A Guide to Skincare Acids

Have you seen words like AHAs and BHAs thrown around in articles on skincare or even when you browse through a vast array of skincare products available in the market. Have you wondered if its safe to put acids on your face such as lactic acid or retinol? It can be kind of daunting and frankly a bit confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for and what they do.

Chemical vs Physical Exfoliators
In a simple sense skincare acids are chemical exfoliators, as opposed physical exfoliators which are things like grain-like particles that physically exfoliate dead skin (think St.Ives or exfoliators containing some sort of grain like component that rubs on your skin to remove a layer of skin). Let’s get real, chemical exfoliators (acids) are far superior to physical exfoliators. It is much more gentle on the skin than the rubbing and disruptive motion of certain physical exfoliators.

The two main types of acids found in skincare products are AHA and BHA. Let’s dig a little deeper into the acids that you may often have come across while looking through skincare products and find out what they do so you never have to wonder again. This list will also help to simplify acids as well as how to layer them properly to get the best use out of the products.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (aka AHAs)

These types of acids are typically naturally derived (from fruits as an example) but is also derived artificially and therefore gentle enough for any skin type to be able use. It is water soluble – which doesn’t allow the product to go deeper into the skin, unlike BHAs which are fat soluble and therefore penetrates further and deeper into the skin. This makes them great for sensitive skin types. AHAs are often marketed towards dry skin types due to its hydration properties and low skin penetration. These acids are best used at night because they can leave your skin sensitive to UV and as a result not recommended to use right before sun exposure.

Some examples of AHAs frequently used in skincare are:

  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Hyaluronic Acid
  • Malic acid- found primarily in brightening products

Hyaluronic acid

This is the acid to go to if you’re lacking some moisture, whether its winter or you have really dry skin, this one will save your face, literally. HA is a type of AHA that can hold onto 1000 times more water than any other product making it such a popular acid for drier skins and/or dehydrated skins.

Give these a try – COSRX Hyaluronic Acid Hydra Power Essence

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare – Hyaluronic Marine Oil-free Moisture Cushion, 100ml 

Lactic acid

This also falls under the AHA category of acids. It is a chemical exfoliator and is less irritating on the skin because it is a AHA and therefore most skin types can benefit from it. Its main job is to exfoliate and brighten, producing a youthful glow and better skin texture. I use this one quite a few times a week since it is so gentle on the skin and the results are immediate.

Try – Sunday Riley Good Genes

Glycolic Acid

The most effective in exfoliating the skin out of all the other AHAs. It is often found in chemical peels both over the counter products (which will have a much lower concentration) as well as in professional grade peels at the dermatologists office (which is a much higher percentage and needs a professional’s experience to use properly). Glycolic Acid is often used to treat scarring, skin discoloration, fine lines and wrinkles.

Try – Drunk Elephant – T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum


BHAs, unlike AHAs, can penetrate the skin much deeper and therefore able to break down sebum deep in the skin that is responsible for causing acne. These acids also tend to anti-inflammatory along with being antibacterial so its great for people that suffer from psoriasis or eczema (inflammation found on the skin). BHAs also include hydrating acids that tend to moisturize the skin. These acids are often marketed towards oily acne prone skin as you can deduct from its benefits. It is found primarily in cleansers, masks and as spot treatment and meant to be used before your serum and moisturizer.

Salicylic acid

This is the acid to use to get rid of that annoying acne that keeps popping up on your face. Its simple and quite effective. Usually found in cleansers, mask and spot treatment form.

These are some of my tried and true favourites to treat that pesky bump on your face – EradiKate by Kate Sommerville, Acne Complexâ® Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment

Try – BHA favourites – Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 1% BHA Lotion

COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol
COSRX Low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser

There are two other acids I have to mention which doesn’t fit within AHAs and BHAs, but are game changers in skincare on their own.

Retinoic acid a.k.a tretinoin ) and Retinol

Its the ultimate anti-aging acid. It prevents wrinkle formation by stimulation increased blood flow to the skin and in turn increasing collagen production. It has also known to reverse age spots and wrinkles that have already formed on the skin. Tretinoin decreases fine lines, evens skin color, improves texture, tightens pores and so much more. You don’t have to start showing signs of aging to start using retinoic acid, it is actually recommended to start using in your 20s to prevent some of the signs of aging before it happens and to also improve overall skin texture by smoothening any fine lines that might have formed.

Retinoic acid (as mentioned above) and retinol are two forms of vitamin A but aren’t the same thing. Retinol is found in a lot of anti-aging products but retinoic acid specifically is 1000 times more potent and hence much more effective.

Here are some must-trys in this category – Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Oil

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2%

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare – Ferulic Retinol Wrinkle Recovery Peel

Ascorbic acid or Vitamin C

This has got to be my favourite skincare acid and one I use religiously everyday. Why, you might ask? Well, let me list all the things vitamin C does for your skin. It essentially fights oxidative damage to the skin from things like UV from sunlight, blue light from your computer screens and the inevitable age. its often labelled the youth maker. It helps you look younger by reducing wrinkles and smooth lines by increasing collagen production, brightening the skin, fading dark spots, and improving overall skin texture.

Vitamin C doesn’t quite fall under either of the above mentioned types of acids (AHA or BHA), it’s in a category of its own since L-ascorbic acid is pH derived from vitamin C in order to be used safely on the skin.

Give these a try –Osea Vitamin SeaThe Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%

Dr. Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Brighten & Firm Vitamin C Serum

How to Layer Acids

You should always use vitamin C before using your AHA and/or BHA. If you are combining an AHA and BHA (which is often not recommended as it can be irritating to the skin), pay attention to the pH of the products, you should always layer the acids from lowest to pH to highest pH. usually BHAs tend to have a lower pH, therefore should be layered first before applying the AHA. Heres the order to remember: Vitamin C -> BHA -> AHA. Also layering within groups should always be thinnest to thickest ideally.


Acids tend to cause a bit of skin tingling so don’t be alarmed if you do experience this. With putting anything on your skin, make sure to do your own research first, especially when layering some of the acids mentioned above. Every skin is different and reacts differently to products and what works on one skin might not work well on another. Now go and enjoy that glowing skin darlings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s