acid skincare
Photography courtesy of Peter Stigter

7 Acids Commonly Used in Skincare Products—Explained

With scientific beauty terms being thrown around the industry, for skincare newbies, it can get confusing, especially when it come to the long list of acids in skincare products. Acids have long been known to treat all sorts of complexion issues, from acne scarring to wrinkles to correcting skin discolouration. Though the word “acid” may sound frightening (chemical peels, anyone?), they’re not necessarily harsh on skin. Aside from acting as a gentle exfoliating agent, some acids (like hyaluronic) serve as a key moisture-binding ingredient and are easy on the skin, regardless of type and underlying condition.

According to Elizabeth Arden Consulting Dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman, acids are important in our skincare regimen. “They help to treat number of conditions – dyspigmentation, fine lines/wrinkles, acne,” she says. “They also provide anti-aging and hydrating benefits.”

Acids are split into two categories: alpha hydroxyl acids and beta hydroxyl acids. Before those terms go right over your head, hear us out. AHA are chemicals that help slow down the natural cell turnover process by loosening the fluid that connects surface skin cells, while BHA are chemical exfoliants that target fine lines, pigmentation and pores. In layman’s’ terms, AHA helps with anti-aging, while BHA treats acneiform conditions.

To make sure you don’t have question marks floating around your head on your next beauty stock-up trip, we asked Dr. Engelman to help us compile a list of seven acids commonly found in our skincare staples and what exactly they do.

acid skincare citric ole henriksen

Citric acid

Derived from oranges and lemons, citric acid is used mainly for its antioxidant properties to help prevent sun damage and to neutralize damage caused by free radical formation from UV exposure and environmental effects.

Ole Henriksen Grease Relief Cleansing Cloths ($19,

acid skincare hyaluronic elizabeth arden

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a sugar gel used for hydration. These acid-containing products are safe enough for daily usage and are excellent hydrators for almost all skin types and are unlikely to irritate the skin – regardless of any underlying skin condition.

Elizabeth Arden Prevage Anti Aging Daily Serum ($210,

acid skincare glycolic caudalie

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is an AHA used as a chemical exfoliant. It safely removes the outer layer of dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, bringing fresh new skin to the surface. This is beneficial for those who are looking for ingredients that help with anti-aging as it can help smoothen the appearance of fine lines. Glycolic acid can also help lighten discolouration of the skin, such as sunspots, while helping those with acne-prone and blackhead-prone skin.

Caudalie Glycolic Peel ($39,

acid skincare lactic pure and simple

Lactic acid

Derived from fermented milk, this AHA is also used as a chemical exfoliant. As such, it improves skin’s overall texture by moisturizing, sloughing off dead surface cells and promoting collagen growth. Consequently, lactic acid often works well as a wrinkle and line reducer and helps to even out skin tone and diminish acne scars.

Pure+Simple Lactic Acid Original Exfoliant ($47,

acid skincare retinoic trilogy

Retinoic acid

Retinoic acid is basically a catch-all word for Vitamin A. From minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles to increasing skin’s thickness and elasticity to slowing collagen degradation, you can say retinoids are like the superhero of acids.  Did we mention they can also help reverse sun damage and lighten brown spots caused by sun exposure? Dermatologists often prescribe retinoids, as they are uber-effective in enhancing the skin’s appearance and health.

Trilogy Certified Organic Rosehip Oil ($44,

acid skincare salicylic clean and clear

Salicylic acid

Salicyclic acid falls under BHA, which not only enhances skin exfoliation, but also acts gently as an anti-inflammatory for inflamed skin. Because it penetrates the pore effectively and can help exfoliate inside the pore (targetting blackheads and whiteheads), it is the effective go-to treatment for acne.

Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment ($8,

acid skincare ferulic acid skinceuticals

Ferulic acid

Ferulic acid is a plant-derived antioxidant that helps prevent and treat sun damage and wrinkles, as well as stabilize vitamins C and E in our skin. This is a key acid to look out for when it comes to anti-aging.

SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic ($165,

More Beauty & Grooming