In recent years, exfoliating acids have become extremely common in most skincare routines.
This isn't surprising when you consider the results - they can remove built up dead skin and penetrate into the pores at the same time, resurfacing the skin and leaving a smoother, more youthful complexion.
However, there is a lot of negative information out there too - mostly around the fact these products are acidic and could potentially cause negative results too.
But how true is that? Are AHA serums something you should be cautious about using, or an absolute must have?
In this post we'll break down the myths and let you know, but first, for those who've never used an AHA serum before, the basics:
What is an AHA Serum?
AHA is an abbreviation for Alpha Hydroxy Acid.
AHA is a type of acid that is water soluble. This is key because it means they are unable to penetrate through our skin's natural protective oils. This allows them to exfoliate and remove dirt and dead skin cells without damaging the skin.
This means they can even help with things like reducing scarring and pigmentation.
As mentioned above, there has been some advice posted online suggesting that overuse of AHA serums can cause damage to the skin due to the higher acidity causing irritation or negatively impacting the skin's protective layer.
There are all sorts of other warnings too, such as "don't use it if you have sensitive skin" or "don't use them in the long term".
It can all be a bit of a minefield to understand, which is why we've put together this mythbusting guide to AHAs.
Here are some of the most common claims about AHAs, and a no nonsense explanation of how true (or not ) they are. We hope this can become a one-stop resource that will answer all of your questions about AHAs and help you to get the most out of them!
Myth #1: "If Your Skin Doesn't Peel, It Isn't Real"
When acid based exfoliants first began to be used, they caused visible skin shedding. This led to an expectation that if there was no visible skin peeling, the acid wasn't strong enough to really work. This is completely false and more recent acid exfoliants dissolve the connective tissue between skin cells - removing dead skin cells, sweat and grime from pores without making any visible difference to the skin cells themselves.
There is still a lot of nasty stuff being removed - but it's completely invisible, and there is no reason a good quality AHA serum should be removing any skin.
Myth #2: "It has to be the Perfect Acidity"
Of course, different products containing different acids in different amounts can have dramatically different ph levels. Get a product that is too acidic and you'll potentially irritate or burn your skin, causing dryness and making things worse than before. Get a product that isn't acidic enough, and nothing is going to happen. Chemists say the ideal ph is between 3 and 4, but this doesn't mean much when products don't display their ph level on packaging. The only real answer to this is to stick to a high quality AHA serum. For years now, the majority of reputable brands have made AHA serums with an effective ph level. You should feel a very light burning sensation but not experience anything close to pain or discomfort. You should also see noticeable results immediately after use. In other words, an AHA serum does need to be the perfect acidity level - however, all highly regarded serums are and this isn't something you should have to worry about.
Myth #3: "People with Sensitive Skin Shouldn't Use Them!"
Given that AHA serums are acidic, it has been proposed that they can cause severe irritation for people with sensitive skin and therefore should be avoided. However, acids don't work by kickstarting inflammation in the skin (like retinoids) and they don't work by physically damaging the skin, either (like scrubs).
As always with brand new products, you should slowly ramp up your usage to be sure you aren't irritated by the product or allergic to one of it's ingredients - but in general, AHA serum does not directly damage the skin cells and this is not an issue at all.
Myth #4: "All Acids used in Serums are the Same"
From salicylic acid to glycolic acid, there are many different acids used in exfoliating acid serums. Many people will claim that the ph level is all that matters and these different ingredients don't make a difference. This is incorrect, and the reason is molecule size. The smaller the molecule of a substance is, the more easily it can absorb into the skin via the gap between skin cells. The reason glycolic acid is the most commonly used is because it's the smallest, and therefore provides the best results.
Put simply, it works. Glycolic acid also has other benefits over other acids including the ability to improve the structure of your skin, thicken the protective layer and even out your skin tone. While other acids can provide great results too, there is a clear difference.
Myth #5: "Acids Can Remove or Reduce Wrinkles"
Unfortunately, this one isn't true. That isn't to say that AHA serums don't hold any benefits for anti-aging - they do. We already discussed that they can help protect the skin and even out tones. They can even minimize fine lines, reduce crow's feet. In your 20s and 30s, they may well help to keep you wrinkle free and looking young. But when you get into your 40s and 50s and start to get deeper wrinkles, an acid exfoliant isn't going to remove those. Only laser procedures or fillers can achieve this. AHA serums can therefore prevent wrinkles and improve the appearance of small wrinkles and fine lines, but they are unlikely to do anything to remove established ones.
Myth #6: "AHA Serums only Work for the Face"
This one isn't so much a commonly spread myth, and is more something that is often assumed. You could be forgiven for thinking that these serums can only benefit the skin on your face.
This isn't the case at all, though - they provide the same results everywhere, and are a great way to clean up acne on the chest, neck, back etc. In fact, this is highly recommended, as simply trying to pop the zits or scrub the bumps away is likely to irritate them and exacerbate the situation.
How to Use AHA Serums Effectively
We hope the simple breakdown of the above myths has helped you to understand the pros and cons of AHA serums a little more clearly.
If you're planning on using one for the first time, there are a few things to keep in mind. The primary one is to take your time and don't rush. Although AHA serums are mostly harmless and unlikely to damage your skin, any skincare product holds the potential for irritation or allergic reactions. With that in mind, start slow by trying the product on a sensitive skin area such as your wrist and then use smaller amounts for a few days and slowly work your way up.
It's also crucial to read the instructions - while we have made it clear that acidic exfoliators generally do not damage your skin or breakthrough the protective oil layers, it goes without saying that this can change if you're using way too much, or leaving it on for way too long.
We would also recommend using an SPF product at all times, especially if in a hot country or spending a lot of time outdoors. The combination of intense sunlight and acidic skincare products could potentially burn or dry out your skin.
To learn more, take a look at our uniquely blended AHA serum, which is 100% cruelty free and thoughtfully formulated from the highest quality of ingredients, and don't forget to stick to the Luminositie blog for more tips!