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April 5, 2018

AHA 101: Wanna Get AHAs Into Your Routine? Here’s What You Should Know First

You want to incorporate AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) into your routine, but what to choose and where to start? Here, our quick and dirty primer on the three main AHAs and how to choose the right one for you.


You might have seen me write about how much AHAs have changed my life like once or twice (or everyday tbh). But really though, AHAs have completely changed my life. Do you want smooth skin? AHAs. Do you want glowing skin? AHAs. Do you want to reduce or get rid of that pesky hormonal breakout? AHAs. I mean, they are kind of like the Wonder Woman of the skincare world.



So what are AHAs? AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids, work by “loosening” the top layer of dead skin cells on your skin, revealing the healthy, newer skin underneath. But not all AHAs are created equally. I’m here to dish on my top three AHAs and the difference between the three.


Glycolic Acid


Glycolic acid is probably the most used and most widely known AHA. It’s a derivative of sugar cane (for those who claim “chemicals” aren’t natural) and has the smallest molecule size out of the three major AHAs, which means that it can penetrate the skin faster. It works by “ungluing” that top layer of dead skin cells, but studies have shown that continuous use of glycolic acid can help the skin heal faster and decrease signs of environmental damage, like sunspots. Hooray!



Glycolic acid can also help dislodge blackheads and whiteheads and decrease oiliness. Personally, glycolic acid has 10,000% helped clear up my acne breakouts and has also helped balance my super oily skin. One of my all-time favorite glycolic acid products of all time is the Swanicoco 10% Coco Peeling Cream (now reformulated as the A-PHA Skin Purifying Peeling Cream). I’m not going to lie: I did not have high expectations for this, mostly because my skin is so used to acids it really takes a lot to make a difference, but baby, this stuff is EVERYTHING.


There are some cons to glycolic acid. It can be a bit irritating to those with sensitive skin. Also, if you have darker skin, there is a chance that it can cause skin discoloration. And like all of the rest of the AHAs, you ABSOLUTELY MUST use sunscreen, as they are photosensitizing and cause your skin to be more sensitive to sun. (But you were already using sunscreen, right? Right?!)


Lactic Acid


Lactic acid is the gentle sister of the AHAs. Derived from sour milk, this AHA is the ideal choice for those with sensitive skin. Lactic acid is known for making the skin extremely soft while also brightening those PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) spots, improving skin tone, and increasing the collagen production in your skin. And like all of the other AHAs, it also helps with acne, blackheads, and whiteheads.




Lactic acid is different than glycolic acid because it doesn’t penetrate the skin all that well due to its larger molecule size. It’s also more moisturizing than glycolic acid, making it the ideal AHA choice for those with dry, delicate skin. One of the most popular AHA products is Sunday Riley Good Genes, but I absolutely love the lactic acid pads from Garden of Wisdom. A small warning — they have a very low pH, so make sure that you work your way up to using them because they are quite strong!


Mandelic Acid


If I had to choose a favorite AHA, it would be mandelic acid. Mandelic acid is derived from bitter almonds, and it is also a gentle choice for all skin types. Mandelic acid molecules are quite large — larger than glycolic and lactic acid — and as a result, take their time to penetrate the skin. Mandelic acid was a major game changer in my skincare routine — I haven’t used anything quite like it!

Like the other AHAs, mandelic acid gently sloughs away dead skin cells and can also increase collagen production, resulting in firm, soft, and glowing skin. Mandelic acid can also help soften fine lines and improve your skin’s texture.


Mandelic acid is the ideal acid for those suffering from PIH or those with darker skin tones, as it greatly reduces scarring while improving your skin’s tone without any unnecessary skin discoloration. It also helps regulate oil production and has amazing antibacterial properties that are perfect for fighting acne. Whenever I’m having a major breakout, I always reach for my mandelic acid serum. My favorite is from Vivant Skincare — I have used both the 8% and 15% with excellent results!


What is your favorite AHA and AHA product? Has it made a difference in your skin?


Sheryll Donerson got her start as a beauty writer by writing K-beauty reviews for her blog, The Wanderlust Project. These days, she's lifting heavy weights, eating tacos, drinking (too much) coffee and is 1/4 of the beauty podcast, Beauty Beyond Basics (or Triple Bees for short). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @sheryllrenata.




The table is amazing!! It just wrapped everything up for me. Thank you so much! I didn't know that AHA was in three forms! I learned a lot through this article. I used the COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol once and it was a NIGHTMARE on my skin (let's just say I became a tomato). I'm thinking it might've been the Lactic Acid since the toner I'm using now from COSRX doesn't have Lactic Acid and doesn't irritate my skin. Huh. So interesting...

Thank you again for the wonderful article!!


That table is super helpful! Thank you Sheryll 😊 I’m really wanting to try a lactic acid or mandelic acid. I’ve been trying to NOT buy Sunday Riley but may cave but w that they have the smaller size option. But Purito just released a new active that uses mandelic acid and I’m dying to get my hands on that!! The antibacterial properties sound ideal for my current issues!


All this time, I was under the impression that because Mandelic acid was the gentlest of the AHAs, it was therefore better for my sensitive skin. But the table says otherwise. The more you know...


Great breakdown, Sheryll. Thank you!


Question- I have some clogged pores that are deep beneath the skin on my chin (also the place I'm most likely to break out because I sit with my chin in my hand when I'm at work). I'd like to add in AHAs to help with that but if I only apply to my chin, do I risk looking patchy? On the flip side, I'm hesitant to use it all over my face because I have freckles, and I like them!, so I don't want to make those fade. Thoughts anyone?


Also, I thought I had already posted how much I love the acid table, but I don't see it so- thanks for the table! I was kind of going in circles about which acid to use and the table helped make it so clear!


I only use AHA on my T-zone to help with PIH and hormonal acne (and not on my cheeks because even the slightest irritation makes it go melasma on me), and I\'ve never had patchiness. AHA may lighten melasma or hyperpigmentation, but i don\'t think it\'ll lighten your skin tone so that it\'s lighter than the rest of your face thelillinator


I’ve been using acids to help fade hyper-pigmentation and my freckles have not faded. Now I kind of wonder how/why not. I wouldn’t mind losing some of my freckles as I have WAY too many!

Oh my god , this post helps a LOT. I was wondering why lactic acid by itself didn't affect my hormonal acne as much as glycolic + BHAs (I thought all acids more or less functioned the same LOL). Time to get my hands on mandelic acid! thank you for the recommendations :))


I had no idea AHA's had different types, I thought it was all just one form of acid. Thank you so much for this information, I need to start looking into using different forms for different concerns :)


I love the information regarding pH you brought up here! I love AHAs, they were the first thing incorporated when I "got serious" about my skincare and I think differentiating between the types of AHAs available is super important depending on your skin type and concerns. I also think that keeping the pH in mind is super important as well - lactic acid may be "gentler" than glycolic but if that pH is low enough you're in for a surprise lol. I've been using the Tarte Knockout acid toner that's supposed to be a dupe for Lotion P50 (legit... Read more


the garden of wisdom pads will knock your socks off (in the best day). I'm super curious about this p50 dupe though - I love me some p50!


Like I said, I've only read other peoples claims about P50 so I can't say for sure they're dupes, but everything down to the smell and the sensation feels exactly like what I've read. And it's also cheaper and available at every Sephora so that makes it so much easier to get/more appealing. PIH is my primary concern right now so some lactic would probably do me well; never seen a pH that low before though! Definitely gonna take it slow and dial down to 3 days a week with those puppies.