Which Acid is Right For Your Skin?

Acids. They sound terrifying, but rest assured, these potent ingredients can be the most important part of your skin-care routine. That is, as long as you know your ferulic from your salicylic. Indeed, all acids are not created equal, which is why it's worth it to learn the real deal on each one and, in turn, avoid unnecessary reactions (not to mention, never shell out big bucks for a product that's totally wrong for your skin type ever again).

The docs set us straight on which acids will brighten us up, zap our acne, and generally leave our mugs as smooth as a baby's behind. Here’s the ABCs of AHAs and BHA and their primary skin benefits to help you navigate the beauty counters like a pro.

(+)1. AHAs
AKA “Alpha Hydroxy Acids”, AHAs are what you can consider the Goo-Gone of dead skin debris. The weak bonds that keep that layer of dead skin on your hide are essentially dissolved with AHAs so your skin can let go of the dead stuff and let the new skin cells surface. AHAs are great chemical exfoliants for people with dry and sensitive skin, since they can help remove dead skin in the gentlest way possible that doesn’t involve manually buffing them off (which harms the new skin underneath too).

AHAs also have humectant properties, meaning they hold moisture to your skin. Aside from daily skin-clearing, over time AHA use helps to thicken the epidermis and increase collagen production—all of which is excellent for repairing photo-damaged skin as well as protecting it from future UV damage. Extra collagen means firmer plumper skin. So as far as anti-aging concerns go, you’ve got two birds with one stone. The caveat is that AHAs do cause photosensitivity so they should be used at night only and you should always wear a broad spectrum sunscreen during the day (but you were already doing that, right?).

The most common AHAs are Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, and Mandelic Acid. Keep in mind that these are strong substances and should be used in very small percentages. Not sure which ones to use? Here’s a tiny tip sheet:

Glycolic Acid
Best For: Anti-aging, brightening, oily skin
This all-time favourite alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) loosens the ‘glue’ between dead skin cells to lift dull surface skin, promotes a healthy 28-day skin turnover and boosts collagen synthesis. All that simply translates into less lines and a clearer, younger-looking skin. Glycolic acid at higher concentrations reduces oiliness and improves acne on top of peeling a few years off your face.

Try: Sloane Inc Sleeping Peel. It has slow-release AHAs to promote healthy cellular turnover and unveil a fine luminosity. It works its magic in your slumber and get your face glowing and enviably smooth in the morning. Use regularly to banish blemishes and boost collagen replenishment.

Lactic Acid
Best For: Radiance and hydration
This is a milk-derived acid which happens to be great for addressing redness issues like roseacea and sensitive skin in general. It is also a humectant so it won’t over-dry your skin as it helps slough off that top layer.

Try Ren's Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask: An instant complexion-perfecting mask that brightens and renews skintone and texture, minimizes pores, diminishes hyperpigmentation, and reduces the appearance of fine lines in as little as 10 minutes.

Mandelic Acid
Best For: Acne, brown spots and sun damage in sensitive skin; rosacea
This one is great for acne-prone skin because of its anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. It has the largest molecular size of these AHAs which just means that it works over a longer time period, but is also the least irritating. The upside of this is better tolerance by sensitive skin. In fact, it has been used to alleviate chronic skin redness and blotchiness. Mandelic acid also possesses antibacterial effects on acneic skin.

Try Dr Wu's Intensive Renewal Serum. It contains Mandelic Acid 18%, which is used in Chemical Peeling procedures, to effectively diminish the appearance of fine lines and stimulate the skin desquamation process to achieve a smoother and brighter skin, even improves skin tone by resurfacing epidermis and removing aged layers.

(+)2. BHAs
They may be Beta Hydroxy Acids, but make no mistake–these acids are no wimps. They are however your secondary selection if AHAs just aren’t tough enough for your skin. BHAs are generally encouraged for oily and acne-prone skin since they are oil soluble (while AHAs are water soluble), making them perfect for treating blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. Rather than just loosen the bonds that hold debris to your skin, they actively penetrate your pores and remove whatever gunk is in there.

Cosmetically, BHAs almost always refer to salicylic acid—something you’ve no doubt seen on almost any acne treatment. 

Salicylic acid is a derivative of aspirin—a known anti-inflammatory—which makes it great for relieving your skin of any inflammation (but also not great if you have aspirin allergies—sorry). It’s also commonly found in dandruff treatments since it’s can calm irritation on your scalp as well as sloughing away the dead skin that’s flaking.

One of the better benefits of BHAs are that in clearing your pores of any gunk, whatever treatments you then put on top of your newly cleaned skin can absorb properly. So, anti-aging serums? Brightening agents? All good to go 100% once your canvas is cleared. BHAs themselves give you similar skin benefits to AHAs, like helping increase the thickness of skin, as well as collagen production, and improves wrinkles, roughness and hyperpigmentation. They don’t possess humectant qualities however and can dry out your skin, so this is why it’s not generally recommended for those with dry skin.

Sloane Inc Clarity Water: Launch a counter-attack against acne-causing bacteria with this oil-free concentrate to keep burgeoning blemishes at bay and troubled redness-prone skin calm and balanced. Boasting a beautifying blend of AHAs and BHAs as well, it removes residual impurities and dead skin cells for a refreshed feeling and healthy-looking glow. 

How to use them?
Unless you’re a skin care layering pro, it can be confusing as to where these magic skin potions go in your skin care sandwich. They should be applied on clean skin so there’s no extra stuff to have to fight through to get down to business— so after cleansing and toning but before serums and moisturizers. And please don’t forget sunscreen as your last step!


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The Skin Radar is an online avenue which documents my tumbling thoughts, ideas and musings from my daily life, mainly based on skincare and beauty. It is designed to take the clutter out of beauty journalism to provide trustworthy and objective insights, new finds and sneak peaks- all in a beautiful and clean platform.

I test all products & treatments with age and skin colour in mind, break down the latest health fads, and source for expert opinions from international skincare leaders. All in all, my goal is to make sure that I am on top of every beauty innovation and skincare trend the world has to offer.