Everything Brides Need to Know About Facial Acids

The 411, from hyaluronic to salicylic

Updated 12/12/18
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Photo by Forged in the North

Before we start talking about acids you should put on your face or chemical exfoliation, let's make one thing clear: Using these facial acids will not result in a skin-graft, beef carpaccio–esque complexion à la Samantha Jones after her chemical peel. (Yes, I'm still haunted by that image.) OK, most of the acids we'll cover are meant to slough off the dead surface skin and reveal new, brighter skin, the formulations are much gentler and meant to be used on a daily, or weekly basis, both for immediate results and preventative care. No chemical burns in sight!

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get down to the nitty gritty details concerning facial acids. Step one: Why should you be using them? For starters, acids are the answer to antiaging in the sense that they help keep your skin from sagging, smooth and prevent fine lines and wrinkles, help tighten and plump your skin, and help reverse and protect from environmental damage. Cool, right?

(Editor's note: We here at BRIDES don't love the term "antiaging"—women, let's embrace our natural beauty at any age and remember you don't need crazy procedures etc. to be beautiful! But beyond their ability to help you hold on to a youthful glow, acids are just good for the health of your skin, which is something we can all get behind.)

Step two: How do facial acids work? To understand acids, one must first understand the difference between the two big categories—alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. The most significant difference between the two? AHAs are water-soluble and work on the skin's surface, while BHAs are oil-soluble and work both on the skin's surface and in the pores—AHAs are generally used by people with dryer skin with some sun damage, and BHAs (most notably, salicylic acid) are great for oily, acne-prone skin. Both are used to break the bonds of dead skin from your face, clearing the way for more radiant skin to appear. The skin naturally sheds the dull particles to leave smoother, healthy skin cells—the hydroxy acids do everything from smoothing wrinkles to improving skin's elasticity, and hydrating to brightening. Some even promote collagen and elastin production.

Beyond AHAs and BHAs, a number of other acids have more targeted effects. Take hyaluronic acid, for example. It's a powerful humectant—it isn't used for exfoliation, rather, it's one of dermatologists' number-one resources for hydrating dry and dull skin. Here, we'll outline all the most popular and effective facial acids and chemical exfoliants, along with some lesser-knowns that might be just the thing to get your skin that bridal glow you've been searching for.

Some things to keep in mind:

It's imperative that you wear SPF after incorporating acids into your beauty regimen, as they make you more prone to burning.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn't be using acids (scroll down to the end of this article for a list of non-harmful enzyme peels you can swap for instead).

Everyone's skin is different, and everyone will react differently to different strengths and types of acids. Always do a spot test before applying to your entire face and work your way up to a daily routine. Some people's skin may only be able to handle exfoliation a few times a week, while others can use facial acids twice a day. If you see redness or flaking, talk to your dermatologist about the products you're using. With that in mind, some acids (like retinoids) might cause mild irritation at first while the skin is acclimating. This is not a regimen to begin one week out from your wedding! Begin testing acids at least four months before the big day to ensure good reactions.

  • Talk to your dermatologist before combining different types of acids, as some do not work well in conjunction with others.
  • Read on to find out which acid is right for you! Happy exfoliating!

    Glycolic Acid (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

    All hail glycolic acid, the conquerer of oily skin and queen of all AHAs. It is possibly the most popular (it's in almost every chemical peel/exfoliant on the market), and there is a ton of research to back up its efficacy. Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane and is a super small molecule, meaning it can penetrate deep into the skin's surface with ease, but is less abrasive than any scrub. Because it can penetrate so deeply, glycolic acid also speeds collagen production (an essential ingredient for keeping skin elastic) better than any other AHA. It's a hero when it comes to antiaging and can be essential for people with acne-prone skin (though it works well with any skin type. Use glycolic acid to lighten skin spots, smooth skin texture, and increase brightness. Glycolic acid works particularly well for people with dry skin—it increases levels of hyaluronic acid in the skin (more on that later) and draws moisture into the skin. Start out with a low level of glycolic acid and see how your skin reacts.

    Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

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    Peter Thomas Roth 10% Glycolic Solutions Moisturizer

    SHOP NOW: Nordstrom, was $45, now $38.25

    Lactic Acid (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

    Cleopatra was said to have bathed in sour milk to keep her skin glowing. Lactic acid (which most often is derived from milk) is another icon in the AHA sphere, but unlike many others in the category, this ingredient has the special power to both exfoliate and hydrate at once. A tad milder than glycolic acid (the molecule is larger), lactic acid can be a lifesaver for those whose skin is already on the clearer side (it's not as effective at clearing acne as glycolic and salicylic), and who want an instant brightener (overnight results are its claim to fame) and help with fine-line prevention. Lactic acid is perfect for getting baby-soft skin and that "lit-from-within" glow that comes with even tone.

    Sunday Riley Good Genes

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    Joanna Vargas Exfoliating Mask

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    Malic Acid (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

    An all-natural ingredient derived from apples, malic acid is one of the weakest of the AHA group. It doesn't have the same exfoliating properties as glycolic or lactic, but it does have the lovely ability to enhance the efficacy of other AHAs (see below products for how it's used in conjunction with other AHAs). How does it do that, you ask? It makes the pH of other products become more acidic, and helps to open up the pores and clear out built up sebum. It's most useful if you're looking for brightness and help with hyperpigmentation above all else, rather than smoothing fine lines or breakouts. Fun fact: Malic acid is also sometimes used in dental products to kill off harmful mouth bacteria.

    Tracie Martyn Enzyme Exfoliant

    SHOP NOW: Dermstore, $90

    Herbivore Botanicals Prism Natural Fruit Acid 5% Exfoliating Glow Potion

    SHOP NOW: Credo Beauty, $62

    Mandelic Acid (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

    Acne-prone people: Perk up your ears! Derived from bitter almonds and wild cherries, mandelic acid is super antibacterial and thus works great for people who suffer from both cystic acne and blackheads, especially when used in conjunction with salicylic acid. Mandelic is also great for people of darker skin tones—it doesn’t lighten pigmentation like other AHAs. Smoothing of fine lines and an increase in tightness and elasticity are other benefits of mandelic acid.

    Philosophy Microdelivery Triple-Acid Brightening Peel Pads

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    The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

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    Citric Acid (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

    Because citric acid is quite mild, it often gets mixed into multi-acid formulations like the ones below. It's derived from citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits (surprised?), so it's one of the better-smelling AHAs. Its claim to fame: its antimicrobial prowess—it's great for people living in big (AKA dirty) cities who need an extra punch of cleansing and antibacterial punch. It has also been shown to help increase skin thickness, helping to protect the skin from sun damage.

    Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum

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    Farmacy Beauty Honeymoon Glow

    SHOP NOW: Sephora, $58

    Salicylic Acid (Beta Hydroxy Acid)

    Now that we've made our way through the AHAs, it's time for salicylic acid's moment in the sun. Probably the best-known acid, salicylic is famed for its ability to clear up acne of all kinds (you probably had some form of it prescribed in high school). Salicylic acid is a BHA, meaning it's oil-soluble and can penetrate much deeper than AHAs. The molecules are able to go all the way to the root of your pores and, thus deliver all the benefits to the source of the problem. Therefore, salicylic acid is ideal for people who have any kind of breakout, from cystic, to blackheads, to the occasional blemish—it can be applied in a variety of different forms, ranging from a spot treatment to daily cleanser. It's also related to Aspirin, so it can be used as an immediate anti-inflammatory.

    Glossier Solution

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    Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid

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    Hyaluronic Acid

    You've probably heard beauty editors the world 'round extolling the virtues of hyaluronic acid and it's magic ability to revive even the most dry skin. That's because hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it draws water in from the atmosphere and the surface of your skin (can absorb up to 1,000 times its own weight in water) and then retains it. It's also naturally occurring in the body—it's a structural element of skin itself and can be found in places like the eyes and joints. That being said, it can also draw moisture out of the skin if the skin's surface or the environment is very dry—so, always make sure to heavily spritz your face with either water or an essence (like, seriously wet), and then pat on your serum or moisturizer. If applied correctly, hyaluronic acid is everything it's cracked up to be—it plumps, strengthens the barrier of the skin, boosts radiance and smoothness, helps the skin rebuild itself, and hydrates without clogging pores.

