What are AHA's in Skincare? Your Guide to Radiant Skin

Written by: Clair Addison


We've all been there: you're reviewing list after list of the "best" anti-aging serums and beauty creams, each promising a healthy, youthful complexion. And one ingredient type stands out - exfoliants - that promise skin renewal from ingredients like AHAs.

So, what are AHAs in skincare? Their main anti-aging benefit is to give your skin a fresh start by removing clingy, dead skin cells and help achieve a youthful, glowing complexion.

Let's explore the most common types of naturally derived exfoliants and discuss their ability to smooth fine lines and brighten up dark spots.

What are AHAs in Skin Care and their Benefits?

AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids, are beneficial ingredients in your skincare arsenal that work undercover to bring out that natural glow. Think of them as exfoliation experts; they're like a good friend who helps you shed what's holding you back—in this case, dead skin cells—revealing the smoother, brighter version of yourself.

If sun damage has left its calling card on your face with age spots, or if fine lines have started to develop around your eyes and mouth, AHAs can help fade these signs of skin damage and aging. Their talent for improving skin texture makes them key players in many care products designed to combat hyperpigmentation and acne, too.

Natural Sources of AHAs

You may be surprised to discover that some of your beloved snacks are also abundant in AHAs. Sugar cane contains glycolic acid while milk serves up lactic acid—and fruits like apples contain malic acid. Citric acid is abundant in lemons and oranges, whereas grapes contain tartaric acid. These naturally occurring substances lend their strength to skincare products aimed at removing dead skin cells gently yet effectively.

The beauty lies not just in sloughing off old layers but also in allowing new ones a chance at life—a delicate process involving chemical exfoliants - and that should always be used thoughtfully by following product instructions carefully. If you're overeager, excessive use may increase sensitivity, especially when exposed to sunlight and other forms of UV light.

Experts suggest starting slow, maybe starting with a gentle anti-aging cream or mask that contains gentle botanical exfoliants before going full speed ahead into higher concentrations that can irritate our sensitive skin.

In short, whether dealing with dryness or trying to prevent acne breakouts, incorporating a little bit of AHA magic could mean saying goodbye to dullness and hello to radiance. Remember, when diving into the world where acids exfoliate – protection is key. So don't skimp on sunscreen after inviting AHAs into your routine because nobody wants unexpected plus-ones (read: sunburns) crashing their complexion party.

Key Takeaways:

AHAs help to remove dead skin cells and show off a brighter, smoother you. They're great for smoothing sun spots and fine lines, plus they come from yummy stuff like sugar cane and fruit. But take it slow—too much too fast can make your skin cranky, especially when exposed to the sun.

Types of AHAs in Skincare Products

Think of your skin as a party that needs the right guests to liven things up. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are charismatic types that can mingle with anyone, from dry skin cells to stubborn sun damage. Let's meet the most common types of AHAs.

Glycolic Acid

Extracted from sugar cane, glycolic acid is one of the most popular and widely used AHAs in skincare. It is known for its small molecular size, which allows it to penetrate the skin deeply and effectively. Benefits include exfoliating the skin, reducing fine lines, improving skin texture, and brightening the complexion.

Lactic Acid

Derived from milk, lactic acid is another frequently used AHA. It is gentler than glycolic acid and is suitable for sensitive skin. Benefits include moisturizing the skin, reducing acne breakouts, diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and lightening dark spots.

Tartaric Acid 

Extracted from grapes, tartaric acid is another AHA that is often found in combination with other acids in skincare products. Benefits include regulating the skin's pH level, providing antioxidant protection, and aiding in skin exfoliation.

Mandelic Acid 

Derived from bitter almonds, mandelic acid is a larger molecule AHA, making it less irritating and suitable for sensitive skin. Benefits include treating acne, reducing the appearance of wrinkles, and improving skin texture and tone.

Citric Acid

Sourced from citrus fruits like lemons and oranges, citric acid is an AHA that also acts as an antioxidant. Benefits include balancing skin pH, improving skin texture, reducing the appearance of pores, and enhancing skin glow.

