If you’ve spent any time in the skincare aisle or have thought about a chemical peel, you’re probably familiar with alpha hydroxy acids, or at the very least, have heard of them. The one thing alpha hydroxy acids share in common is that they naturally occur in food. For example, some come from apples, some from sugar cane and others from milk.
Alpha hydroxy acids primary work as exfoliators. When applied topically, the acids sink into the skin, helping the dead skin cells detach. The old cells can then be rubbed off of the skin, revealing more youthful, toned and blemish-free skin beneath. The acids can also improve skin’s tone and moisture levels by thickening the dermal layer and by binding water molecules to the skin’s cells.
Types of AHAs
A number of different types of alpha hydroxy acids are available and are used in chemical peels or in over-the-counter skincare products. One of the most commonly used and available type of AHA is glycolic acid, which comes from sugar cane. When used in a chemical peel, glycolic acid is found in concentrations ranging from 20 to 70 percent. The acid doesn’t penetrate very deep into the skin and is generally considered to be one of the mildest peel options available.
Fruit is a common source for many of the AHAs used in skin care. Citric acid, malic acid (which comes from apples) and tartaric acid (from grapes) are just some examples. Milk can also be a source of AHAs, in the form of lactic acid.
Where You Might Find Them
AHAs are found in a variety of skincare products, from products that can only be used by a trained professional, to over-the-counter products. The major difference between a product you’d find on a drugstore shelf and a product your plastic surgeon applies is the concentration of the acid in it. For example, an over-the-counter facial cleanser or “peel” might have just 5 percent or less of some type of AHA. A mild peel at your doctor’s office may have a concentration around 20 percent. There is a happy middle between over-the-counter and in-office products, and those products your doctor may prescribe to you for use at home.
Alpha hydroxy acids owe a large part of their popularity to the benefits they provide. Since the acids exfoliate that top layer of skin, they can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and lines and make your skin look more refreshed. The acids also attack a number of other skin issues, from acne to dark spots.
Since different types of skin respond differently to AHAs, it’s important that you see a doctor to figure out the best course of action to take to get the most benefit from an AHA. Your skin may respond better to an infrequent chemical peel that features a high concentration of an alpha hydroxy acid. In some cases, your skin may respond better to a daily peel or treatment featuring a much lower concentration.
If you’re using over-the-counter products, you’ll be limited when it comes to their strength. The FDA limits the concentration of AHAs in products for use by a consumer to just 10 percent.
There are two considerable drawbacks when it comes to alpha hydroxy acids. One is that they can create a false sense of safety. You may think that because a product contains a low concentration of AHAs or because a peel is described as mild that it’s safe to use frequently. The reality is that AHAs are acids and will continue to eat away at the skin if the right precautions aren’t taken. Always check with your doctor before you use a new product, even if it has a low amount of AHAs.
Another drawback of using products with AHAs in them is that the ingredients tend to make skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays. The best way to combat this is to avoid excessive sun exposure and to always use sunscreen. The FDA requires products with AHAs in them to either contain a label warning of the risks of sun exposure or to contain SPF to protect your skin.
A specialist practicing at the Naderi Center in Maryland and Virginia, Dr. Jessica Kulak is dedicated to procedures that help rejuvenate the face. She is available to discuss your options for a chemical peel and to help you select the right peel for you. To schedule a consultation with Dr. Kulak, call (301) 222-2020 for an appointment in Maryland or (703) 481-0002 for an appointment in Virginia today.