    Dr. Barbara Sturm Hyaluronic Serum

    SHOP NOW: Nordstrom, $300

    Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Serum

    SHOP NOW: Nordstrom, was $65, now $55.25

    L-ascorbic Acid

    L-ascorbic acid = vitamin C (in water-soluble form). This is a tricky one—ascorbic acid can be very unstable in certain conditions, like exposure to water and oxygen, so only use a product that has a pump, apply to dry skin, and be wary of shelf life (it will expire). Vitamin C is an incredibly powerful antioxidant, and is very effective in protecting the skin from free radicals. It has also been lauded for its brightening properties and ability to keep the complexion fresh all day. An alternative to L-ascorbic acid that is much more stable is the fat-soluble vitamin C ester, meaning its efficacy lasts much longer. While L-ascorbic acid can't penetrate the surface of the skin, vitamin C ester bonds L-ascorbic acid with a fat-soluble carrier oil, allowing it to sink into the skin more deeply. Both are effective at promoting radiance—vitamin C ester just may have more long-lasting cell-healing results.

    Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Brightening Amine Face Lift

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    Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum

    SHOP NOW: Sephora, $80

    Retinoic Acid

    Retinoic acid can often be a tricky concept to understand, so let's break it down. A vitamin A derivitive, retinoic acid is found in two forms: Prescription retinoids (Retin-A, Renova and Atralin) contain the active ingredient itself, while OTC products (like those below) contain either retinol, tretinoin, or retinaldehyde, all of which are converted into retinoic acid when they come in contact with your skin. When applied to the skin, retinoids put your cells into overdrive—dead skin is sloughed off, cell turnover increases, and radiant new skin comes to the surface. Even better—the new cell turnover also stimulates collagen production. Seriously—there's a reason why retinoids have been praised as the fountain of youth by dermatologists since the '50s. So what do the results look like? For starters, it clears up and prevents breakouts, diminishes fine lines, wards off free radicals, and even helps prevent skin cancer. The catch: Retinoids take some getting used to, and those with sensitive skin may need to be prepared for an adjustment period. Ease into them and consult your dermatologist—trust us, you won't regret adding retinol to your regimen.

    SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.5

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    Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil

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    Ferulic Acid

    Another fun acid found in the natural world: ferulic. A powerful antioxidant found in the cell walls of rice, oats, apple and orange seeds, it protects skin just like it protects the plants. It creates a barrier against free radicals and UV rays, slowing down the aging process and helping to speed up skin regeneration. Fun fact: Ferulic acid works to enhance the stability and efficacy of vitamins C and E for a major dose of antioxidants.

    Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution

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    SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum

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    Alpha Lipoic Acid

    According to Nicholas Perricone, M.D., alpha lipoic acid is often called the universal antioxidant for its antiaging and anti-inflammatory properties. Because it is both fat- and water-soluble, ALA can be quickly absorbed through the lipid laters of the skin, as well as becoming a free radical barrier within the skin cells themselves. When used topically, ALA reduces swelling, puffiness, redness, and blotchiness, resulting in an even skin tone. ALA also shrinks pores and smooths out fine lines and wrinkles. A big draw of this acid: It regulates the production of nitric oxide, which controls blood flow to the skin, meaning your complexion will go from dull to glowing.

    Furthermore, a study published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics suggests that women going through menopause experience skin that is thin and wrinkled; the data went on to support the concept that antioxidants such as ALA help to prevent antioxidant deficiency—i.e. improving the health and elasticity of skin even beyond menopause. Three cheers for ALA!

    Perricone MD High Potency Classics: Face Firming Serum

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    Fruit Enzymes

    While we love acids for both their exfoliating and healing properties, enzymes can also be used for the same purposes. Enzymes are naturally derived from many everyday fruits—think papaya, pumpkin, and figs. The active ingredients break up and dissolve dead surface skin, plus, they are nonabrasive, meaning they work great for people with very sensitive skin. And since women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not be using acids, enzymes are a great alternative. If you're looking for something a bit more gentle than the acids listed above, or just like the idea of using fruit to reveal your inner brightness, enzymes could be your holy grail!

    AMOREPACIFIC Treatment Enzyme Peel

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    Elemis Papaya Enzyme Peel

    SHOP NOW: Nordstrom, was $45, now $38.25

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