Incorporating these AHAs into care products turns everyday routines into transformative experiences—for real change that doesn't just skim the surface. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests performing a patch test when using any new product - especially those that contain AHAs. Monitor your skin's response, ensuring you select the best products that work with your skin to achieve a healthy, glowing complexion.

Key Takeaways:

Think of AHAs as the life of your skin's party, with glycolic acid leading the pack for deep exfoliation. Lactic acid offers a gentle touch for sensitive skin, while tartaric and malic acids speed up youthfulness. Citric acid comes to rescue sun-damaged skin. Always patch-test first and monitor how your skin reacts to find your perfect AHA match.

How to Incorporate AHAs into Your Skincare Routine

If you're ready to up your skincare game with some AHA action, let's talk about doing it without making your face stage a protest. These acids are the real deal for ditching dead skin and getting that glow—but they can cause irritation if misused.

Starting with Lower Concentrations

You wouldn't run a marathon on day one of training, right? The same goes for introducing AHAs into your routine. It's best to start slow with lower concentrations. This way, you can see how your skin reacts before going full throttle.

Sensitive types might feel their cheeks blushing at the mere mention of exfoliation, but not to worry. Gentle formulas exist just for you. Begin with products that contain lower concentrations of AHA and that are formulated with complimentary moisturizing ingredients like aloe vera and shea butter. Remember to always perform a patch test on a small area before fully incorporating into your daily skincare routine.

Anti-Aging Products with AHAs

Get started on your anti-aging skincare journey with a product containing AHAs by trying an anti-aging cream. Consider options like a Wrinkle Smoothing Cream or a Firming Cream. Look for ingredients that go well with AHAs, such as shea butter, cocoa butter, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin E, to nourish and soothe your skin.

Another great place to start is with a deep cleaning Purifying Charcoal Mask. It not only removes dirt, pollution, and excess oil from your pores, but also penetrates deep to exfoliate dead skin cells with glycolic acid. Add in the nourishing benefits of grapeseed oil, aloe vera, rosehip oil, and green tea, and you've got a spa-like treatment to help your skin thrive. Give yourself the weekly therapy your skin deserves.

Balancing AHA Use with Sun Protection

To maximize the benefits of anti-aging skincare with AHAs, it's crucial to apply them before bed - since AHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. And don't forget to shield your skin from the harmful effects of the sun throughout the day by using a reliable SPF30 sunscreen. Apply often, regardless of the time of year.

Key Takeaways:

Start with a low AHA concentration to see how your skin handles it—gentle formulas are your friends. Always pair AHA use with sunscreen to protect against UV rays and prevent damage. Remember, patch tests save faces; go easy on application frequency for that perfect glow without the ouch.

The Difference Between AHAs and BHAs

A stroll down the skincare aisle can feel like a chemistry exam with all these different acid names. So to help us understand, let's explore the difference between AHAs versus their skin-clearing cousins, BHAs.

Water Soluble vs Oil Soluble

AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) are water-soluble. This means they work well on the skin's surface and are effective in exfoliating dead skin cells, improving skin texture, and hydrating the skin. Since water-soluble, they are less effective in penetrating oily skin layers, making them ideal for normal to dry skin types.

On the other hand, BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids) are oil soluble. The most common BHA in skincare is salicylic acid. Being oil-soluble allows BHAs to penetrate deeper into the pores to exfoliate dead skin cells and remove excess sebum. This makes BHAs particularly effective for oily, acne-prone skin as they can help clear clogged pores and reduce blemishes.

AHAs and BHAs have unique properties that suit different skin concerns and types. AHAs are often favored for their moisturizing and skin-texture-improving properties, while BHAs are chosen for their ability to combat acne and reduce oiliness.

Benefits of Combining AHAs and BHAs

There are benefits to using skincare products that contain both AHAs and BHAs. Combining these acids can provide a more comprehensive approach to exfoliation and skin care due to their distinct properties:

Enhanced Exfoliation: AHAs work on the skin's surface to remove dead skin cells and promote cell turnover, while BHAs penetrate deeper into the pores to clear out excess oil and dead skin cells. Together, they offer a more thorough exfoliation, targeting both the surface and deeper layers of the skin.

