Nov 21, 2014

Clear Skin & Anti-aging : Exfoliation Is Key ( AHAs)

Clear skin and anti-ageing? Yes! To those unaware, AHAs can both help alleviate troubled skin and signs of ageing. 

So what is AHA? 

AHA stands for Alpha-Hydroxy acids. It commonly includes Lactic acid & Glycolic acid but it can also come in the form of Malic acid, Tartaric acid and Citric Acid.

It basically acts as a chemical exfoliant to gently slough away dead skin cells on the skin's surface while stimulating cell turnover. It is even said to stimulate collagen and elasticity of the skin. This can reduce appearances of wrinkles and may even reverse the effects of photo-aging. It is for this reason that AHAs have become a popular ingredient in anti-ageing products.

How does it help breakouts? 

Well, studies have shown that AHA has the ability to reduce acne lesions. (source) However, AHA only works on the surface on the skin, which may not be enough for the breakouts that are ongoing beneath. I mentioned in my post: Clear Skin: Exfoliation is Key (salicylic acid) that BHA has the ability to reach into the pore itself. That is why there are an increasing number of products which have combined both AHA and BHA to reap both benefits. (I like to call them hybrids) I will discuss such products below. 

The types of AHA to consider: 

I will only discuss lactic acid, glycolic acid, malic acid and citric acid because these are the types of AHAs that are more commonly found on the market. Although all belong to the same family of acids, I found them to be quite distinct in their action.

The type of AHA suitable on your skin would definitely depend on your skin's tolerance. Do take note that if you were to use any type of retinol/adapalene regularly, your skin would be less tolerant to the various acids too.

Glycolic acid: 

I personally don't enjoy using too much of glycolic acid. I found it to be the harshest acid out of the four. I don't recommend anyone to start using AHAs with this acid for this reason. Nor would this be suitable for those with sensitive or delicate skin too.

 I can usually tell when a product has glycolic acid because I really do feel the bite. However, I do find that this delivers the most impact in the shortest period of time. 

Lactic acid & Malic acid:

If you're like me, and you plan to include AHAs in your skincare routine in the long term, then you might like lactic acid and malic acid. Albeit gentle, these acids are effective as well. I would say that it took a few months to see the transformation, but the wait was definitely worth it. 

Recently, I've noticed that malic acid have been growing in popularity. You would have probably seen them in apple-related products like apple enzyme peels, apple cleansers and so on. I've talked about my holy grail (HG) / staple/ must-have skincare item : Apple Cider Vinegar here.

Citric acid:
I know that citric acid is considered to be an AHA as well, but I actually don't see any of it's effect on my skin. Maybe it's just me? For this reason, I can't recommend this as an AHA. 

Side effects of AHAs: 

Some might experience some mild irritation like redness and stinging of the skin, especially if you're new to the ingredient. Rest assured, it does get better with increased usage.  But do know your skin's tolerance and stop if it gets too much to handle. To be on a safe side, do moisturise after to minimise any irritation to the skin. 

Another important side effect that everybody using AHA should know is the increase in sun sensitivity. This side effect is present even at the low concentration of 4% and the side effect can last a week even after you stop using it. So always wear a sunscreen or use a product that contains both SPF and PA+ to protect from the UVA and UVB rays. I tend to have my AHAs during the night too, just in case.

Lucky for us ladies, AHAs have been so popular they can be found in multitudes of products in a wide range of price points. They can be found in cleansers, toners, moisturisers and masks. (As illustrated in the picture above) So you don't have to spend a lot of money on them.

Products containing only AHAs:

Suki Purifying Foaming Cleanser ( Previously called Creamy Foaming Cleanser) 

I have mentioned this in detail in my post : Clear skin: It All Starts With The Cleanse , but I just had to include it here. It really is a gentle product that delivers the AHA, in the form of malic acid, into the skin. It gets better because all the ingredients are organic and it includes apple enzymes and anti-oxidants.  It is pricey, but one pump (instead of the recommended two pumps) is all I need. This helps it last for a year.

It really works so much so that I saw a difference in my mom's slightly aged skin after a few months. 

 Philosophy's Total Matteness Pore Refiner

 This is great for those with combination to oily skin that wants an oil controlling product with an exfoliant. This does control some oil, but results are best when layered with an oil-control primer. The AHA in here is lactic acid, but be warned that it is quite strong. It stung my face a couple of times.

 Tip: leave the toner in the fridge to alleviate any irritation and for  additional pore tightening effect.

Kate Somerville Clinic To Go Resurfacing Peel Pads

I know that Kate Somerville is pretty popular in the US, with YouTuber's like Blair from juicystar07 raving about the brand. I have yet to jump on board since it is so much more expensive here than that in the US. (Yes, even after currency conversion)

The AHA in here is lactic acid, but more than that, it contains Witch Hazel extracts which is said to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and an astringent. It also has Vitamin C from Ascorbic acid (although unstable)Niacinamide which I mentioned in my previous post of it's ability to reduce fine lines, improve hyper-pigmentation and yellowing of the skin, and helps improve skin elasticity ( source). It also contains Sulfur, which may help to fight breakouts. Lastly, Sage and Myrtle to 'calm and condition'. The combination of these ingredients are great,  the price tag of US $48 for 16 pads - not so great.

