The Ultimate Guide To Hydroxy Acids With Product Recommendations

Hey everyone and welcome back to my blog!

I get more and more queries from people trying to find a non-abrasive solution for uneven skin texture, tone and pigmentation with each passing day and it is now evidently one of the most talked about major skin conditions. These unharmful skin blemishes can range from a couple of tiny post acne marks to multiple comedones, both whiteheads and blackheads and also big patches of melasma, also called as chloasma that used to start showing up during pregnancy previously but now is found in thousands of women who are on birth control pills and/or suffering from major hormonal imbalances whether or not they are pregnant. Then there is rough skin texture with a dull greyish appearance which can be from a variety of reasons like the poor shedding of skin cells, unprotected long sun exposure, dietary and lifestyle choices. There are also many concerned queries from women in their 20s and early 30s talking about superficial wrinkles that are prominent or the unattractive creasing around their eyes, mouth and forehead.


Athough these are some of the most common skin concerns, there is a lot of confusion out there on how to reduce the blemishes and get a more refined skin texture and tone. I expect these uncertainties to come up because the cosmetic industry is often making gimmicky statements and people are left shunned. But, the actual thing that worries me is they expect these issues to be resolved by using scrubs everyday. Let me tell this as blatantly and harshly as I can so you really understand the statement, “Applying a bowl full of alkalising baking soda, skin tearing rough salt crystals, dipping your face in sensitising apple cider vinegar and rubbing a cut up lemon on your skin can go very very wrong on so many levels. You may end up looking scarier than ever and will be left with even more pigmentation and inflammation to deal with.”

There is a way to use certain ingredients, especially the ones that are meant to exfoliate or lighten scars. And if you are doing it wrong then don’t blame those ingredients, instead leave the experimentation in the hands of a professional and get yourself some Hydroxy Acid based products.

These are in simple words called as exfoliants and the process of using them is referred to as chemical exfoliation. No, the word doesn’t mean these are “bad chemicals” and your beloved scrubs are “all natural”. These naturally sourced and stabilised products work with the skin’s chemistry which is why they are called as “chemical exfoliants”. Would you believe me if I tell you that chemical exfoliants are actually less irritating and work in an indirect and more effective way that physical exfoliants like salt or sugar scrubs?

Today, I am going to discuss Hydroxy Acids, a type of chemical exfoliant. Although they are called as “acids”, they will do only good things for your skin when used correctly. You do not have to be afraid of using them because you will be depriving your skin of their significant benefits. 


To be quite frank, this is something every skin care enthusiast needs to be educated about so they know what to expect when trying out Hydroxy Acids. So, whether you are an expert and need sone reference or a fanatic wanting to learn the science of skincare, then keep reading further.

Hydroxy Acids have been around for a very long time now but it’s only recently that their cosmetic benefits have been evaluated and proven to help with many skincare concerns that they are now readily available for consumers. From drugstore to high end brands, these are now used in varied concentrations to offer everything from gentle exfoliation, reducing acne breakouts, lightening dark spots to reducing wrinkles.

Hydroxy Acids work on both epidermal(top layer) and dermal(second layer) and sometimes also on the bottom most layer of our skin and depending on your requirements, you can choose milder to stronger strength formulas.

First, let me break down the types of Hydroxy Acids. You may be able to identify them as Glycolic Acids and Salicylic Acids.

There are two common hydroxy acids available in the market and used in both natural and cosmeceutical products:

Alpha Hydroxy Acid aka AHA

Salicylic Acid aka BHA


A L P H A  H Y D R O X Y  A C I D S


These are the more widely used ones among the two and have many varieties.

Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Mandelic Acid, Tartaric Acid and Malic Acid all fall under AHAs (I will be mentioning AHAs and Alpha Hydroxy Acids interchangeably) categories.

Glycolic Acid is the most popular and researched of all AHAs and is also the most effective one followed by Lactic Acid then Malic and Mandelic Acids. Tartaric and Citric Acids are also now used in various skincare products like exfoliating pads, cleansers, brightening masks to name a few.

The reason for Glycolic Acid being preferred over the others is because of it’s smaller molecular weight, which simply means it penetrates deeper in the skin even at lower concentrations.

I will be talking about how to find your best match in the post later, so keep reading.

