Drop some acid: A guide to the newest trend in skincare

Rich creams are giving way to mild but hardworking acids. Don’t be afraid. But don’t be fooled either.
The acids in today’s skincare products are more wonder-tool than weapon, and draw from natural ingredients such as citrus fruit, rice and sugarcane.
The acids in today’s skincare products are more wonder-tool than weapon, and draw from natural ingredients such as citrus fruit, rice and sugarcane.
Updated on Oct 19, 2019 07:10 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

You’re probably putting acids on your face already – you just don’t know it. Vitamin C is an acid. Face packs that call for lemon, other fruit or yoghurt contain acids. On skin, they slough dead skin cells away, unblock pores and reduce wrinkles and fight patches, darkening and scars.

They’re more wonder-tool than weapon. And they’re safer to use than before. Salon-strength formulas (which made skin moult) are being refined for home use. But which ones do what?

THE ACID TEST: What to keep in mind

Acids are powerful. Start with the mildest strength, use once or twice a week, and build up your tolerance over the first year.

Stay away from any product in which combined acid concentrations cross 10%

Don’t mix acids. You’ll end up with flakes, flare-ups and peels as everything ends up exfoliating your skin cells.

Apply acids at night. Apart from Hyaluronic, they all make skin more sensitive to sun damage and tans. Every dermatologist recommends using an SPF of 30 or more in the day as well.

Never start with your forehead – you don’t want anything dripping into your eyes. And if you have cuts or wounds, avoid.

Mild tingling on use is fine. Anything that stings, itches or causes more than 10 minutes of discomfort isn’t.

Darker skin tones should avoid heavy doses of any acid.

Expect results within two weeks for brightness and reduced breakouts. Twelve weeks for a reduction in fine lines.


Alpha Hydroxy acids are a skincare favourite. They’ve helped with glow, fine lines, discolouration and dullness. A closer look:

Lactic: From sour milk; the mildest in the family. Excellent for improving hydration, even in oily skin, and for smoothening out small bumps. Find them in 5% strength creams and serums, often with hyaluronic acid, another moisture-provider.

Hyaluronic: made in a lab. Everyone’s favourite skin plumper and moisturiser – it occurs naturally in skin, but levels decrease with age. Hyaluronic can hold 1,000 times its weight in water. It’s what will fill in your lines, making you look more supple. Find them in moisturisers and gels. They’re a great way to get started on incorporating acids into your skincare.  

Ascorbic;from citrus fruits. The lab-name for Vitamin C, and very popular in skincare. The acid encourages new skin cells to thrive, breaks down dead cells from the surface, making skin look brighter and fighting dark spots. Ascorbic and sunlight aren’t friends. So use it in a light serum or cream at night. And apply sunscreen in the day.


Kojic; from rice and sake. Popular in Asia to lighten sun damage, scars and age spots. Find it in ointments and even in soap. Strength of more than 1-4% can cause redness, irritation, itchiness, rashes or swollen skin.

Glycolic; from sugarcane. The hardworking hero. The smallest of the AHA molecules, it goes deeper and faster into skin than other acids. It makes skin less oily, rebalances levels of good bacteria (so you break out less) and (hurrah for India) fights sun damage. Find it in spot treatments and in a 7% strength in toners. Glycolic’s hard work can irritate sensitive skin.  

Mandelic; from bitter almond, wild cherry. The next big buzzword. The slightly larger molecule is kinder to sensitive and dark skins that scar after breakouts. Mandelic will help clear your skin of dullness and surface breakouts. It also helps with firmness. Think of it as a glycolic, but with fewer side effects.

Malic, Azelaic; from apples, grains. Thes are lesser-known acids. Malic is used in anti-ageing and anti-pigmentation products. Azelaic helps fight acne and redness.They’ll often be in lighter potency products for those with sensitive skin.



In skincare, there’s only one Beta Hydroxy Acid, but it’s powerful. 

Salicylic; from willow bark. It helps decongest oily skin of surface debris, clearing pores of bacteria and shrinking spots.Stronger doses are also used to peel away warts and calluses. So use sparingly and cautiously.


A new generation of Poly Hydroxy Acids are gentler on the exfoliating and more robust with moisturising, so they work better on dry skins and those afraid of mild skin peels.

Lactobionic; from milk sugars. An exfoliator for sensitive skins, it also attracts and retains moisture. Best as a toner, so you can add moisturiser after if you’re still dry.

Gluconolactone; from corn. Apart from the usual cell renewing tasks, this one also offers mild protection from UV radiation.Try it as a mild cleanser that won’t strip skin of moisture.

(With input from Dr Anupama Sreshta, dermatologist and consulting cosmetic aesthetician)


    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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