Improved Skin Texture and Clarity: AHAs are known for their ability to brighten the skin and smooth its texture, whereas BHAs effectively reduce the appearance of blemishes and blackheads. Their combined action can lead to clearer, more even-toned skin.

Acne and Oil Control: BHAs, particularly salicylic acid, are effective in managing acne and controlling oil. When combined with AHAs, which help peel away the upper layer of dead skin cells, treating acne-prone skin can be more effective.

Hydration and Anti-Aging Benefits: AHAs, like glycolic and lactic acid, have hydrating properties and can help in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Using them with BHAs can provide a balanced approach to skincare, offering both anti-aging and oil-control benefits.

However, it's important to note that using both AHAs and BHAs can increase the risk of skin irritation, especially for sensitive skin types. As previously discussed, it's recommended to start with lower concentrations, use them on alternate days, or gradually build up usage to observe how your skin reacts.

Also, always use sunscreen during the day, as AHAs, in particular, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Consulting a dermatologist before starting a combined AHA and BHA regimen is always wise, especially if you have sensitive or problematic skin.

Key Takeaways:

Skincare acids can seem complex, but here's the lowdown: AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid are your go-to for deep cleaning and gentle exfoliation. BHAs such as salicylic acid tackle oily skin and breakouts.

What are AHAs in Skincare? FAQs

What are AHAs, and what do they do for the skin?

AHAs are water-soluble acids typically derived from sugary fruits. They help peel away the surface of your skin so that new, more evenly pigmented skin cells may generate and take their place. This leads to smoother, brighter skin and helps with issues like fine lines, uneven skin tone, dark spots, and mild acne.

Can AHAs be used every day?

Whether AHAs can be used daily depends on the type of AHA, its concentration, and your skin type. Lower concentrations (around 5-10%) might be safe for daily use for some skin types, while higher concentrations may be better used less frequently. It's essential to start slowly and see how your skin reacts, and always follow the product's instructions.

Are AHAs suitable for all skin types?

AHAs are generally suitable for most skin types, especially normal to dry, combination, and mature skin. However, those with very sensitive skin or conditions like eczema or rosacea should be cautious and consult a dermatologist before use. Lactic acid and mandelic acid are often recommended for sensitive skin.

Do AHAs increase skin sensitivity to the sun?

Yes, AHAs can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, making it more vulnerable to sunburn. This is because they remove the top layer of dead skin cells, exposing newer skin cells that are more sensitive to UV radiation. It's crucial to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily while using AHA products.

How do AHAs differ from BHAs?

AHAs are water-soluble acids that work on the skin's surface, ideal for exfoliating dead skin cells and improving moisture content. BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids), on the other hand, are oil-soluble, allowing them to penetrate deeper into the pores to remove excess sebum and dead skin cells. BHAs are generally preferred for oily and acne-prone skin, while AHAs are better for dry and sun-damaged skin.

Is it OK to use AHAs every day?

Daily use is fine for some, but watch out for irritation. Your skin's tolerance calls the shots here.

Is AHA the same as hyaluronic acid?

No, they're different. AHAs exfoliate; hyaluronic acid hydrates big time—think plump and dewy vibes.

Is salicylic acid an AHA?

Salicylic acid belongs to the BHA family – great for diving deep into pores and battling acne.


So now we know what AHA in skincare is all about. It's your skin's wake-up call, the exfoliating powerhouse that sends dead cells packing and brings new life to your complexion.

Remember this: start slow with lower concentrations, balance their use with sun protection, and watch for changes in your skin texture and tone. AHAs are here to refine, not to cause a fuss.

Integrating AHAs means helping your skin to look its very best by helping to even skin tone, smooth fine lines, and fade dark spots. With each application, they're working overtime so you can keep your skin looking young and healthy.