F U N C T I O N S:

AHAs perform in two ways. Firstly, they aide in the shedding of dead skin cells that are stuck to the surface of our skin. These dead cells bind together with oils, bacteria and cause tiny bumps that overtime get inflamed and lead to pustules and papules(pimples). AHA’s break the bonds between these cells that cause them to fall out but you can not see the process, the proof of how they are working is visible through the improved texture of your skin. AHAs also function as cell-communicating ingredients at higher concentrations. This property makes them as one of the best anti ageing products in the market today. They can help reduce wrinkles, increase the firmness of the skin by strengthening elastic and collagen fibers, reduce pigmentation and hydrate the skin.

AHAs can be used on all skin types because their exfoliating properties will help with smooth texture and even tone of the skin. However, it is more preferred and recommended for dry and/or mature skin. That does not mean if you have an acne prone skin and if you use Glycolic Acid (or any other AHA for that matter) based product then your pores may get clogged. It is an exfoliating acid, it will get rid of unwanted cells by shedding them which is opposite to pore clogging.

C O N C E N T R A T I O N:

AHAs are used in varying amounts but to be able to notice visible results in a matter of four weeks or less, you need to look for products that have a concentration of at least 4% active AHAs.

As I said earlier, Glycolic Acid is your best bet to improve the texture, tone and overall complexion of your skin as it penetrates much deeper than other AHAs even at lower concentrations.

Anything between 4%-10% is more than enough to include in your skincare routine. I suggest starting from lower concentrations so your skin is suddenly not thrown into an unexpected shock.

There are many OTC products that contain Glycolic Acid as high as 20%-30% which should be used very carefully and occasionally.

p H:

Treatment products containing AHAs should be at a pH of between 3.5-4

Not all brands reveal it but you can ask the customer care and they generally do respond. Just keep the conversations very polite though.

B E T A  H Y D R O X Y  A C I D S


There are no subcategories to BHAs but they are more commonly sourced from salix nigra, birch and wintergreen. It is definitely stabilised and added with other components to form Salicylic Acid when using in cosmetics.

You will find it everywhere from cleansers to spot treatments, basically when you are looking for acne products. It is found in both OTC products as well as in more clinical strength peels.

F U N C T I O N S:

Salicylic Acid works in similar way as Glycolic Acids by encouraging the shedding of dead skin cells that accumulate on the surface of the skin and lead to clogging of pores.

They are more preferred to use on oily and acne prone skin because they are oil soluble. If you don’t know, our skin is waterproof. It is made up of cells, healthy bacteria, oil and many other fancy shmancy(yucky for some, lol) stuff that could take forever if I list it all down. The important thing you need to understand is, Salicylic Acid can reach down to our pores and suck out the oil, loosen the bond between dead cells and gradually help the blackheads and whiteheads to dry out. This makes the extraction process much easier. Many times tiny blackheads just fall out by a gentle friction after treating them with BHA for a couple of days. This structure of Salicylic Acids make them an ideal form of hydroxy acid to unclog pores, reduce the excess oil collected and continual use helps reduce the onset of breakouts.

It is one the best treatments for mild to moderate acne both inflamed and uninflamed. You definitely have to couple it with other products that help kill the acne-causing bacteria so you get a complete solution for pimples and pustules.

There are other functions of Salicylic Acid but it is used for clinical purposes, so I will talk about it in some other post.

C O N C E N T R A T I O N:

You should look for concentrations between 0-5%-2% and that is enough to get you desired results without overdoing it.

p H:

When looking for products containing active amounts of BHA, the pH should be 3-4

P O L Y  H Y D R O X Y  A C I D S

Poly Hydroxy Acids or PHAs are introduced by a brand called Neostrata and are claimed to work efficiently without much risk of skin sensitivity. They are believed to be from the same class as Glycolic Acids aka one of the AHAs but with lesser chances of irritation. They are also claimed to improve skin’s barrier function and work as antioxidants. Instead of increasing skin’s sensitivity to sun, they in fact strengthen the epidermal barrier and also slow down ‘glycation’. Since they are currently available in fewer products and cost really high for the brands to incorporate them, there is still some time before they are widely available and offered by many brands so we can use them conveniently and are able to experience their capabilities comparable to the masters, AHAs and BHAs. But, as Neostrata is believed to have brought AHAs to the mainstream cosmetic industry, it is sure the claims about PHAs has some power packed evidence. And, even dermatologists are raving about them and praising PHAs as second generation AHAs minis all the drama, plus multiple skin benefits.

They are generally found as ingredients called Lactobionic Acid and Gluconolactone.


