As the name suggests, citric acid is derived from citrus fruits and juices. When used topically, products with citric acid can help promote the shedding of dead skin cells and support smoother, fresher-looking skin. Citric acid also features antioxidant properties and is well-known for its skin-brightening benefits.

Malic acid and tartaric acid

Malic acid and tartaric acid are two lesser-known types of alpha-hydroxy acids, both derived from fruits such as apples and grapes. While not quite as common as glycolic, lactic, or citric acid, these AHAs also boast anti-aging benefits and can help firm, smooth, and even the skin.

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What Do Alpha-Hydroxy Acids Do?

Using skincare products with alpha-hydroxy acids can help exfoliate, brighten, and smooth the skin while improving the visible signs of aging—such as fine lines and wrinkles—over time. Keep scrolling to learn more about the benefits of alpha-hydroxy acids.

Help remove dead skin cell buildup

As you age, your skin’s renewal process (known as skin cell turnover) gradually slows. This, in turn, can cause dead skin cells to build up on your skin’s surface, resulting in rough texture, dullness, and flaky skin. Alpha-hydroxy acids can help loosen the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, allowing for gentle exfoliation of surface buildup.

Support skin hydration

Alpha-hydroxy acids are humectants as well as chemical exfoliants. If you need a refresher, humectants are a type of moisturizer that helps attract water to the skin. When used properly, products with alpha-hydroxy acids may help keep the skin hydrated, which in turn, can promote a more youthful-looking complexion.

Minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

Alpha-hydroxy acids have long been utilized for their anti-aging benefits, especially when it comes to reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles. These multitasking ingredients work to exfoliate and moisturize your skin’s surface, which can help give your complexion a smoother, firmer appearance.

Help improve skin texture

By helping to promote exfoliation, alpha-hydroxy acids can help smooth and soften the skin. Exfoliating with alpha-hydroxy acids is particularly beneficial for those with dry or sensitive skin types who can’t tolerate manual (physical) exfoliation.

Promote a brighter, more even-toned complexion

With consistent use, alpha-hydroxy acid products can help brighten your skin and improve the look of dark spots (such as age spots and sun spots) for a more glowy, even-toned complexion.

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How To Use Alpha-Hydroxy Acids in Your Skincare Routine

If you’re interested in incorporating alpha-hydroxy acids into your skincare routine, you’ll want to start by looking for products designed for your skin type and concerns. We’re sharing some of our top picks ahead.

L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Dark Spot Exfoliant Peel

This professional-inspired at-home peel features a blend of multi-sized acids, including AHAs, BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids), and PHAs (poly-hydroxy acids). When used consistently, the powerful formula helps brighten the skin, minimize the appearance of large pores, and promote a more even-toned complexion. It’s suitable for all skin types and can be used up to four times per week to promote more youthful-looking skin.

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleanser

If you’re new to AHAs and want to start with a gentle approach, try swapping out your go-to cleanser for this glycolic acid-infused pick. The creamy cleanser (which also contains salicylic acid and aloe extract) helps remove excess oil and other impurities while gently refining the skin for a fresher appearance. It’s non-drying, suitable for all skin types, and can be used morning and night as part of your regular skincare routine.

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 5 Percent Glycolic Acid Peeling Toner

This daily peeling toner with 5% pure glycolic acid provides gentle exfoliation and instantly leaves the skin feeling clean and refreshed. Within one week, you’ll enjoy smoother, more radiant-looking skin, while continued use helps to improve the appearance of dark spots and other discolorations. We recommend applying it with a clean cotton pad after cleansing, then following up with a hydrating serum and moisturizer.

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum

Target age-related concerns like dullness and discoloration with this potent glycolic acid serum. The fragrance-free formula helps refine the skin to improve tone and texture in as little as one week. With consistent use, it also helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. It’s suitable for daily use, but if you have sensitive skin or are new to AHAs, we suggest using it two to three times weekly until your skin acclimates.

What Should You Know Before Using Alpha-Hydroxy Acids?

As noted above, there are several different types of alpha-hydroxy acids used in skincare, and some are better suited to certain skin types than others. Additionally, different products have different concentrations of AHAs in them (the higher the concentration, the stronger the exfoliation). As a general rule, those with oily skin can typically handle more aggressive exfoliation than those with dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin. If you’re unsure which AHA is right for you—or what concentration to use—it’s best to consult a board-certified dermatologist.

It’s also important to note that all AHAs, regardless of concentration, can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. This means that it’s extra important to stay on top of your sun protection routine when using alpha-hydroxy acids in order to avoid sun damage. Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 (or higher) every day, and try to limit your time in the sun (especially during peak hours). It’s also a good idea to seek shade whenever possible and cover up exposed areas with long sleeves, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat.

For daily sun protection, we recommend reaching for the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Daily UV Lotion. This lightweight, invisible sunscreen helps protect against both UVA and UVB rays and is suitable for all skin tones and skin types. It also features antioxidants (like vitamin C) and works well as a makeup primer.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

What’s the difference between alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids?

Alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid) are two types of hydroxy acids. While both types of ingredients provide chemical exfoliation, they do have some differences. One main difference between them is their solubility.

Alpha-hydroxy acids are water-soluble (meaning they dissolve in water), whereas beta-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble (meaning they can dissolve in oil). Because of this, BHAs can more effectively penetrate your pores, making them popular options for those with oily or acne-prone skin with blackheads and excess shine. For a deeper dive, head to this article: AHAs vs. BHAs: What’s the Difference?

Can you use alpha-hydroxy acids every day?

Whether or not you can use AHAs every day will depend on the product you’re using and the instructions for that specific product. It may also depend on your skin type, especially for those who have sensitive skin. It's important to remember that everyone’s skin is different and how often one should exfoliate will vary from person to person.

We recommend starting off slow when introducing a new AHA product into your routine. You can see how your skin reacts and increase frequency to daily use if your skin responds well. When in doubt, consult a board-certified dermatologist—they can help you curate the best exfoliating routine for your skin’s needs.

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