Skin care fads come and go, but alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) have been popular for some time.
AHAs are a collection of compounds made from familiar food products. Among the most widely known are glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (sour milk), malic acid (apples), citric acid (citrus fruits), and tartaric acid (wine grapes).
The original seekers of younger-looking skin used these natural compounds many centuries ago, going back as far as the ancient Egyptians. In the United States, their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. First, dermatologists used them for in-office facial peels, then they found their way into many skin care products after their FDA approval for over-the-counter use in 1992. Today you can find AHAs in hundreds of items, ranging from face and body creams tosunscreen, acne products, shampoos, cuticle softeners, and lightening agents.
“Alpha hydroxy acids are great exfoliators and increase blood flow to the skin, so they can help to minimize fine lines and wrinkles,” says Kenneth Beer, MD, a clinical instructor in dermatology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who is in private practice in Palm Beach, Fla.
Other potential skin care benefits include lightening of dark spots and a reduction in the appearance of blackheads and acne.
AHA Skin Care Products: Making the Right Choices
“There is no ‘best’ concentration, nor ‘best’ preparation,” says Robin Ashinoff, MD, director of cosmetic dermatology at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J. It all depends on your skin type and the amount of improvement desired.
The main difference among alpha hydroxy acid skin care products is their concentration and pH. At over-the-counter levels, alpha hydroxy acids are generally safe for many people, though those with sensitive skin, rosacea, or seborrheic dermatitis may be more likely to get a rash and need to halt treatment or try a different brand. Typically, over-the-counter skin care products, such as moisturizers or lotions, contain less than 5-percent glycolic acid; medical-grade “cosmeceuticals” (products that are a cross between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, or drug-strength meds) have 8 to 14 percent. These products are designed for daily use, but it can take months to show improvement.
“Quicker, better results can be obtained with 20- to 30-percent glycolic acid peels, but results are temporary and need to be repeated frequently,” says Dale Isaacson, MD, an associate clinical professor at George Washington University Medical Center who is in private practice in Washington, D.C. These peels must be done by trained cosmetologists.
The best and longest-lasting results come from peels done at 50- to 70-percent concentrations, but they have the most risk of side effects and a doctor must apply them.
AHA Skin Care Products in a Nutshell
- Subtle improvement gives skin a fresher look.
- With lighter peels, there’s fine-line reduction without any down time.
- AHAs often lighten age spots and remove blackheads as part of the results.
- Drugstore brands are inexpensive to try on your own.
- At-home products at low concentrations may take months to show results.
- The most effective peels must be done in a doctor’s office and can be expensive.
- Deep peels have a longer healing time; skin will look sunburned for a couple of days and then peel.
- New skin is more sensitive to sun damage; you’ll need to be vigilant about sunscreen.
The next time you’re browsing for skin care products, look for those containing one of the alpha hydroxy acids. And be sure to buy extra sunscreen — not just because AHAs expose new skin to sun damage, but because a good sunscreen is also one of the best ways to prevent any further aging of your skin.