Product Watch: Skincare acids not as scary as they seem

Skincare acids are here to stay. There are so many available and they reach us through new product categories all the time. Once the stars of salon treatments, they are now part of cleansers, sun protection, and even makeup. Ubiquity does not always aid understanding, however, especially as most packaging simply names the acid without stating its key function. As with humans, you can learn a lot more about a mysterious acid through meeting its family.

The Exfoliants:

Alpha Hydroxy, Beta Hydroxy and Polyhydroxy. Exfoliation is a choice; you don’t have to make it part of your skincare regime if you don’t enjoy the results. At its best, an exfoliant helps to make skin’s natural shedding more consistent and efficient, revealing a more even-toned layer beneath and maximising the benefits of products applied afterwards. Ageing and UV damage can slow natural shedding, though I still think you can skip exfoliation at any age if you’re not comfortable experimenting.

I would, however, recommend any of the following acids over a facial scrub. Scrubs exfoliate inconsistently and can irritate and damage skin’s natural moisture barrier, even if ingredients are natural. You cannot scrub pimples, sun spot, or blackheads away, and trying can cause a great deal of inflammation.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are derived naturally from milk or plants, though cosmetic versions are usually synthetic. In concentrations of 4% or higher they exfoliate by breaking down the substances that hold dead cells to the skin’s surface.

Leave-on treatments do this far more effectively than cleansers, which expose skin far too briefly for AHAs to take effect. These acids are extremely useful in fading sun damage and increasing skin’s natural moisture content.

Glycolic and lactic acids are the most widely used AHAs, though mandelic acid, extracted from almonds, is having a moment.

This is the star ingredient in Starskin’s Platinum Peel Mask, €22, which starts with a 10% mandelic acid swab that aids the absorption of the mask’s antioxidant serum.

Polyhydroxy Acids are similar to AHAs but thought to be less sensitising. Recent research suggests they don’t penetrate as deeply either, so results with these may not be immediately noticeable. Examples include glucanolactone and lactobionic acid.

Beta Hydroxy acids and best for oily and acne-prone skin. These are oil-soluble and can penetrate sebum, cleansing inside the pore’s lining. They are useful in preventing spots and clearing blackheads. They can also improve keratosis pilaris, so Paula’s Choice Clear 2% BHA Body Spray, €26, is worth trying on ‘chicken skin’ before going sleeveless.

The widely-used BHA salicylic acid can calm inflammation and redness (though it is not a cure for rosacea). BHAs do not help dryness, so if your skin is dry-combination you may wish to avoid salicylic acid cleansers and apply a leave-on product only where needed.

The Moisturisers:

Amino, Essential Fatty, Hyaluronic,

Polyglutamic. Hydrating acids are protective, comforting and among the cheapest (you’ll find some in a jar of coconut oil, for example) and easiest to use. Amino acids are the building blocks of skin’s natural proteins and peptides, essential in the maintenance of smooth, soft skin.

They work in harmony with aquaporins (skin’s water transport system) and can also function as antioxidants. Aminos to look out for include arginine, lysine, histidine, methionine and proline. Sisley Paris ‘So Volume’ Mascara, €49 at, uses arginine to fortify and soften lashes.

Fatty acids are essential to skin’s surface layers, and help the dermis retain water and stay smooth and plump. There are lots of lovely examples, including omega 3, 6 and 9, plant butters like jojoba and shea and fruit oils like avocado and coconut. You are probably bored of reading about hyaluronic acid at this point.

It is so accessible you can do everything from drink it to finish your makeup with it (though I wouldn’t recommend either, drinks and face powders are both inefficient vehicles for skincare ingredients). HA is capable of holding up to 1,000 times its weight in water and doubles as an antioxidant.

Polyglutamic acid is thought to be four times as moisturising. The Inkey List is the only brand currently bottling PA for sale in Ireland.

The Game-Changers:

Ascorbic, Nicotinic, Retinoic. I call these game-changers because of their well-established capacity to aid the repair and healthy development of skin cells. Skin converts retinol (Vitamin A) to retinoic acid. Not everyone can tolerate retinol.

Studies show that weaker cosmetic forms such as retinyl palmitate take months longer to make a positive impact, so it is worth trying a small amount even every other day to test your tolerance. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is a great skin brightener that suits all skin types.

Effective amounts of this ingredient can be hard to stabilise in skincare and it is important to protect it from light and air. Juliette Armand Vitamin C Serum, €39 at, is a moisturising, irritant-free booster that offers a lot of this acid.

Nicotinic acid (Vitamin B3), known as niacinamide, can improve the look of enlarged pores, fine lines, and other results of UV damage. This is much easier to tolerate and stabilise than its ‘sisters’ here, so products with high concentrations tend to be more affordable. Olay’s Regenerist and Total Effects ranges make it widely available.

It is also found in products like Diego Dalla Palma Face Perfector Lifting Effect Primer, €34 at M&S. If you are looking for a product high in any of these acids, anything listed beyond the first five ingredients is insubstantial, even if vitamin C etc is in the product name.

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