If you’re on a quest for younger-looking, smoother, and more even-toned skin, you may have heard of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). But what is AHA? And given there’s more than one, which AHA should you use?
Alpha hydroxy acids are natural and synthetic plant and animal derived acids that are used to exfoliate the uppermost layers of skin to reveal fresher, refined skin that appears smoother and firmer. They are routinely found in anti-aging products, serums, toners and chemical peels.
They include citric acid, found in citrus fruits; glycolic acid, derived from sugar cane; hydroxycaproic acid, from royal jelly; hydroxycaprylic acid, which is animal based; lactic acid, from lactose or other carbs, malic acid, from fruit and tartaric acid, derived from grapes.
✖️citric acid (from citrus fruits) ✖️glycolic acid (from sugar cane) ✖️hydroxycaproic acid (from royal jelly) ✖️hydroxycaprylic acid (from animals) ✖️lactic acid (from fermented foods) ✖️malic acid (from fruits) ✖️tartaric acid (from grapes)
AHAs are primarily used to exfoliate skin, their chemical makeup naturally sloughing off dead skin and paving the way for new skin cell generation. As we age, the natural skin cell cycle slows, which causes dead skin cells to build up, making your complexion look dull and tired, as well as enhancing other underlying skin issues such as wrinkles, age spots, acne and sun damage.
These gamechangers help in other ways too. Collagen is a protein-rich fibre that helps keep skin plump and smooth. As we age, these fibres break down, often thanks to sun damage, which can result in sallow, sagging skin.
Collagen itself is in the middle layer of your skin (dermis). When the upper layer (epidermis) is removed, products such as AHAs can go to work on the dermis. AHAs may help promote collagen production by destroying old collagen fibres to make way for new ones.
AHAs have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can help promote blood flow to the skin, too. This can help correct pale, dull complexions and ensures that skin cells get the necessary nutrients via oxygen-rich blood cells.
AHAs are known for their anti-aging effects, too, and their ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines and surface wrinkles, as well correcting skin discolouration. Age spots, hyperpigmentation and acne scars can all be minimised by AHAs ability to encourage old, discoloured skin cells to rejuvenate.
And they may also help treat and prevent recurring acne. Pimples occur when pores become clogged with a combination of dead skin cells, oil (sebum), and bacteria. Exfoliating with AHAs can help loosen and remove this, and continued use is believed to prevent future build up.
AHAs can also reduce the size of enlarged pores, commonly seen in acne-prone skin, and some products contain citric and malic acids to help soothe inflamed skin.
Finally, AHAs help increase product absorption, making your existing skincare products work better by increasing their absorption into the skin. If your skin has too many dead skin cells, products will just sit on top and add to build-up. By breaking down this outer layer of dead skin AHAs provide access to the next layer.
In addition to their own distinct benefits, AHAs can make your existing products work better by increasing their absorption into the skin. When your skin has a layer of dead cells on top of it, your daily moisturizer just sits on top and cannot reach the skin cells underneath. AHAs like glycolic acid can break through this layer of dead cells and provide access to the skin below.
Glycolic acid is considered the gold standard in AHAs, due to its ability to ‘teach’ skin to be better at retaining its natural moisture, and its molecular size allowing it to penetrate the uppermost layers of skin with ease. Glycolic acid can help enhances the skin’s firmness and resilience while softening other signs of sun damage.
Lactic acid does everything glycolic acid does but at a slower rate. It has a larger molecular structure, which slightly reduces its ability to penetrate the skin’s outermost layer.
Citric acid is derived from citrus and in higher concentrations works well to exfoliate the skin.
What are the side effects?
Temporary side effects such as burning, itching and dermatitis can occur while skin adjusts to AHAs. Dermatologists recommend using AHA products every other day to begin with. And extra caution must be taken when going out in the sun: the peeling effects of highly concentrated AHAs make skin incredibly sensitive to UV rays, so use sunscreen and reapply frequently to prevent sunburn. If you have pre-existing skin conditions, it’s worth talking to a dermatologist or skin care specialist first. On the upside, the peeling effects of AHAs actually reduce existing sun damage.
AHAs and tattoo care
If you’ve got new ink, you’ll know that you have to treat it sweet while it settles into your skin. But, if you’ve got tattoos that are losing their vibrancy, AHAs are the perfect boost, thanks to their ability to slough off dead skin layers and reveal brighter skin below and make the colours in your ink pop, and collagen production, will maintain the integrity of your art.
AHAs and Sass + Co. Body
We’ve long known the powerful benefits of AHAs at Sass + Co. and our products reflect this. Our bestseller lime caviar hand and body lotion is chock a block full of citric acid, and is renowned for its help keeping tattoos fresh and fierce, keeping dry skin moist and turning back time. And our Blood Orange AHA facial exfoliator has citric acid, glycolic acid and lactic acid in it, hence its legendary status when it comes to exfoliating, refining and rejuvenating skin.