Alpha Hydroxy Acids: Why and How They Work
In this article, we will address what alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are, how they work, and why they are an essential part of any skincare regimen. First, alpha hydroxy acids act as a natural exfoliant. Scrubs and other mechanical types of exfoliants will not have the same effect as AHAs, simply because AHAs have a greater ability to penetrate the outer layers of the skin and perpetuate a deeper and more effective exfoliation. Other types of exfoliants like scrubs also tend to be abrasive and irritating. AHAs do not have to be. Depending on the pH of the product and the strength, alpha hydroxy acids can be the gentlest form of exfoliation in the world of skincare today. Second, because of this highly effective ability to penetrate and exfoliate the skin, alpha hydroxy acids are a wonderful source for those seeking an anti-aging skincare product as well as a solid choice for the treatment of acne.
What Are Alpha Hydroxy Acids?
Alpha hydroxy acids are commonly referred to as AHAs. They include lactic and glycolic, as well as malic, citric, and tartaric acids. The main benefit of AHAs are their ability to exfoliate the top layer of the skin, giving the skin a fresh and glowing appearance while smoothing out wrinkles and roughness. Glycolic and lactic acids are known to be the most potent of the AHAs, and help not only to smooth skin texture, but to diminish hyperpigmentation.
The use of glycolic and lactic acids, in adequate percentage forms (7-10% is the recommended effective strength) cause desquamation of the skin's top layer, which essentially means that the top layer of skin is gently 'shed', along with any dead skin cells or rough patches on the skin's surface.
How Do Alpha Hydroxy Acids Work?
The 'acid' in AHAs exfoliates the skin. The mechanism may be that the "glue" holding surface cells together is weakened or that cellular turnover is increased. The extent to which the skin is exfoliated is dependent on the strength of the formula as well as the type of AHA used. For example, lactic and glycolic acid tend to be stronger exfoliants than citric acid. AHAs have been used to treat not just fine lines and wrinkles or hyperpigmentation, but acne and acne scarring as well. When used at a higher strength, alpha hydroxy acids can initiate cell turnover, thereby boosting collagen production, leading to plumper and more hydrated looking skin. Because AHAs penetrate the skin and essentially destroy the dead skin cells that are blocking new ones from forming, the smaller molecular formulations are the most effective. In this case, glycolic acid has the smallest molecular structure, making it the strongest of the AHAs.
How Will Use of Alpha Hydroxy Acid Help My Acne?Because acne is made up of dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria, it only makes sense that an exfoliating treatment such as alpha hydroxy acids would help to lessen the severity of the acne condition. By exfoliating the top layer of the skin and shedding it of dead skin cells, the AHAs are effectively loosening and clearing out the clogged pores that are causing the blotchy patches. By using AHAs continuously, there is less chance of the pores becoming clogged again as the 'shedding' process continues. AHAs (glycolic acid in particular) are also known to help lessen the appearance of acne and acne scarring. Other acne treatments include salicylic acid, which is the most commonly used acne treatment and is a BHA, or beta hydroxy acid. Beta hydroxy acid is sometimes used in combination with glycolic acid in the treatment of acne.
What Precautions Should I take When Using Alpha Hydroxy Acids?
According to the FDA, "products containing the AHAs glycolic and lactic acid are safe for use by consumers if:
-The AHA concentration is 10 percent or less.
-The final product has a pH of 3.5 or greater.
-The final product is formulated in such a way that it protects the skin from increased sun sensitivity or its package directions tell consumers to use daily protection from the sun."
When using a skincare product that accelerates exfoliation, it's very important to use sunscreen with a proper SPF each day, as the skin can be more sensitive to photodamage. Upon using an alpha hydroxy product, one should feel a slight tingling, but the feeling should dissipate within a very short period of time. If tingling doesn't diminish, speak to your dermatologist to determine if a lower strength of the formula is needed.