How Much Acid Is Too Much?
Which acid is the best? Are acids good or bad for the skin? Is a rise in Perioral dermatitis connected to overusing acids? When do acids cause skin ageing damage? Watch the video below as Maleka and our favourite cosmetic scientist Chris Smith discuss all things chemical exfoliation.
What do acids do for the skin?
When we use acids, we are exfoliating - removing the top layer of dead skin cells. Up to the age of 22 and when our skin is at its optimum, our skin exfoliates itself enough automatically. But as we age, this natural process slows down. In turn, this means the dead skin cells don't shed as fast, and it leaves us with a layer of dead skin cells on the surface that can make the complexion look dull and feel rough to the touch. Acids replace a function of the skin that is lost or significantly slowed down.
There are two types of exfoliants - physical and chemical.
Physical exfoliants include scrubs, while chemical exfoliants include various acids.
Acids break down the intercellular glue, the bond that holds the dead skin cells to the skin. Once the dead skin cells shed, new, fresher skin is revealed.
FYI, did you know that 80% of household dust is dead skin?
When did people start using acids in cosmetics?
Over the last 20 to 25 years, acids became more popular. Salons and dermatological practices offered acid treatments. However, over time, there was enough data to establish it was safe to use them in the home environment.
What is the safe amount of acids, and is there a regulator behind it?
In the EU, Regulation (EC) No. 1223/2009 is the key legislation to regulate the finished cosmetics products. Each member state has its authority to oversee the compliance. The legislation stipulates how much acid a product can contain (10%), with specific levels of different types of acids allowed. But, more importantly, it also stipulates the required (and often overlooked) pH of the product.
The maximum dose of acids that is safe to use is 10%. Meanwhile, different types of acids have different regulatory levels. pH is important because if the pH level is too low, the more acidic the product is, and more aggressive for the skin.
Different types of acids and what they do
Alpha-Hydroxy acids (AHAs) (also known as fruit acids since various fruits are their primary source) are water-based. These include Glycolic, Lactic, Malic, Mandelic, etc. AHAs are very good at breaking down the intercellular glue.
Beta-Hydroxy acids (BHA), namely Salicylic acid, have an extra carbon group, which makes them oil-based. They penetrate deeper into the skin, soothe inflammation, and are milder in how they work. Because they are oil-based, they penetrate deeper into the pores to release blockages.
- Poly-Hydroxy acids (PHAs) are water-based and similar to Alpha-Hydroxy acids. The difference is in the molecular size. Since Poly-hydroxy acids are larger molecular size, they stay on the surface of the skin, and that makes them more suitable for sensitive skin.
In a formula, you want to look for ingredients that ensure maximum effectiveness and a combination of anti-inflammatories to soothe the skin at the same time. There is no reason to compromise on the performance. But, we want to do everything to mitigate the potential side-effects.
What happens to the skin when we overdo it with acids?
When we exfoliate the skin, the acids break down the intercellular glue that holds the dead skin cells together. However, if we don't stop there, the acids will start to dissolve the bonds between the new skin cells. It can cause inflammation, redness, and flakiness. If your skin starts to flake, that's not exfoliation (you can't see or feel exfoliation). It is a reaction to the product. Using two or more products with AHAs can compromise the skin's moisture barrier and leave it exposed to external factors like pollution and UV. Even a small amount of AHAs increase UV penetration. It can lead to inflammageing and sun sensitivity, which outdoes all the benefits of AHAs.
The trend of "more is more" can be counterproductive. Smaller amounts of an active ingredient in your skincare can be more effective and proactive for the skin. Too much of one ingredient used too often can cause inflammation in the skin. That can make your skin age faster.
Maleka's Tip - Use Gentle Exfoliating Toner as a part of your evening routine. You are preparing the skin for overnight treatments, and you are not out in the sun.
In the mornings, use the Treatment Toner with Vitamin C, full of collagen-boosting ingredients. Skin Brightening Exfoliating Peel with Glycolic acid should be used in the evenings. On those days, there is no need to use the Gentle Exfoliating Toner.
The most important thing is to listen to your skin. It is normal to experience some tightness when using AHAs. But, if you start experiencing redness and flaking, that's too much, scale back. Every skin is different, and we all have different tolerance levels. Use your common sense and tailor your skincare routine to you and not according to what everyone else is doing. The needs of your skin change from week to week and even daily.
Is there a link between an increase in Perioral dermatitis and frequent use of acids? There is a link between the two. It's important not to use two or three products with AHAs at the same time. For people with Perioral dermatitis, Bakuchiol is a great ingredient.
Rosacea and AHAs
Rosacea presents in various ways, and there is no one-step answer. That is why it is crucial to understand your skin. Products with anti-inflammatories are essential, but once your skin recovers and is balanced again, acids can help.
Gentle Exfoliating Toner combines AHAs (Lactic, Tartaric, and Citric acids) with Hyaluronic acid and Betaine to soothe and soften the skin. With rosacea, it is vital to know what your triggers are and how to balance your skin. Likewise, moderation is everything.
Our advice for people with rosacea or any skin condition - understand the basis of the problem. Is it the barrier? Chris suggests the salt water test. Dilute some salt in water and apply it to the affected areas. If it doesn't sting, your moisture barrier is okay.
With regular use of acids, sunscreen is vital. Use SPF 30 at a minimum, and SPF 50 on sunny days.
Should we worry if alcohol is the first ingredient in an acid product? It depends on what else is in the formula. When you apply such a product directly to the skin, the alcohol evaporates immediately, and it shouldn't exacerbate any problems. However, you know your skin best.
Merumaya's products to try:
Gentle Exfoliating Toner combines Lactic, Tartaric, and Citric acid together with Hyaluronic acid. It gently exfoliates, but also calms and soothes the skin.
- Skin Brightening Exfoliating Peel combines Glycolic acid with Pomegranate enzymes to peel away the dead surface skin cells and reveal fresher, healthy skin. Because it is loaded with anti-inflammatories, it feels gentle on the skin.