Exfoliating acids: how to add AHA's safely to your skincare routine

A friend recently revealed she had purchased an unbranded, ‘super-strength’ glycolic acid peel from a non-authorised online retailer. “To erase my acne scars,” she explained. After confiscating the offending acid and replacing it with a bottle of Alpha-H Liquid Gold (the gold standard in acid exfoliation, pardon the pun) it got us thinking, when did ‘the stronger, the better’ become the way we define our skincare regimes?

At the moment, we’re all taking on the role of at-home DIY facialist. As we become armed with more knowledge than ever when it comes to effective skincare ingredients, brands are reacting with a slew of increasingly potent at-home acid treatments designed to satisfy our need for instant skin renewal. It seems we are no longer afraid of glycolic and laugh in the face of lactic. But which of these skin exfoliators should have a place in our at-home arsenal, and which should be left firmly in the hands of the professionals?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids, or AHAs, have long been hailed as a less abrasive, more effective alternative to traditional, physical exfoliators. Working by ‘dissolving’ dead skin cells, rather than sloughing them away, these acid-based treatments can renew, brighten, and reduce pigmentation with remarkable results. However, as with all skin treatments, it pays to proceed with caution.

“I often see clients with irritation or sensitivity complaints as a result of misusing acid treatments – particularly since the rise of ‘acid’ toners,” says Alicia Falero, head of education at Gazelli House. “In principle, these treatments are great at removing the surface layer of ‘debris’, whether it’s grime from the day or the top layers of the skin, and allowing for effective product absorption. However, for those with reactive, sensitive skin types, daily use of even these so-called gentle acids can be excessive and irritating.”

Dr Justine Hextall, consultant dermatologist, agrees. “One of the most common issues I see is skin sensitisation and irritation from harsh topical products including AHAs and retinoids,” she says.

“I always advise that although these active treatments can help, it is vital to balance them with soothing, hydrating, repairing treatments. If the skin barrier is constantly disrupted it can be left vulnerable to penetration of irritants and increased trans-epidermal water loss. I know studies have shown that AHAs are safe, but the frequency of application and strength of the product must be considered.”

Worryingly, misusing an AHA product can leave you with more than a red face. “AHAs can damage the epidermis by stripping the protective barrier, causing imbalances to the hydrolipidic film (the protective film that covers the entire surface of the skin).

This can lead to dehydration, leaving the skin vulnerable to bacteria and increasing sensitivity, redness and dryness,” warns Falero. “Excessive use can lead to accelerated cell renewal, which over time can thin the skin, leaving it vulnerable to the environment – particularly to sun damage.”

With an increasing number of ‘extreme’ acid products launching each week, it can be hard to know where to start. Hextall recommends easing in with a wash-off product, as anything that is left on the skin will continue to work for longer.

“When it comes to leave-on products, always start at a low percentage and choose a reputable brand. Make sure your skin is gently cleansed and properly hydrated to protect the skin barrier.” And the golden rule? Always wear broad-spectrum sun protection, even if you’re staying indoors. “Sun cream is vital as there is some suggestion that AHAs can leave the skin more vulnerable to sun sensitivity. And anyway, a high-factor sun cream is the most important product for anybody trying to keep their skin healthy and protected from photo-ageing.”

Article from Stylist magazine