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Which Skincare Acid Is Best For You?

Which Skincare Acid Is Best For You?

Not sure which skincare acid is right for your skin type or concerns? Then read on for five of the most effective (and least scary) acids that were born to help your skin in times of need.

Trying to decipher the ingredients lists of every skincare product on your bathroom shelf can be an overwhelming task. From collagen peptides and titanium dioxides to zinc PCA and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM to friends!), knowing what’s what is almost impossible. And that’s OK because you don’t really need to understand the ins and outs of every single ingredient you put on your face.

However, it’s important to be clued up on certain things. If you have sensitive skin or allergies, for example, then yes, it’s imperative to know your stuff. Similarly if you hate the idea of animal-unfriendly ingredients like non-vegan collagen or unethical squalene you might want to do to your homework so you know what to avoid.

Then there are the active ingredients in your skincare formulations – those designed to directly target and treat concerns like acne breakouts, wrinkles, dryness, dark spots and lax skin. Unlike inactive ingredients which are important in their own way for reducing moisture loss, improving shelf-life and making your products feel pleasurable to use, active ingredients like retinol and vitamin C are responsible for all the heavy lifting. And knowing what they are, what they do and how to incorporate them into your skincare routine is gold. 

And nestled between the aforementioned skincare greats are the acids of the beaut world.

Skincare acids offer a whole host of benefits to the skin, accelerating cell turnover, hydrating the surface of your skin, brightening dark spots, controlling acne, the works. Sounds like something you can get on board with? Then you'll be wise to give one of these acid powerhouses a go…

The Sensitive Skin Savior: Citric Acid

What Is Citric Acid? There are no prizes for guessing where citric acid comes from. Yes, of course, it’s derived from citrus fruits like lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits. Citric acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) which means that it helps to exfoliate the skin by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells so they’re able to slough away more efficiently and thus make room for newer, fresher skin.

How Does Citric Acid Benefit The Skin? AHAs are awesome for brightening the skin, improving the appearance of enlarged pores, smoothing rough texture and basically making your skin look and feel way better. As AHAs go, citric acid has a fairly large molecular structure which allows it to go a little easier on the skin – great news for sensitive skin types. It also contains antioxidant properties for daily protection and is a natural astringent so ideal for helping to balance sebum and control shine.

Where Can You Find It? Rejuvenating Longevity Serum

The Aging Skin Wonder: Glycolic Acid

What Is Glycolic Acid? Like citric acid, glycolic acid is another type of AHA that works hard to accelerate cell turnover and improve the look and feel of your skin. Derived from sugar cane, it’s one of the most potent and effective of all the AHAs due to its small molecular structure which enables it to penetrate deep under the skin’s surface.

How Does Glycolic Acid Benefit The Skin? Glycolic acid loosens the bonds that hold together those tough, outer layers of dead skin cells making it a veritable go-to for brighter, softer, smoother skin. Its exfoliation prowess also keeps your pores clean and free of dead skin cells, helping them to appear tighter and stopping them from becoming blocked and inflamed. Finally, its low molecular weight allows it to get deeper into your skin than other AHAs, stimulating collagen production and working extra hard to keep your skin firm, plump and with less visible lines and wrinkles as an added bonus.

The one downside? Glycolic acid is a powerful beast so it must be used with caution, aka just a few times a week to begin with.

Where Can You Find It? AHA, BHA + PHA Liquid Exfoliant

The Hydrating Hero: Hyaluronic Acid

What Is Hyaluronic Acid? As acids go, hyaluronic is very different. Unlike most, which work to chemically exfoliate the skin, hyaluronic acid is a type of sugar-based polymer that draws moisture to the skin’s surface. It belongs to a group of water-loving ingredients called humectants.

How Does Hyaluronic Acid Benefit The Skin? Applying HA (we’ll call it that from now on if it’s OK by you?) to your skin is like treating to it to one massive, thirst-quenching glass of water. And water is super important for the health of your skin because it hydrates it at a surface level, keeping it soft, supple, clear and youthful-looking. Get this: various studies show that just one gram of HA can hold up to six liters of water. Be afraid, dehydrated skin, be very afraid. It’s also very well tolerated by the skin so it works perfectly for all skin types.

Where Can You Find It? Hyaluronic Acid Facial Serum & Eye Cream

The Queen Of Oily Skin: Salicylic Acid

What Is Salicylic Acid? Salicylic acid is extracted from willow tree bark and is another exfoliating acid. But where citric and glycolic acids are AHAs, salicylic is a BHA or beta hydroxy acid. What’s the difference you may ask? Well, they have similar effects, boosting cell turnover and accelerating collagen synthesis, but BHAs are oil-soluble whereas AHAs are water-soluble. This means BHAs like salicylic acid can penetrate through the lipid layers of your skin and into your sebaceous glands where they help loosen sebum.

How Does Salicylic Acid Benefit The Skin? Salicylic acid is an incredible way to exfoliate and balance oily skin, working hard to keep your pores unclogged and helping to prevent breakouts from rearing their ugly heads when you least expect them. It also has fantastic anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties which makes it doubly awesome for red, angry breakouts. Like glycolic acid, however, salicylic acid is fairly pokey, so go gently. Remember, slow and steady wins the race.

Where Can You Find It? Tea Tree Super Serum +

The Dry Skin Lover: Stearic Acid

What Is Stearic Acid? Full disclosure: stearic acid is not strictly classed as an active ingredient. Why does it deserve a mention, then? Because it ticks both the active and inactive boxes. Bear with us. Stearic acid is a saturated, long-chain fatty acid and most commonly used in skincare products to help thicken and improve a product’s texture. Granted, that makes it an inactive ingredient. But, and it’s a big but, that’s not the only string it has in its bow because it’s essentially a kind of moisturizing fat which means it also brings – surprise, surprise – awesome moisturizing qualities to the table!

How Does Stearic Acid Benefit The Skin? Unlike HA which is a humectant and draws water to the skin’s surface, stearic acid is classed as an emollient which means it softens and smooths the skin to help strengthen your skin’s barrier function. Your barrier function is crucial for locking moisture in and irritants out so you have to give it your undivided attention at all times – especially if you have dry, sensitive or easily irritated skin.

Sidenote: stearic acid can also help with chronic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis when formulated into the right skincare product.

Where Can You Find It? Soothing Cleansing Milk

More About This Article

Georgia Gould

Georgia Gould

Georgia is an award-winning beauty writer who has been in the business for over 20 years. British-born, she began her career as a magazine beauty editor in London before moving to San Francisco, CA in 2012 where she now continues her love as a freelance writer and editor. As well as her editorial work, Georgia has created content for many high-profile beauty brands, including Clarins, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Simple and TRESemmé. Her passions include retinol (obviously), golfing, skiing and walking her beloved Schnauzer, Dave.