Acne Treatments - AHAs

Using alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic acid) for acne |

AHAs to fade acne marks

AHAs as an acne treatment

AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids), such as glycolic and lactic acid, exfoliate the outer part of your skin. Many people get AHAs and BHAs confused, but AHAs exfoliate the surface of your skin while BHAs exfoliate the inside of your skin. Both, however, can be effective treatments for acne.

What do AHAs do?

With consistent use, AHAs are excellent for reducing hyperpigmentation, acne marks, and light wrinkles. Because they are a chemical exfoliant, AHAs help smooth out skin texture, even skin tone, improve acne (for some people), and give skin that "glow."

Glycolic acid seems to be the more readily available AHA on the market. Most products have 10% glycolic acid in them, but there are some with 8% and 14% glycolic acid. Some glycolic acid products are even combined with 2% BHA for a one-two acne punch.

There aren't a whole lot of lactic acid facial products on the market (probably because lactic acid is more expensive), but there are some lactic acid body lotions, such as AmLactin and Lac-Hydrin, which are marketed towards those with keratosis pilaris and ingrown hairs. You can use these lactic acid body lotions on your face if your skin tolerates them, but it would be wise to make sure the inactive ingredients in the products won't clog your pores.

Mandelic acid and even apple cider vinegar are other AHA treatment options. High concentration AHAs (both glycolic and lactic acid) are also the base for many chemical peels. You can learn more about the different chemical peels here.

How to Use AHAs for Acne

AHAs are used as an acne treatment for their exfoliating effects. Exfoliating increases skin cell turnover, which can help prevent your pores from getting clogged and congested. Exfoliating can also bring any pimples you have to a head faster.

Using AHAs as an exfoliant for people with active acne is often better than manually exfoliating because AHAs are less physically abrasive. Friction from manual exfoliation tends to break open active acne, causing tiny skin wounds and spreading bacteria.

AHA acne treatments usually come in toner, gel, or lotion form. They are also available in certain medicated cleansers or body washes. However, to treat acne, it is better to use an acne treatment that stays on your skin longer (like an AHA toner) than one that is only on your skin for a short time before it's washed off (like an AHA cleanser). Although, if you have sensitive skin, an AHA cleanser may more suitable.

To use AHAs for acne, you simply apply the treatment after cleansing but before moisturizing, preferably at night. You can apply a thin layer of the treatment all over your face or concentrate the treatment on your problem areas. Generally, it's best to start slow, especially if you have never used AHAs before. Therefore, instead of using AHAs twice a day every single day, you should use them once every other day and slowly build up your skin's tolerance to the product. Using the smallest amount with infrequent application is the best way to condition your skin to a new treatment product and avoid potential side effects (discussed below). AHAs can also be used to treat both facial acne and body acne.

Like with all acne treatments, AHAs take time to work. How long an AHA acne treatment will take to clear your skin will depend on what's actually causing your acne and your current acne condition. If something internal, like hormones or food sensitivities, is causing you to break out, topical AHA use might alleviate acne symptoms but not prevent acne completely. Similarly, if your skin does respond to an AHA treatment, people with mild acne will see their skin clear up faster than people with moderate/severe acne.

If AHAs will work to clear your skin, you should generally start seeing results (or at least some kind of improvement) after 3-4 weeks of consistent use.

On a side note, I've read recommendations that say to use glycolic acid for three days and then take a day off to let your skin regenerate for better results. But, I have no idea if this works any better than using glycolic acid every single day

Side Effects from Using AHAs

Some people have adverse reactions to AHAs, so be sure to spot test a tiny amount of the product on a small patch of skin (below the ear near the jawline) before slathering it all over your face. Wait for 24-48 hours and see how your skin reacts. If your skin looks normal and feels fine (i.e. it doesn't turn red, itchy, or prickly), then you can proceed to use the product as directed. If you experience an allergic reaction, immediately wash off the product and apply some hydrocortisone cream to soothe any irritation.

Similar to BHAs, some people also "purge" when they first start using AHAs. Purging is when your skin "gets worse before it gets better," but it's often difficult to tell if a product is making you purge or if it's actually breaking you out. Some products can't cause your skin to purge, but AHAs are one acne treatment that can actually make your skin purge because of its active exfoliating effects. However, not all people experience purging from using AHAs, which can make things confusing.

Purging is usually a worsening of current acne areas, so if after using AHAs, you start breaking out in places you normally don't break out or don't have any clogged pores, the AHA is probably breaking you out. Purging usually starts 3-4 days after using a treatment product (usually as tiny whiteheads around the face) and can last anywhere from 2-4 weeks. If, however, your skin continues to break out after 6 weeks, you should switch to a different product.

Aside from purging, AHAs can also make your skin red, flaky, and sensitive. If you have any active acne or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark marks left behind by acne or skin injuries), you might notice that the skin around those marks will start to peel. Red, flaky, and sensitive skin is a very common side effect with AHA use, so do not be alarmed if this happens to your skin. When you experience these side effects, take a break from the AHA and give your skin time to recover completely before using the AHA again. This is also why it's important to use AHAs slowly to build up your skin's tolerance to the treatment and minimize irritation. Keep in mind that this irritation can be more pronounced if you are using AHAs in conjunction with prescription treatments, like retinoids.

AHAs can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so they are best used at night, in conjunction with a good sunscreen (high SPF and PPD) during the day. Because AHAs exfoliate your skin, they make your skin more vulnerable to any UV ray exposure, so it is very important to protect your skin when using AHAs to prevent photodamage.

My Personal Experience with AHAs for Acne

AHAs ultimately did not clear my skin. When I used AHAs consistently, they would sometimes make my skin look better but after awhile, it would feel like the AHAs weren't working for my acne anymore.

My skin did get red and peely when I first started using AHAs. It also stung when I put it on my face, especially over pimples or spots I picked at. My skin also stung a bit when I put on moisturizer for awhile, so I had to cut back on the AHA to give my skin a break. But after my skin got used to the treatment, these side effects subsided. I also purged for about 2-3 weeks, but not any kind of really bad purging. I seemed to get random itty bitty whiteheads all over my face. Other people, however, experience different reactions.

I used really expensive AHAs and really cheap AHAs. Both seemed to work the same on my skin, so my preference is to save money and go with the drugstore AHAs. You still have to make sure the AHA you get is formulated properly and at the right pH, so keep that in mind when you are shopping for AHA treatments.

I also used AHA cleansers and leave-on products like serums, lotions, and toners. My preference is to use an AHA toner or serum instead of a lotion because I like to use a separate, plain moisturizer after I put on the AHA treatment. Lotion formulations may also include inactive ingredients that my clog-prone skin does not like. If I used the AHA too frequently, my skin would get dry and flaky, so it's important to not overdo it with any AHA treatment because no amount of moisturizer seemed to help when my skin got too dry from using too much AHA.

For me, I tend to think of AHAs as a skin conditioner. AHAs were better for fading red marks, evening out skin discolorations, and making my skin soft and smooth than for preventing acne.

Bottom line: When used appropriately, AHAs can help with blackheads, clogged pores, skin texture, and dark marks. They can also help treat current acne symptoms by shortening the life cycle of a pimple on your skin and helping your skin shed and decongest, but AHAs won't prevent acne completely if skin exfoliation issues are not the cause of your breakouts. AHAs as an acne treatment, however, are worth trying since they are affordable and low-risk treatments.

Last updated: May 6, 2013

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