We admit. Exfoliating our skin using facial scrubs feels so invigorating. And who doesn’t love that flushed complexion after a thorough polish? Well, you might want to reconsider that sentiment because according to a 2022 Harvard Health Publishing article called About Face, using scrubs on your skin can “irritate the skin and cause more rashes, dryness, or irregular pigmentation“. This is because physical exfoliants, particularly those made from crushed fruit pits, coffee grounds and powdered pumice stone, have been found to have irregular surfaces which causes micro tears on your skin. So that pinkish glow you have on your mien after a seemingly harmless scrubbing session might just be a telltale sign of a broken skin barrier. How can we achieve a bright and smooth complexion safely, then?
Enter alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which many modern dermatologists, aestheticians and skincare experts have highly recommended in place of scrubs and polishes. The thought of applying acids to your face may sound daunting to the uninitiated. But Dr Melvin Tan, medical director and founder of EPION Clinic explains why they’re actually beneficial for us and shares more on the popular skincare ingredient so we can learn how to integrate it into our skincare routine safely.
Mode of action
“AHAs are part of a group of fruit acids that exfoliate the skin. Their main function is to help remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells,” he shares. This action of sloughing off dull skin cells allows younger skin cells to surface, explaining why the complexion appears clearer and fresher after using AHAs. The removal of surface dead skin cells also reduce the chances of developing clogged pores, blemishes and textured skin. “On a deeper level, AHAs stimulate the skin cells to produce more collagen and replenish itself. This is why you will notice improved smoothness and brightness of the skin after a just few days of AHA use.”
He also states that AHAs are beneficial for all skin types, including helping to control excess sebum production in oily skin, and even improving the appearance of wrinkles and pigmentation in more mature skin. But do all AHAs work the same way?
AHAs are not one size fits all
There are many acids that fall into the AHA category, and the most common ones used cosmetically today include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. The main difference between them is their molecular size, and it has been shown that the larger the molecular size, the more gentle the acid is for your skin. “Glycolic acid is a strong chemical exfoliant as it has the smallest molecular size,” Dr Tan reveals. Aside from its exfoliating function, he also shares that glycolic acid’s small molecular size allows the ingredient to reach deep into the skin and stimulate the skin renewal process. This helps with smoothening out fine lines, brightening skin, and also lightening the appearance of pigmentation when used consistently.
“Other commonly used AHAs include lactic and mandelic acids. The former has moisture-locking abilities, making it beneficial for those with drier skin. The latter has a large molecular size, so it’s effective in treating acne for those with sensitive skin.”
Step by step
So, where do AHAs go in our home skincare routine? Dr Tan recommends using this active ingredient after cleansing and toning your skin. “By then, your skin is already clean and prepared to take on this exfoliating step. Any skincare product used after this, be it serums, moisturisers or creams, will penetrate into the skin more effectively as there is no dead skin there to obstruct their absorption,” he shares.
However, Dr Tan cautions mixing or combining different acid products in the same skincare routine. “Sometimes, layering too many active ingredients like vitamin C, retinol and even other AHAs can be too potent for the skin to handle,” he admits.
He also advised that it is best to stick to one active ingredient in one routine. For example, you may use AHAs in your morning routine and then use a retinol in your evening routine. “I also advise my patients to follow exfoliation with hydrating serums and moisturisers that contain hyaluronic acid, collagen and peptides. These help to nourish, repair and strengthen the skin while preventing dryness and irritation. And never forget sunblock.” Of course, always speak to your doctor about which products are most suitable for your skin when you’re in doubt.