Called AHAs for short, alpha hydroxy acids have a long list of skin benefits. Thanks to their exfoliating power, they can smooth wrinkles, even skin tone, fade dark spots and reduce acne. That said, it’s no wonder you find AHAs in all sorts of skin care products, from cleansers to toners to night creams. In higher concentrations, AHAs are the active ingredients that give professional-grade treatments, such as peels, their intense exfoliating power.
However, not all AHAs are suited for all skin types. Read on to learn about the most popular AHAs found in skin care and which are the best match for your skin type.
5 Popular Types of AHA
Glycolic acid is considered the strongest AHA commonly used in skin care. Because of the small size of its molecules, it penetrates the skin deeply and quickly.
Lactic acid is milder than glycolic acid and also helps hydrate the skin. Because its molecules are larger than glycolic acid, it doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply. This makes it a smart option for sensitive skin types who might find glycolic acid irritating.
Malic acid is known for its skin-brightening abilities. With a molecule size larger than that of lactic acid, it’s also gentler on the skin.
Mandelic acid is similar to lactic and malic acids in that its larger particle size makes it potentially less irritating. Unlike any of the other AHAs mentioned here, it has antibacterial properties.
Citric acid is the mildest, least acidic of the AHAs mentioned here. It’s also an antioxidant, meaning it protects skin against aging and environmental damage.
The Best AHA for Normal Skin
Try: a citric and glycolic acid peel
Those with normal skin can typically tolerate a higher strength AHA treatment. The NeoStrata Skin Active Perfecting Peel is a two-step kit with easy-to-use peel pads powered by both glycolic acid and citric acid. Together, these two AHAs smooth fine lines, improve skin discoloration and protect against future damage by eliminating free radicals.
The Best AHA for Dry Skin
Try: a lactic acid moisturizer
The mild strength and moisturizing properties of lactic acid make it a fantastic choice for those with dry skin. For much-needed hydration and gentle exfoliation, try Eminence Mangosteen Gel Moisturizer, which not only contains lactic acid but also mangosteen for antioxidant protection and red clover flower extract to refine pores. You can easily customize the application too. For lighter hydration, mix it with a few drops of water. For more intense moisturizing, apply a thicker layer over any dry or flaky spots.
The Best AHA for Oily Skin, Acne-Prone Skin or Maskne
Try: a cleanser with glycolic acid and afaLUXE
Glycolic acid exfoliates the surface of the skin, sweeping away the dead skin cells that become trapped inside pores and cause acne. It fights acne especially well when combined with salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps loosen the clogs deep inside pores. LovelySkin LUXE Clarifying Gel Cleanser features both glycolic acid and salicylic acid plus afaLUXE, a blend of antioxidants, Dead Sea minerals and vitamin C. Board-certified dermatologist and LovelySkin CEO Dr. Joel Schlessinger says, “afaLUXE is a collection of low pH substances that are amino-based and mimic the natural moisture factor found in skin. It isn’t technically an AHA. However, I think of it as a cousin to one because it behaves like an AHA but with much less irritation.”
The Best AHA for Combination Skin
Try: a glycolic and lactic acid peel
Because lactic acid works well for dry skin while glycolic acid performs well for oily skin, combination skin types could benefit from a treatment with both, such as the OBAGI Clinical Blue Brilliance Triple Acid Peel. With the addition of salicylic acid, the glycolic and lactic acids in this potent peel team up to provide professional-grade exfoliation right at home. In a user study, 91% of participants who used this peel said their skin felt smoother after 8 weeks.
The Best AHA for Sensitive Skin
Try: a mandelic acid and lactic acid toner
Those with sensitive skin will want to stick to milder AHAs such as lactic acid and mandelic acid. StriVectin Advanced Glow Tri-Phase Daily Glow Toner contains both AHAs, which smooth and brighten the skin without causing irritation. This daily toner also contains hyaluronic acid to help hydrate skin, as well as soothing ingredients such as calendula and aloe leaf.
The Best AHA for Mature Skin
Try: an anti-aging serum with malic, glycolic and lactic acids
For mature skin that’s showing signs of aging, a potent treatment that blends multiple AHAs for maximum effect is key. Cellex-C Betaplex Line Smoother is an oil-free anti-aging serum that combines glycolic, lactic and malic acids to spur cell turnover and reduce wrinkles and fine lines. It also contains hyaluronic acid, which draws moisture into the skin, helping it appear plumper and smoother.
Products with alpha hydroxy acids increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it’s important to wear sunscreen religiously when using them. For product suggestions, read our recent blog post, Six Face Sunscreens You’ll Actually Want to Wear.