All About Acids: Why you seriously need them on your face

If you’ve ever watched a local telenovela, you’ve probably heard the kontrabida threaten the female lead with “tapunan ko ng asido ang mukha mo!” I totally understand that it brings up crazy fears of disfigurement, but do hear me out! If somebody had told my teenage self that I’d willingly put acid on my skin, I would have laughed (nervously), too. Little did I know that a lot of common skin care products contain acids, which contribute to healthy skin. It’s in everything: facial washes, toners, serums, moisturizers, even hair products and intimate care items! Here are a few and how they benefit our skin.

Meet the different types of acid

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) typically work by removing dead skin cells from the skin’s uppermost layers. Since they exfoliate the skin's surface, they can definitely help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and minor blemishes like sun spots. You might be surprised to find out that the most common AHA’s is acetic acid, also known as vinegar! Among its variants, apple cider vinegar seems to be the most popular in the beauty world, with many beauty uses. There is also raspberry vinegar, the star ingredient in hair rinses like Yves Rocher’s éclat radiance formula.

Lactic acid is one of the mildest AHA’s around, making it ideal for sensitive skin, including the genital area. It’s the key ingredient (and name inspiration) for the Lactacyd brand of feminine washes. Citric acid is present in fruits like lemons, oranges and calamansi but can be too harsh when applied directly to the skin, so skin care products containing this are safer than applying the fruit's juice topically. When it comes to professionally applied peeling methods though, dermatologists usually favor glycolic acid because it has the smallest particles, letting it penetrate deeper into the skin. Aside from triggering collagen regeneration, it also helps even out skin tone and strengthen the epidermis and dermis, making it a great anti-aging treatment.

Yup. Every one of these products contain some form of acid.

Yup. Every one of these products contain some form of acid.

The most commonly known and used Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) is salicylic acid. Most anti-acne products have included this in their formulations and no wonder—it is able to dive right through clogged pores to effectively dislodge comedones and dry up pimples.

We’ve become big believers in kojic acid since we started using Kojie-san because of how effective it was at lightening and evening our skin tone. If you’re wondering about the odd name, it’s derived from the Japanese word for “mushroom”, which is where this acid comes from.

Retinoic acid has some incredible properties: aside from providing powerful exfoliation, it also makes fine lines disappear by filling in the dermis. However, this is ingredient has become controversial because some studies assert that it has toxic side effects. This probably stems from the fact that retinoic acid is a form of vitamin A, and users may exceed the recommended the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). Adding to the confusion, this acid is sometimes used interchangeably with retinol (the whole Vitamin A molecule, of which retinoic acid is merely a component) and tretinoin (a concentrated, prescription-only form of retinol).

While most other acids focus on the ability to exfoliate or remove unwanted impurities, hyaluronic acid stands out because of its ability to hydrate skin. This acid naturally occurs in our bodies but decrease as we get older. Many beauty supplements feature hyaluronic acid as the star ingredient because of its potential for anti-aging effects.

Which acids should you be using?

All skin types can benefit from AHAs since these provide gentle exfoliation. Keep a look out for those acids in the ingredients list when shopping for a facial wash or toner.

Those with combination/oily and acne-prone skin would benefit from essences or creams with salicylic acid. It’s also a great ingredient to look for when shopping for acne spot treatments.

Anyone who wants to combat aging should consider glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid, and (with a doctor’s prescription) retinoic acid.

If you’re looking to lighten your skin tone, kojic acid is a great, effective and usually inexpensive option.

Those with sensitive skin would have to be careful though—try out the products first whenever possible, and never on the face. If there are no issues, ramp up the use gradually from once a week to as often as needed.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and experiencing skin issues, first make sure to avoid applying cosmetics that can potentially harm your baby! Salicylic and retinoic acids are major no-no’s but you can consider trying AHAs for those inexplicable dark spots, acne, and other blemishes that crop up but as always, we recommend checking with your doctor first.

How to use acids safely

  • You'll know that the AHA is working through your skin if you feel a slight tingle. It shouldn't sting or feel too uncomfortable; there's just enough of a sensation to let you know that the product is effective.
  • If you have sensitive skin, AHAs are actually a better exfoliation option compared to scrubs, which can cause tears and abrasion because of the rough surface. Do a spot test first before applying to a bigger area, so you can check if your skin can handle it.
  • Layering skin care can work wonders for your skin, but it's not a good idea to be using too many acids at the same time. Peeling acids like AHAs slough away the top layers of the skin, leaving it soft but more prone to irritation. Also, using a product with vitamin C becomes useless if used with AHAs, as the latter destabilizes its pH level.
  • In the same way, acid peels and mixes are not one of those things that you should DIY. Better to leave this to the experts. Acids can do awesome things for the skin, but when things go wrong, it can be difficult to undo the damage.
  • First-time users should take baby steps before adding acids to their skin care regimen. Do a spot test on your arm and your neck before using it on your face. Observe for any stinging, redness or itchiness in the tested area. Always follow the directions for use on any product with acid listed in its ingredients. If it says it’s safe for everyday use, start slowly (maybe once or twice a week) and eventually build up to daily use.

There are many more different kinds of skin care acids and these are just some of the most common ones. Have you tried products that contain acids? How did they work for you? Which ones do you plan on trying next?


Photography by Sam Gonzales