6 Things You Need to Know Before Using Hydroxy Acids on Your Skin

Have you ever bought a serum or skin cream just because the packaging looked aesthetic, or your favorite blogger recommended it? You’re not alone. Many people make the mistake of choosing skincare products without reading the ingredients. 

However, you should care for your skin just like you do for your stomach. For that, it’s essential to learn about common ingredients, such as hydroxy acids

The skincare industry raves about alpha hydroxy acid benefits, therefore, making it a part of different products, ranging from exfoliators to moisturizers. In this guide, we discuss six essential things you must know before purchasing a hydroxy acid-containing skincare product. 

What Are Hydroxy Acids?

Scientifically put, hydroxy acids refer to all compounds that have a hydroxyl and carboxylic group on adjacent carbons. While most hydroxy acids are natural, they could be synthesized for specific purposes too. 

Hydroxy acids are commonly used in the cosmetic industry to reduce wrinkles, soften fine lines, and improve skin texture. In some cases, they may also be used for cosmetic improvement of different conditions, such as ichthyosis and xerosis. 

You’ll find the following seven ingredients in most skincare products, such as toners, chemical peels, and serums: 

  • Malic acid 
  • Lactic acid
  • Tartaric acid 
  • Hydroxycaproic acid 
  • Glycolic acid
  • Citric acid 
  • Hydroxycaprylic acid 

Among these, lactic and glycolic acids are the most well-researched and least likely to result in skin irritation or itching. Thus, they’re more abundantly found in alpha and beta hydroxy acids products. 

How Do Hydroxy Acids Work?

The primary function of hydroxy acids is to exfoliate the skin. During this process, they shed off the dead skin cells while paving the way for cell generation. 

Since the accumulation of dead skins can make the skin look old and dull, exfoliation is a vital part of the skincare routine. Moreover, dead cells can accelerate the development of acne, wrinkles, and age spots. 

Additionally, hydroxy acids also brighten the skin’s complexion and appearance. Products containing hydroxy acids, especially citric acid, help brighten your skin tone, while those with glycolic acid are better at breaking down dead cells. 

A 2015 study also found AHAs to be effective in improving skin texture by softening the fine lines. 90% of the volunteers experienced diminished surface lines in just three weeks of using products containing AHAs. 

Moreover, hydroxy acids help correct discoloration by promoting cell turnover. As you age, the likelihood of age spots and acne scars increases. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, glycolic acid could help against discoloration. 

Side Effects of Hydroxy Acids 

The FDA reports having received 114 instances of adverse effects due to hydroxy acid usage from 1992 to 2004. Some of them include:

  • Itching
  • Pigmentary changes
  • Blisters 
  • Rash or dermatitis 
  • Swelling 
  • Skin peeling 
  • Skin irritation 
  • Increased sunburn 
  • Itching and tenderness
  • Chemical burns 

The highest degree of skin damage or risk seems to be due to skin peelers and other products with powerful exfoliating properties. Furthermore, pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult their related health care professionals before using hydroxy acid skincare products. 

The FDA further reports that side effects have decreased over the year, hinting at an improvement in the product quality. 

Difference Between Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids 

Although they belong to the same class, alpha and beta hydroxy acids have some differences. 

Alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble and come from sugary fruits. They’re intense exfoliators as they help peel off the older skin layer to make way for new skin cells. Plus, they improve pigmentation and make the skin smoother. 

On the other hand, Beta hydroxy acids are oil-soluble. They penetrate the pores and remove dead cells from within. Moreover, they prevent excess sebum accumulation. 

While AHAs are recommended for hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, enlarged pores, and fine lines, BHAs are ideal for sun damage and acne. If you’re wondering how to get clear skin, this is how. 

Hydroxy Acids for Different Skin Types

People with all skin types can use products containing hydroxy acids. A common myth surrounding hydroxy acids is their role in increasing melanin production. 

However, this isn’t true. Hydroxy acids only lead to excess melanin deposition in the skin if overused. Therefore, if you’re overdoing any acid-based product treatment, the ingredients could lead to inflammation, further resulting in melanin deposition. 

People with colored skin should opt for gentler hydroxy acids as they’re less likely to irritate or inflame the skin. For instance, mandelic acid is a large hydroxy acid that lets you experience the benefits of the acid without any inflammation or hyperpigmentation. 

  • Acne-prone skin: Salicylic acid is useful for acne-prone skin since it’s gentle and helps treat blackheads too. 
  • Combination Skin: Glycolic acid is suitable for combination skin, especially in the forehead, nose, and cheeks region. Glycolic acid benefits include brightening dark spots and treating fine lines. 
  • Oily Skin: If you have oily skin, mandelic acid, with its oil-removing properties, will be good for you. 

How Much Hydroxy Acid Is Needed?

As discussed, products with a high hydroxy acid content can lead to side effects, such as burning, blisters, and itching. According to the FDA, you should use products that have less than 5% AHAs

The Cleveland Clinic suggests using products with less than 15% hydroxy acid content. Thus, when you’re buying skin products with hydroxy acids, you should look for the acid’s concentration. 

In most cases, there’s no need to worry as daily use skincare formulations have low hydroxy acid concentrations. Skin toners, moisturizers, creams, and toners are safe for your skin as they mostly contain less than 5% hydroxy acids. 

On the contrary, skin peels and exfoliators might have a high hydroxy acid concentration. So, look out for them and always consult with a professional when using such products. 


With the advancement in the skincare industry, we’re coming across a ton of ingredients that weren’t so popular in the past. Recently, the trend around hydroxy acid usage has also increased even though the ingredient has been around since the 1990s. 

Thus, it’s about time that you learn about hydroxy acids and the role they play in your skincare formulations.

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