Choosing the Right AHA for Your Skincare Needs: Glycolic, Lactic, or Mandelic Acid

Choosing the Right AHA for Your Skincare Needs: Glycolic, Lactic, or Mandelic Acid

Exfoliation in Skincare

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin. It involves using physical or chemical agents to slough off the build-up of dead cells, revealing smoother, brighter, and healthier skin underneath. Exfoliation is essential in skincare due to its numerous benefits for overall skin health and appearance.

Importance of Exfoliation in Skincare:

  1. Enhanced Skin Texture:

    Exfoliation helps to smooth the skin's surface by removing rough and uneven areas, resulting in a smoother texture.
  2. Brighter Complexion:

    Dead skin cells can make the skin look dull and lackluster. Exfoliation reveals fresh, radiant skin, promoting a brighter complexion.
  3. Unclogged Pores:

    Exfoliation clears away debris, oil, and dead cells that can clog pores and lead to acne and blackheads.
  4. Improved Absorption:

    Exfoliating removes the barrier of dead skin cells, allowing skincare products like serums and moisturizers to penetrate more effectively and deliver better results.
  5. Even Skin Tone:

    Exfoliation can help fade dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone by encouraging the turnover of new, healthy skin cells.
  6. Reduced Fine Lines and Wrinkles:

    Regular exfoliation can stimulate collagen production and improve skin elasticity, leading to a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  7. Prevention of Breakouts:

    By preventing pore congestion and promoting a clean canvas, exfoliation can help prevent acne breakouts and keep the skin clear.
  8. Promotion of Cell Turnover:

    Exfoliation speeds up the natural process of cell turnover, ensuring that newer, healthier skin cells are brought to the surface.
Skincare is more than just looking pretty

Types of Exfoliants

Exfoliants can be categorized into two main types: physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants. Chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to dissolve dead skin cells, while physical exfoliants involve scrubbing or using abrasive particles to remove them mechanically.

The buffing of skin with physical exfoliants does feel more effective due to the aesthetics of visibly expelling gunk from your skin’s superficial layers. But ironically, this brute process is not so efficient and leads to micro-tears on the skin surface, further degrading appearance and causing discomfort. On the contrary, chemical exfoliants are purposed to penetrate deeper layers of the skin and work their magic on the roots of the problem for healthier skin and complexion. These are dermatologically tested to reduce pores, control oiliness, minimise pigmentation and control fine lines due to skin ageing. These products aid in preventing acne and treating congested, lacklustre skin.

Understanding Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are a group of naturally occurring and synthetic acids commonly used in skincare products for their exfoliating and skin-rejuvenating properties. AHAs are water-soluble acids derived from various sources, including fruits, milk, and sugar. They work by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells, helping to slough off the outer layer of the skin and revealing a smoother, brighter complexion underneath.

Various AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, and malic acid. AHAs can help you achieve smoother, more radiant skin when appropriately used and incorporated into a well-rounded skincare routine.

Which AHA is Suitable for Your Skin?

Choosing the right alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) for your skincare needs depends on your specific skin concerns and goals.

Key Considerations

  • Skin Sensitivity:

    If you have sensitive skin, lactic acid and mandelic acid might be gentler options than glycolic acid.
  • Skin Concerns:

    If you're primarily concerned with fine lines, glycolic acid might be a good choice. For hydration and texture improvement, lactic acid is a solid option. For acne-prone or hyperpigmented skin, mandelic acid could be beneficial.
  • Concentration:

    AHAs are available in different concentrations. Beginners should start with lower concentrations and gradually increase as their skin builds tolerance.
Getting the skin that you deserve

AHA Comparative Accounts

Here's a comparison of these AHAs to further help you make a well-informed choice:

Glycolic Acid

Derived from sugarcane, glycolic acid is one of the most potent and widely used AHAs in skincare. It is a colourless and odourless face acid that is acclaimed as anti-acne. Its large molecular size allows it to penetrate deep into the skin even when applied with low-concentration products.

  • Benefits:

    It exfoliates the skin's surface, helps improve texture, reduces fine lines, and can address mild hyperpigmentation through its peeling effect. It is effective for overall skin rejuvenation and improving skin tone. It helps unglue dead skin cells, making it easier for them to shed to reveal your naturally smooth skin. The fine lines are removed due to fibroblast stimulation that activates collagen production. With fewer wrinkles on your face, you appear youthful and vibrant without makeup.
  • Skin Type:

    Best for normal to oily skin types as it unclogs pores and controls sebum production. Individuals with sensitive or dry skin might need to use it in lower concentrations. Even people with combination skin with a compromised skin barrier can avoid its use to avoid further flare-ups.
  • Frequency:

    A concentration of up to 10% is generally found in products containing glycolic acid. For new users, once or twice a week has been found to be optimal for acclimatising the skin to the product.

