Acid-based exfoliants have been creating quite a buzz in the beauty world for a while now, including AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids). AHAs are a miracle product for many people who have dry or sun damaged skin. While many skincare products include AHAs, only those with an acidic pH between 3 and 4 are strong enough to act as exfoliants.
These products are designed to remain on the skin without being washed off like cleansers or face masks, otherwise the AHA wouldn’t have enough time to properly exfoliate your skin and give it all the possible benefits.
AHAs are a group of acids with a similar structure, such as lactic acid, malic acid and tartaric acid. However, the most widely researched and used acid in this group is glycolic acid. AHAs can be derived from various plants and milk, but almost all AHAs used in cosmetics are synthetically derived as it’s quicker, cheaper and easier.
AHA exfoliants with a high pH level are able to lift and weaken the dead skin cells from the healthy layer of skin underneath by dissolving the substance that binds them to the skin. This gives you a healthy glow and more even-looking skin.
Diving into the world of acid-based exfoliants can be a daunting and never ending task, which is why we’ve constructed a list of our top five favorite AHA exfoliants, along with a handy buyers guide and some answers to the most commonly asked questions.
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Why is it our top pick?
Whether you’re just getting into skincare or you’ve become an experienced product tester, not everyone has enough time to peruse a whole article to compare the best products.
If you’re just about to rush out the door and need a quick fix, we suggest the Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHA) Serum by Luminositie is the best AHA exfoliator because:
Luminositie believes in low prices, natural ingredients and all of their products are cruelty free.
Glycolic acid has been used in skincare for years so there’s loads of research online that you can read before putting it on your delicate skin.
Gentle enough to be used daily.
Best AHA Exfoliators - Comparison Table
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Best AHA Exfoliators - Reviews
Luminositie has created this AHA serum to deeply exfoliate the skin to give you a brighter complexion, reduce blackhead and acne scars, and to promote cell turnover to fight signs of aging. This exfoliant’s main component is Glycolic acid which has been extensively researched and tested and its benefits are widely known and proven.
Luminositie’s formula is incredibly gentle on your skin and won’t cause any irritation like some lesser quality AHAs have been known to cause. You won’t be left with any annoying tacky or sticky residue on your skin after using as it’s quickly absorbed so it can get to work straight away.
Not only will this AHA remove dead skin cells from your face, it’ll also promote collagen production, keeping your face looking younger for longer. It also includes anti-inflammatory properties which promote blood flow to your skin, giving your pale, dull complexion a new lease of life. Prolonged use of this serum will help to reduce discoloration or hyperpigmentation.
What’s more is that this product will actually help your other products work more efficiently as they’ll be able to soak into your skin deeper.
Luminositie are a 100% cruelty free brand who have created their AHA exfoliator by using as many natural ingredients as possible whilst keeping the price low. This is such a new product that there are no customer reviews, but take it from us - it’s the best AHA exfoliator.
Beginners into the world of AHA exfoliants who don’t know how much their skin can take may want to dip their toes in the water with a gentle product like DERMA E Overnight Peel. This product uses 5% glycolic acid as well as lower amounts of lactic and malic acids, making this the only product on our list that dares to mix AHAs.
The pH level is 3.5, making it amazing for breaking down dead layers of old skin so the fresh layer can shine through. The ingredients also include a mix of emollient ingredients such as jojoba oil, glycerin and stearic acid, which is known for soothing and moisturizing dry skin.
Vitamin C also features in this formula to rejuvenate your skin to create a brighter and more youthful appearance. Prolonged use also helps skin feel firmer and more elastic, reducing the look of aging.
DERMA E has made this exfoliant to be 100% vegan and free of parabens, sulphates, mineral oils, lanolin and gluten. They’re also cruelty free so you don’t need to feel guilty buying this quality product.
Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant is a lightweight product that gently lifts away dead skin cells to uncover an even complexion with a better texture of your skin’s surface. It also smooths the appearance of wrinkles and improves signs of sun damage.
The main ingredient is glycolic acid which is considered a gold standard AHA which works to shed the dull surface layer of your skin and gives your skin a noticeable glow. Chamomile and green tea work within the formula to soothe your skin, protect your skin from environmental factors and help fight premature aging.
Finally, hyaluronic acid helps retain moisture to improve your skin’s firmness and instantly plumps your skin up to keep it looking refreshed.
Paula’s Choice recommends applying once every other day to ensure your skin doesn’t have a delayed reaction, and then move up to using it twice daily.
Using such a high percentage of AHA can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage so make sure to use SPF 30 or higher if using this product in the morning.
For beginners who may find the popular glycolic acid a tad too irritating, lactic acid is an excellent AHA alternative. With a pH of 3.6-3.8, this milder formula also includes the superior skin-replenishing antioxidant hyaluronic acid to give you a gentler exfoliation.
It also includes an extract of purified Tasmanian Pepperberry, known to reduce signs of inflammation and sensitivity that often comes with chemical exfoliants. This plant's origin affects the color which may tweak the color of the AHA from time to time, giving this magical exfoliant a magical look. Glycerin is also added within the formula which is known best for restoring the skin.
This product is able to be used by people who have lactose intolerance and most skin types, however with every AHA there is a risk of irritation. The Ordinary offer a milder version with only 5% of lactic acid for more sensitive skins.