H O W  T O  I N C L U D E  H Y D R O X Y  A C I D S  I N  Y O U R  S K I N C A R E  R O U T I N E:

– If you skin is very reactive and you have never used any exfoliating products then you should start with 2% or less of Glycolic Acid or 1% or less of Salicylic Acid. This should only be used on very intolerant skin otherwise you will not notice any significant difference. Korean brands like Neogen offer exfoliating pads containing very subtle percentages of AHAs, as low as 1% that will not be effective as the ones with considerable amount but they are good way to include some actives in your life before you try stronger versions. Also, if you have normal skin without any obvious concerns then you can use those.

-For minor dark spots on extremely intolerant skin Bliv Spotless is a great and very gentle product to use. The brand offers lots of options for subtly purifying the pores from cleansers to bubble masks and treatments.

BLiv Spotless

– Cleansers are a great addition to other treatment products but solely can not do much as you are literally rinsing them off in a minute or two and there is hardly anything left behind. However, you can try Cosrx Salicylic Acid Cleanser for an added benefit. It contains a gentle 0.5% of Salicylic Acid, is very inexpensive and will not dry your skin. For a gentle Glycolic Acid version with added skin conditioners I suggest Peter Thomas Roth.

-Masking is another way if you need a bit of extra action when your skin is feeling sluggish or you need to glow with smoother skin. In my beauty closet right now is Pumpkin Enzyme and Glycolic Mask that tingles for a couple of minutes and does cause flushing but leaves my skin soft and stimulated with a more clarified look.

– You can also include Hydroxy Acids in the form of toners. For tolerant skin, acid toning with product such as Pixi Glow Tonic and Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% toning solution are really good comprehensive formulas. For sensitive skin types Wishtrend Skin Prep will be a great option. There are also toners containing both AHAs and BHAs like this one. This way of incorporating them will actually give your skin a noticeable difference within two weeks. I am currently liking Tvakh Glow Booster.

Tvakh Glow Boosting Exfoliating Water

– You will also find gels that are little sticky to use and are indicated for PM application. I suggest A’PIEU gel or Nip and Fab that I have been using for a while now.

Nip and Fab Overnight Purifying Gel

– If you have very tiny spots here and there, then I highly recommend using BHA treatment of 2%(which is ideal to improve the skin in a matter of days without causing peeling or too much dryness). Ordinary BHA solution has minimal ingredients, is budget friendly and delivers really soon. I noticed dislodging of blackheads and dissolving of whiteheads in less than a week. I use it thrice weekly on spots and then follow with a moisturiser. You should switch to Cosrx BHA Liquid if your skin is slightly towards drier end.

Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid


Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid | The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution

– Always start with twice a week and gradually take it up to thrice weekly even if the brand suggests using every day. Our skin needs to coax into newer products slowly just like us in our lives.

– Apply AHAs or BHAs along with your night time routine post-cleansing.

-Although Citric Acid is a form of AHA, I recommend avoiding it if you have sensitive skin.

-Lactic Acid is gentler than Glycolic Acid and also softens the skin.

– Do not use hydroxy acids as moisturisers. Apply a thin layer over the desired area.

T H I N G S  T O  R E M E M B E R  A B O U T  H Y D R O X Y  A C I D S:

– As the top layer of your skin is shedding and newer one comes to the surface, it is more vulnerable to sensitivities.

– It is a must to use a broad spectrum sunblock of factor 50+ as Glycolic Acid does make the skin sensitive to sun. That does not mean you can skip it if you are using BHAs. The exfoliation process and resurfacing of new skin can cause it to get easily irritated.

– Initially, your skin may tingle a little and you may notice mild flushing which subsides after 4-5 uses. If it does not, then reduce the frequency or lower the concentration.

– If you have dry skin and acne then AHAs and other prescription strength acne treatments should be used. If you still wish to try out BHAs, then keep a close look at any flaking or dryness.

– Do not mistake yourself by going with higher concentrations and lower pH as it will only irritate your skin.

– If you are using dark spot lightening products or other exfoliants then alternate them with hydroxy acids. As I have repeatedly said that hydroxy acids are exfoliants so do not use too many at the same time.

-Avoid BHAs if you are pregnant or nursing.

– Consult a professional or a dermatologist even if you are considering at home peels containing Hydroxy Acids.


I hope this post answered most if not all of your questions regarding Hydroxy Acids. If anything, I can be contacted through email and I am active on Instagram twice a day.


Thank you so much for reading.


14 Replies to “The Ultimate Guide To Hydroxy Acids With Product Recommendations”

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s