Alpha Hydroxy Acids

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Did you know that ancient Egyptians used alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) in their skin care? They took baths in sour milk. They didn’t know the chemical make-up, but they did know it helped keep their skin looking great. Only in the past decade or so have alpha hydroxy acids come to the forefront of war on aging, and some have found that they also help acne treatment. But not a lot of people really know what alpha hydroxy acids are, and what they do for your skin.

Where Do Alpha Hydroxy Acids Come From?

Alpha hydroxy acids are derived from natural sources. For instance, malic acid is found in apples, citric acid is found in most citrus fruits, mandelic acid is derived from bitter almonds, and glycolic acid is isolated from sugar cane or honey. Lactic acid comes from the fermentation of milk (sour milk), and tartaric acid is derived from fermented grapes (wine). It is because these acids come from natural sources that they have become so appealing in the skin care industry.

What Do Alpha Hydroxy Acids Do?

Actually, no one fully understands how alpha hydroxy acids work on your skin, but they have discovered that they work in at least two different ways. First, they can act as a moisturizer or humectant, drawing moisture from the atmosphere into the skin and thus making the skin softer and more pliable. Second, they promote quicker removal of dead skin cells by dissolving the “cement” that holds dead skin cells together, therefore speeding up the cell turnover process. In other words, it’s exfoliating your skin without having to scrub it! The result is skin that is smoother, more flexible, and more even in tone.

Do Alpha Hydroxy Acids Work?

Yes, they sure do work! They really, really do, so don’t hesitate to use them. This is not some passing fad that will disappear in the next year. While the jury is still out on exactly how they work (research is still being conducted), women all over the world are reaping the benefits of alpha hydroxy acids on their skin, whether it’s to stave off aging, treat acne, get rid of discolorations, etc. Go out and try them for yourself. Experiment with different kinds to see which works best for you. Just remember to use them sparingly at first, and never forget to use sunscreen.

Effective Alpha Hydroxy Acid Treatments

The basic rule of thumb for finding how effective an AHA lotion or cream is, is to look at the concentration (percentage) of alpha hydroxy acid and the pH of the product. To be effective, you need to look for at least an 8% concentration of alpha hydroxy acid and a pH between 2.5 and 4.0. But because most of us don’t carry around pH testing kits, we’ll just stick with the concentrations, delve into the different types of acids, and discuss who they’re most suitable for.

  • Glycolic Acid: This is probably the most commonly found alpha hydroxy acid in lotions or creams, mainly because it has been the most widely studied. It is, however, also the most irritating, and is therefore better suited for those with mature or non-sensitive skin. Acne sufferers have found that it’s an excellent skin treatment, mainly because of the rapid cell turnover qualities it possesses – pores don’t get clogged as easily

  • Lactic Acid: The most moisturizing of all the alpha hydroxy acids, lactic acid is found in a great deal of moisturizers. It has natural humectant qualities and is great at drawing moisture into the skin from the surrounding environment. People with more sensitive skin will prefer to use this, as it is not as irritating, nor is it likely to cause an allergic reaction (lactic acid is found in the human body, remember?)

  • Mandelic Acid: Not widely used in the skin care industry, malic acid is derived from bitter almonds. It is gentler to the skin than glycolic acid, and can therefore be used at higher concentrations than glycolic acid. With its antibacterial properties, it is extremely beneficial in the treatment of acne and rosacea. It’s also a good acid for those with darker skin, as hyperpigmentation is less likely to occur.

  • Malic Acid: Found in apples, this acid has antioxidant properties that none of the previously mentioned alpha hydroxy acids possess. It also is highly moisturizing, although in a different fashion from lactic acid, which draws on moisture from the atmosphere. When applied to the skin, it leaves a protective, moisturizing barrier on the skin.

  • Citric and Tartaric Acid: You won’t find any skin care products with either citric or tartaric acid as the main ingredients, so therefore not much is known about how they act on the skin. Research is being conducted, however.
  • Using Alpha Hydroxy Acids Wisely

    Remember that although alpha hydroxy acids are mild acids, they are still acids, so some precautions should be taken to protect the skin. Do not start off with a high percentage of alpha hydroxy acid (more than 10%), because it can be very irritating, sometimes even causing a chemical burn! Luckily, it is hard to find anything over 10% in a drugstore, but with the Internet at our fingertips, it is tempting to buy an “at home” peel at up to strengths of 40-50%.

    These should only be done by a professional, especially if you’ve never applied an AHA treatment to your skin before. It is also a good idea to use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher to protect the new skin that's being exposed by the AHA exfoliation process. For those with fair skin, it is practically mandatory to use a good sunscreen when using alpha hydroxy acids, just because fair-skinned people are more prone to burning to begin with. Besides, it’s just a good idea anyway to prevent sun-related aging.

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