Alpha-hydroxy acids are naturally-derived products used in hundreds of skincare products. They exfoliate the skin, removing dry surface layers, increasing the rate of cellular turnover, and improving skin texture and tone. 

It’s also a type of acid usually produced in our skin. It can be derived from plants and animals, but many come from milk and sugar cane. Its excellent purpose is to help the body remove dead skin. 

What is Alpha Hydroxy Acid?

alpha hydroxy acid

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) is a group of acids naturally occurring in fruits, sugar cane, and milk. It’s commonly used in skincare as an exfoliant to remove dead skin cells and treat specific concerns. 

It works by loosening the top layer of old skin cells by breaking down the gluey substance that keeps skin cells joined together. The outcome of this is that it encourages them to grow more cells, which increases cell turnover. 

Types of AHA 

Are you aware that there are several types of AHA? This includes: 

  • Lactic Acid – present in dairy and fermented vegetables 
  • Glycolic Acid – present in sugarcane 
  • Hydroxycaproic Acid – from royal jelly
  • Hydroxycaprylic Acid – from animals
  • Malic Acid – present in apples 
  • Citric Acid – present in citrus fruits 
  • Tartaric Acid – present in grapes 

The most well-known AHAs are Lactic and Glycolic acids, they are the most promising since these are well researched [1]. Either way, all AHAs work in similar ways. 

What Does Alpha Hydroxy Acid Do?

Alpha Hydroxy Acid is known as a water-soluble acid that is derived from fruits and plants. 

It’s a chemical exfoliant that uses chemicals or acids and enzymes to remove dead skin cells. 

Alpha hydroxy acid is best on by removing the top layers of the skin, which promotes firmness, and exfoliates the skin. It also minimizes dullness and even texture on your skin. Also, it stimulates collagen production. 

Benefits of Alpha Hydroxy Acid

alpha hydroxy acid

Many acids claim to exfoliate the skin, but AHAs are one of the great acids for that. It goes above and beyond!

Listed below are the incredible benefits of Alpha Hydroxy Acid:

1. Exfoliates the Skin 

Exfoliation is when the skin cells on the surface are shed off. AHAs remove dead skin cells and make way for new skin cell generation and reveal smooth and glowy skin.

While aging, our natural skin cell cycle slows down, and dead skin cells build up. The dead skin cells can accumulate and make your complexion look dull.  

There are also underlying skin issues wherein dead skin cell accumulation can enhance, such as: 

  • Wrinkles 
  • Age Spots 
  • Acne

But always remember that not all AHAs have the same exfoliating power. Different exfoliation power amounts depend on the type of AHA you use. 

2. Brightens Skin

While these kinds of acids exfoliate your skin, dead skin cells are broken down. Brighter and radiant skin is revealed beneath. AHAs with glycolic acid are best for breaking down skin cell accumulation, and AHAs with citric acid make your skin brighter.

3. Promotes Collagen Production

Collagen helps your skin plump and smooth since it’s a protein-rich fiber. As we age, fibers break down on our skin. Exposure to sun damage can also accelerate collagen destruction, which results in sallow, sagging skin. 

While AHAs work on the epidermis, they also have remarkable effects on the deeper layer of the skin. AHAs are also commonly found in anti-aging products. We know that more collagen equals fewer lines and wrinkles on our skin. 

4. Helps Reduce Surface Lines and Wrinkles

AHAs work excellent due to their anti-aging effects, and surface lines are no exception. A study from 2015 says that 9 out of 10 volunteers who used AHAs for a three-week period experienced significant improvements in overall skin texture [2]. 

Keep in mind that AHAs only work for surface lines and wrinkles, it does not work for deep wrinkles. 

5. Hydrates the Skin

Humectant acids are great for attracting water to the skin, and these are glycolic acid, malic acid, and lactic acid. The best acid to use for those with dry skin is lactic acid. It moisturizes and makes your skin feel less dry, and it’s one of the mildest forms of AHA. 

6. Promotes Blood Flow 

These acids also have anti-inflammatory properties that help promote blood flow. It can correct pale and dull complexions. A proper blood flow ensures that your skin cells get the nutrients needed via oxygen-rich red blood cells. 

7. Corrects and Minimizes Discoloration 

As you age, the risk of discoloration increases. These discolorations develop from sun exposure. They often develop in areas of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun. Most often, they develop on your chest, hands, and face. 

Discoloration also results from: 

  • Acne Scars 
  • Melasma 
  • Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

AHAs are known to promote skin cell turnover. Long-term use of AHAs can reduce skin discoloration by encouraging old and discolored skin cells to turn over. 

Glycolic acid works best for discoloration and is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology [3]. 

8. Prevents and Treats Acne

AHAs can also help treat and prevent stubborn and recurring acne. 

Acne pimples usually occur from clogged pores and a combination of dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria. AHAs exfoliating power can help remove and loosen the clog in your skin. Using it continuously may also prevent future clogs from forming on your face. 

