The Good and Bad of Alpha Hydroxy Acids
You'll find alpha hydroxy acids in moisturizers, cleansers, exfoliants, and myriad other beauty products. Proponents say they reduce signs of aging like discoloration caused by the sun or acne, sun-damage, and wrinkles, plus stimulate your skin to produce elastin and collagen - all resulting in a more youthful you. But are the benefits worth the risks?
How They Work
Alpha Hydroxy Acids include glycolic, lactic, citric, and other acids derived from foods like fruit and dairy. They work by sloughing the top layer of skin, either peeling or polishing it depending on the acid concentration and PH level of the product.
Where You'll Find Them
Over-the-counter products containing AHAs can stimulate cell regeneration in your skin to even out your complexion, minimize wrinkles, and help reduce breakouts. Products with higher concentrations of AHAs are available by prescription and are often used in professional chemical peels.
Potential Side Effects
The FDA notes the following potential side effects: redness, itching, and rashes, skin discoloration, swelling, burning, blistering, and even bleeding have been caused by AHAs, but rarely from over-the-counter products. Regardless of the concentration, AHAs will temporarily increase your skin's sun sensitivity. If you're not sure how your skin will react, the best approach (as with any skincare product) is to test it on a small patch of skin and wait 24 hours before applying it to your whole face. If you have a strong reaction, never try that product again. The FDA has conducted several studies exploring long term effects on the skin, and found that glycolic acid (one of the most common AHAs) did not increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Choose Your Products
Because Alpha Hydroxy Acids are found in so many different products, the largest risk is that you'll overuse them. Ideally, you'd use an exfoliant and/or a moisturizer that contains AHAs and apply sunscreen before going outside. Be sure not to use more than two products that contain AHAs. Choose products that remain on your skin rather than ones that wash off since Alpha Hydroxy Acids only work well if they're absorbed into the skin.
Numbers to Know
Alpha Hydroxy Acids' bad reputation stems from early products that contained high concentrations and did not include warnings about sun sensitivity. According to the FDA, the AHA concentration of your over-the-counter product should be less than 10% and the product should have a pH of 3.5 or greater. Check the label or the manufacturer's website to get the ingredient details. They also recommend that you use sunscreen in combination with AHAs - a good daily practice for anyone. If you plan to use a product with a higher concentration of acid for a chemical peel, you should be sure to work with a doctor or trained cosmetologist, but also be aware that this will have a heightened risk of side effects.
Food & Drug Administration
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