Alpha Hydroxy Acids: Your Skin's AHA Moment

You can find AHAs in a wide range of products from cleansers to night creams. Just what are AHAs anyway? AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid — a class of water-soluble weak acids that has a long history of use and proven skin benefits. Some commonly used in skincare are: glycolic, lactic, malic, citric, mandelic, and tartaric acid. It's one of our "big 4" actives that we swear by. We love AHAs so much, we developed a whole line of booster masks starring our favorite AHAs. So let's take a look at AHAs and what they can do for your skin.

What do AHAs do for me?

AHAs come packed with multiple benefits. At the core of it, they are effective chemical exfoliants that speed up cell turnover, or “desquamation.”

chemist confessions desquamation

Desquama-what? Desquamation is the process of fresh skin cells moving up and old cells shedding. In healthy stratum corneum, cells shed about every 2 to 3 weeks. This crucial process can slow down due to aging, environmental stressors, and dehydration. When it slows, your skin becomes rough, scaly, and dull.

Now it’s AHA to the rescue! AHA loosens up the bond between your stubborn, past-due dead skin cells to help them move on. This translates to skin benefits you can see and feel. First, it provides a quick short term benefit of smoother skin texture. And in the long term, its chemical exfoliation action has proven to be fabulous! It can treat hyperpigmentation (stubborn dark spots), increase collagen production (hello youthful springy skin), and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Convinced to introduce AHAs into your life? Let’s look at how to pick and choose AHA products!

Which AHA is right for me? Consider size, concentration, and pH

AHA size matters

When it comes to choosing AHAs, size matters. In this case, being the runt of the litter is a good thing. That is why glycolic acid is considered the fairest of them all. However, this also means that it has a higher chance of irritating your skin. If glycolic acid is too harsh for your skin, then the slightly larger, more docile cousins, lactic and mandelic acid, may be better alternatives. However, while size matters, it isn’t the only thing that matters. Two other important aspects to consider are pH and concentration.

For AHA products, the lower the pH, the better it works. But of course it shouldn’t just be as low as can be. There’s a balance between good efficacy and hollyyy hell it burnnnnns. For most people, the sweet spot that balances efficacy and irritation falls around pH 3.5.

Concentration is key. AHAs need to be at a pretty high percentage for it to be properly effective. For glycolic and lactic acid, the daily use level should be at least 5%, and preferably 8% to 12%. Since the required use level is so high, products that don’t disclose key acid concentration are NOT worth your money! If you don't want to use AHAs daily, a good way to elevate your skincare routine is to use a high level (~20% to 30%) AHA rinse-off mask or peel for about 15 minutes once a week.


To sum up, AHAs can be your skin’s best friend for a smoother, brighter complexion. It might take a bit of experimenting to find your personal sweet spot. Remember, minor irritation is normal, but the goal is never to get to red, itchy skin. Also, when you incorporate an acid into your routine, your skin can be more sensitive to sun exposure. Make sure you always wear a broad spectrum sunscreen when using AHAs!

How do you AHA? Do you have a favorite one or combo? Let us know!

    1 comment

    I use retin A and when I try to use an exfoliant they often irritate my skin (sometimes quite badly)
    I’d love to incorporate products like these but am not sure how. Maybe I just have to push through the irritation stage as I did with retin a?

    Joanne June 29, 2023

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