(read how your skin can benefit from vitamin C in: 5 Reasons Why You Need Vitamin C in Your Routine)

Now we can't talk about exfoliants without mentioning Paula's Choice products. Her exfoliants are known for having appropriate concentrations at optimum pH levels. They will bring out the most of the acids, no doubt. I personally have not tried them since I'm too fond of the overly wide use of glycolic acid. The prices are quite reasonable at around US $30 and SGD $40 too.

There is the Skin Perfecting 8% AHA gel which uses glycolic acid as the AHA. It also contains Hyaluronic acid (in form of sodium hyaluronate) which has great moisturising abilities, Aloe, Chamomile and Green tea extracts. 

Price: US $35.00/ SGD $43.00 

(read more Hyaluronic acid in my post: Everything You Need to Know About Hyaluronic Acid

There are a wider range of AHA products in her RESIST line. All of them uses glycolic acid as the main AHA as well. The main difference in ingredient is that it contains Salicylic acid , Melon extract, Vitamin E and Anti-oxidants.

An interesting story, if some of you are familiar with Paula's Choice, you will know that she and her team writes product reviews often. If you've been reading them for a while, you would know that they often have the tendency to mark down products containing only 0.5% BHA. For this reason, I thought that it was quite odd that she did not release the percentage of her BHA in her RESIST line of AHA products. Thanks to live chat services, I was able to ask a representative directly. Behold, it was 0.5 % BHA. I guess no brands are perfect.

The hybrid products you might wish to consider: 

One of the products that have quickly made it into my skin care routine is the Hada Labo AHA + BHA Oil Control Face Wash. For those who are unfamiliar with this brand, they are a Japanese brand that do quality products at reasonable prices. Like the french pharmaceutical companies, this Japanese brand don't mess around with their skincare products either. I really value that in the products I use. 

There are a total of three versions of the cleanser, but the oily skin version is truly effective in exfoliation. Don't be fooled by the label too, I found it's oil control abilities to be minimal. That being said, this is one of the best exfoliating product on the market that I've tried. To top it off, this was only SGD 13.50 for 130 ml

I use it as a 10 second mask every week as that's the maximum my skin can tolerate. Trust me when I say that this product is strong. The AHA used here is glycolic acid which I'm not that crazy about, but I really believe they have added the right amount of BHA to have made this so effective. The first time I've used this, my skin had this glow and it cleared some of my clogged pores too. It gets better, I found it on ebay which means that it's available internationally at really reasonable prices. That is, if you don't mind the Japanese labels.
(There is translated english labels in Singapore but I'm not entirely sure if ebay has them) 

This product is similar to the Vichy's Normaderm Purifying Cleansing Gel :

If you can't get your hands on the Hada Labo one, this product is quite similar in strength. It can irritate the skin if you leave it on for too long or if you use it too often though. It uses salicylic acid (0.5%), glycolic acid but it also contains citric acid and LHA. (I talked about how great LHA is as an exfoliator in my previous post) For the same reason as the Hada Labo cleanser, this is not a product for every-day use. It can be drying and slightly irritating on the skin. This is my second bottle but I will not be repuchasing the Hada Labo one in the future.

However, if you want an every-day hybrid product that is also gentle on the skin, then the Vichy Anti-Imperfection Deep Cleansing Foaming Cream does wonders.

This product is really gentle although it uses both glycolic acid and salicylic acid ( 0.5%). I think I've purchased 2 or 3 of these because I really saw a difference in my breakouts with this. It lathers up well and can offer a deep cleanse too. Again, I use the cleanser like a mask, where I let it sit on the skin for a decent amount of time before rinsing. On a side note, it smells amazing.

Price for both the Cleansing Gel and Foaming Cream: SGD $29.00 (US $18.00) for 200ml for the gel cleanser and SGD 29.00 (USD $18.00) for 125ml for the foaming cleanser at Watsons, Guardian and NTUC Unity.

A leave-on hybrid product that is also great is the Vichy Anti-imperfections Tri-Activ Hydrating Care with 1% Salicylic acid, glycolic acid and LHA. The details are also in my previous post.

If you want a product with salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid and exfoliating beads :

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

This product combines both aspects of chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation. I have yet to try this because of my dislike for exfoliating beads, but I do know some will enjoy this. The combination of three acids might prove too harsh for those with delicate skin too. This is pricey at USD $36.00 / SGD $68.00 at Sephora though. 

Other (unnecessarily pricey) high-end hybrid products:

  • GLAMGLOW Supermud Clearing Treatment Mud
  • Dior  Capture Totale One Essential Skin Boosting Super serum 
  • SKII Facial Treatment Clear Lotion

All in all, I guess it takes a bit of trail and error to find the product that works best for you. The patience will be worth it though. I hope that I was able to give you a better idea of AHAs and a bigger picture of AHA products on the market. Granted, there is also a ton of AHA products I have not shared, that you might know about. Do share your experiences with me, as I have with you. I would love to hear about it in the comments!


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  1. this is really interesting, i love skin care :) x

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  2. I like that you talk about both natural and conventional products. Though I tried AHA BHA exfoliation, I like enzyme exfoliation better.

  3. Hi Karin, yes enzyme exfoliation are great aren't they? My favourite is the suki resurfacing enzyme peel, its all natural and it contains a blend of apple, pumpkin and papaya enzymes with some glycolic acid and salicylic acid added to it. It's a shame that there's not too many enzyme peels on the market, not where I'm from at least. What's your favourite? :)

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