You can also dilute it with other treatments to reduce the strength until your skin builds up a tolerance. It’s also advised that you only use it in the evening as it’ll make your skin more sensitive to the sun which may cause sun damage. Make sure you use SPF if using this product in the morning.
Alpha Skin Care has created their Essential Renewal Gel primarily for their anti-aging formula, however the 10% glycolic acid included makes it a great AHA exfoliator. The pH level is 4, giving it the optimal balance for an effective exfoliator.
Glycolic acid is derived from natural sugar cane which also encourages collagen production, giving your skin a plump and youthful look which reduces fine lines and wrinkles. The powerful 10% AHA works tirelessly to remove the dead skin cells built up on your face to unmask the radiant layer underneath.
After just one use you’ll notice a smoother, fresher feel to your skin, and over time you’ll notice an everlasting glow and more even skin tone. This’ll help your skin be clear of breakouts, which is what everyone is looking for with their skincare.
Alpha Skin Care prides itself on their decade long research for their formula. They make sure their products are full of essential and natural ingredients with clinically proven results.
The impressive ingredients list also includes Vitamin B5 and anti-aging green tea extract. This lightweight gel is suitable for all skin types, from super oily to super dry (dry skin may need a little pick me up with moisturizer afterwards, though).
Best AHA Exfoliators - Buyers Guide
AHAs are a group of natural and synthetic ingredients that can exfoliate the old, dead layer of skin to reveal the fresher, refined layer. There are multiple different AHA types which can work better for different skin types.
Out of all the AHAs, glycolic acid is considered the gold standard because it’s the most researched and has the best track record for noticeable and impressive results. This will work for all ages and skin types, making it incredibly versatile. This acid penetrates the uppermost layers of skin and naturally hydrates the skin, teaching it to become better at retaining its natural moisture. Glycolic acid concentrations higher than 5% can enhance the skin’s look of firmness and resilience, reducing the signs of aging as well as softening the signs of sun damage.
Lactic acid can do everything glycolic acid can do, just slower. This is because the molecules are slightly larger which slightly lessens its ability to penetrate the skin. Lactic acid with concentrations between 5 and 10% are considered the best for exfoliating.
This AHA can be derived from apples or produced synthetically. Malic acid is larger than both the former acids, but it’s still able to exfoliate and also delivers excellent antioxidant benefits. This is typically not used alone as it’s not as effective as glycolic or lactic acid, but using a 1 or 2% concentration along with other acids gives an excellent multi-level exfoliation.
This acid comes from various citrus fruits and is less used because you’ll need a higher concentration (10% and up) to get a decent exfoliation because the pH level is only around 2.2. Low amounts of citric acid can be used well as an antioxidant, so it’s a good addition to be used alongside other AHAs.
Tartaric acid is naturally found in grapes and is another size up from malic acid and nearly twice as large as glycolic acid. Although this can be used to exfoliate your skin, it functions best in helping to maintain the pH range in products so that other AHAs can work their magic effectively. Often the best formulas will include different sizes of AHAs to create a layered product full of benefits.
Derived from almonds, mandelic is one of the lesser known AHAs. Nonetheless, this is a great exfoliator which has the ability to reduce sebum production without drying up the skin. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that can calm irritated breakouts and help reduce hyperpigmentation.
There are many skin types out there which will benefit from different AHAs the most. Glycolic acid can be used for all skin types and concerns, especially blocked pores and uneven textures. Lactic acid is best for sensitive, dry and mature skin types thanks to the fact that it’s slightly less harsh than glycolic acid. Mandelic acid is also good for sensitive skin users who suffer from acne. Tartaric acid can be used for most skin types, particularly the ones that are lacking radiance. Finally malic acid is best suited for sensitive and mature skin types.
All of these are just suggestions and the type suggested for your skin type may not suit you, so you may have to do some more research and experimenting until you find your new must-have exfoliator.
The strength of AHAs vary from weak to super strong. An exfoliator should be no less than 5% in concentration which can cause the skin to tingle whilst the acid is working its magic. The higher the percentage, the better the exfoliation results. However, this can sometimes cause people with sensitive skin to break out in rashes or react badly to the exfoliator, so it’s worth thinking realistically about what your skin can take. Most brands also suggest that you start slow and work your way up to more uses as this allows your skin to build up a resilience to the acid. Make sure you follow the instructions and don’t go too overboard too quickly.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the strongest AHA?
Glycolic acid is considered the ultra strong AHA that can exfoliate just about anyone’s skin thanks to the size of its molecules being perfect to wiggle their way under the dead skin cells and loosen them up. You can get formulas which use up to 30% glycolic acid, however this is considered ‘high normal’ and can cause a lot of irritation to your face. These should be used after extensive research has been done, as well as a patch test and moisturizer should be applied afterwards. Percentages higher than 15% should not be used daily.
Can you use Vitamin C with AHA?
Vitamin C can have exfoliating effects on your skin which is why it’s generally advised that you don’t mix the two. Along with AHAs, Vitamin C can cause more irritation on top of already weakened skin. However, you can get some AHAs where citric acid is used within them so you can reap the similar benefits of Vitamin C while preventing the added irritation. Having said this, you can use your Vitamin C serum at a different time of the day once your AHA has soaked in and your skin has returned to normal. For example, you could use your AHA in the morning and your Vitamin C in the night, or vice versa.