Another great thing about AHAs is that it reduces the size of enlarged pores commonly seen in acne-prone skin. Using glycolic and lactic acid can also reduce acne scars due to its skin cell turnover by exfoliating. For soothing inflamed skin, citric and malic acid is best for the job. 

AHAs are not just for your face, but you can also use them on other acne-prone areas of your body, including the back and chest. 

It would take two to three months before you can start seeing significant acne improvements. Be patient while working with the products to relieve acne over time. Consistent use of the products may give you long-term effects while skipping daily treatments will make the ingredients longer to work [4]. 

Side Effects of Alpha Hydroxy Acid 

alpha hydroxy acid

Finding the right concentration and the right combination of AHAs for your skin type is hard, but always be diligent. Overuse of a too high concentration may lead to irritated and inflamed skin and can also flare other underlying conditions such as rosacea and eczema. As AHAs make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, keep in mind to apply sunscreen daily and re-apply every two hours [5]. 

If you’re not familiar and you haven’t used AHAs before, there are minor side effects you might experience while your skin adjusts to the product. 

Temporary side effects such as: 

  • Itching 
  • Burning 
  • Dermatitis (eczema)
  • Blisters

You can use AHA products every other day to reduce the risk of irritation. Applying AHAs every day is safe if your skin adjusts to them [6]. 

Be extra careful with sun exposure. While your skin is peeling, the effects of highly-concentrated AHAs may also make your skin more sensitive to UV rays for about one week after use. Using sunscreen daily and applying it frequently may prevent sunburn [7]. 

Before using, consult your doctor if you have the following: 

  • Eczema 
  • Cuts or burns on your skin 
  • Psoriasis 
  • Freshly shaved skin 
  • Rosacea 

For pregnant and breastfeeding women, consult your doctor before using it is a must. AHA creams with a concentration of 10% or less are likely safe when applied to the skin while pregnant and breastfeeding. Taking malic acid by mouth is not advisable since the safety of malic acid during pregnancy and breastfeeding is not yet safe. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acid Uses 

There are various uses of AHAs. Moreover, it is mainly used topically for moisturizing and removing dead skin cells, improving the appearance of photo-aged skin, treating acne and improving the appearance of acne scars, and firming and soothing the skin. 

Below are the possible uses for AHAs: 

  • Treatment for dry skin (cream or lotion)
  • Acne treatments (cream or lotion)
  • Acne scar treatment (facial peel or lotion) 
  • Fibromyalgia – malic acid with magnesium is used to reduce pain and tenderness. 
  • Reduce pigmentation from melasma 

AHA vs. BHA 

alpha hydroxy acid

Both AHAs and BHAs inhibit the power to help exfoliate the skin. AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid and has various kinds, but glycolic acid and lactic acid are the most popular. AHAs are also water-soluble, so they don’t penetrate far enough into the skin. But they’re more helpful on surface-level concerns like acne scarring, anti-aging, and pigmentation issues. 

BHA, on the contrary, stands for beta hydroxy acid, or salicylic acid as commonly known. It also penetrates deeper into the skin and provides antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s great for treating acne-prone complexion and treating blemishes. 

Which Acid to Choose?

Both of these acids are for different concerns. AHAs have an exfoliative effect that helps break the bonds between old skin cells that make way for new healthy cells. It also stimulates collagen production, which reduces the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. 

BHAs clean out excess sebum from your pores and also help remedy blemishes. If you have oily, acne-prone skin, BHAs are a great acid for you.

The Bottomline: Uses of AHA

AHAs are one of the famous most-researched beauty products due to their potent effects. If you’re looking for effective exfoliation, AHAs are the right products for you to consider. If you have any pre-existing skin conditions, consult your dermatologist or skincare specialist first before trying any products associated with this. 

Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your own healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.

Editorial References And Fact-Checking

  • Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2022b, February 25). Alpha Hydroxy Acids. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved August 26, 2022, from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/alpha-hydroxy-acids
  • Tran, D., Townley, J. P., Barnes, T. M., & Greive, K. A. (2014). An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology8, 9–17. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S75439
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Kim Monasterial, BSN

Kim is a Registered Nurse and has been a medical freelance writer for more than six years. Starting off as a writer, Kim moved to proofreading and editing all the articles posted on HealthPlugged. She’s an enthusiast for health and wellness, being one to keep herself fit and adventurous for outdoor activities. LinkedIn

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  • Kim is a Registered Nurse and has been a medical freelance writer for more than six years. Starting off as a writer, Kim moved to proofreading and editing all the articles posted on HealthPlugged. She’s an enthusiast for health and wellness, being one to keep herself fit and adventurous for outdoor activities. LinkedIn

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Kim is a Registered Nurse and has been a medical freelance writer for more than six years. Starting off as a writer, Kim moved to proofreading and editing all the articles posted on HealthPlugged. She’s an enthusiast for health and wellness, being one to keep herself fit and adventurous for outdoor activities. LinkedIn