Lactic Acid

This is yet another highly researched face acid that dermatologists often recommend. It is naturally derived from milk and is known for its hydrating properties. But it can also be synthetically produced for controlled effects.

  • Benefits:

    It exfoliates, promotes hydration, and can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Lactic acid is gentle and can help improve skin texture and tone without causing excessive dryness. Many people must’ve heard of models and actresses taking a skinny dip in milk after a long sunny shoot. The reason is the presence of lactic acid in the milk that prevents sunburns and tanning through optimal hydration. Lactic acid, contradictory to other acids, helps in moisture retention rather than drying out the skin. It also allows a reduction in discolouration to reveal clearer skin which is conducive to resilience. In addition, it is also known for its anti-ageing and collagen stimulation properties.
  • Skin Type:

    Suitable for sensitive or dry skin types due to its mild exfoliating and hydrating properties. But lactic acid is generally tolerable by all skin types. It should still be used wisely, paying particular attention to its concentration on different products.
  • Frequency:

    While small concentrations act as a humectant (moisturising), lactic acid is a potent exfoliant in greater concentrations. A clinical study noted varied dermal and epidermal modulations between 5% to 12% concentration usage.

Mandelic Acid

It is derived from almonds, originally from hydrolysing bitter almond extract. Its larger molecular size makes it penetrate the skin more slowly to aid in superficial exfoliation. It has been dubbed a “sensitive skin hero” as it is gentler than the previously discussed AHAs. Being a potent antibacterial, it has also been touted as an “acne perisher” by many researchers.

  • Benefits:

    It offers exfoliation and can be used even on broken skin due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It helps with hyperpigmentation and is effective for treating inflamed acne by reducing bacterial growth in the inflicted region. Mandelic acid is less likely to cause irritation and is very effective in controlling sebum production. It is a great ingredient to speed up dark spots and blemish reduction due to cell turnover promotion.
  • Skin Type:

    It can be used by various skin types, especially super sensitive and acne-prone skin. It is also suitable for mature and scaly skin types.
  • Frequency:

    It is an ideal acid to kickstart your skincare journey.

Tips for Smart Exfoliation

Given the cosmetic nature of AHAs, these must be cautiously used for the best and safe results. Here are some common tips for a happy skincare journey:

  • Introduce one new exfoliant at a time to avoid overwhelming your skin.
  • Be cautious when combining exfoliants to prevent over-exfoliation.
  • Listen to your skin; reduce frequency or concentration if it becomes red, irritated, or sensitive.
  • Always follow exfoliation with adequate hydration and a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day, as they can increase sun sensitivity.
  • Exfoliation frequency varies based on the product, skin type, and tolerance. More isn't always better; consistency is key.

So, it's essential to find the right balance. Generally:

  • For most skin types:

    1-3 times per week.
  • Sensitive skin:

    1-2 times per week or using gentler exfoliants.
  • Acne-prone skin:

    2-3 times per week, considering BHAs for pore-clearing benefits.
  • Dry or mature skin:

    1-2 times per week with milder exfoliants to avoid over-drying.
  • Before incorporating any new AHA into your skincare routine, consider doing a patch test on a small area of your skin to check for any adverse reactions or allergies.

Summing Up

If you're still unsure which AHA is right for you, consider consulting a dermatologist or skincare professional. They can assess your skin type, concerns, and goals to recommend the most suitable AHA and concentration for your needs. Additionally, always follow the instructions provided by the product manufacturer.


Q. What are exfoliants?

 A. An exfoliant is a skincare product or technique designed to remove dead skin cells from the skin's surface.

Q. Are chemical exfoliants harmful?

A. When used correctly and in accordance with your skin type and sensitivity, chemical exfoliants are generally safe and effective skincare products.

Q. What SPF sunscreen is ideal to use with AHAs?

A. A sunscreen SPF of 30 or more is commonly recommended when using AHAs. This provides adequate protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

Q. Which chemical exfoliants are most effective?

A. Different chemical exfoliants have varying strengths and properties. Common types include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and enzymes. Each type can benefit different skin concerns. It's important to select the right chemical exfoliant for your skin's needs and to use it appropriately.

Q. How to safely perform a patch test?

A. Performing a patch test is a simple and effective way to determine whether a new skincare product may cause any adverse reactions to your skin.

Here's how to safely perform a patch test:

  • Choose the area (usually the forearm)
  • Cleanse the area
  • Apply a small amount
  • Wait and observe
  • Monitor for reactions
  • Watch for systemic reactions (patterns)