Find the Best AHA For Your Skin- Ultimate Guide to Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Which is the best AHA for your skin- the definitive guide to the most trusted AHAs and expert advice on how to use them effectively.

AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) continue to grow in popularity due to their amazing results in fighting the signs of aging and the way they give skin a fresh, glowing look. For me, they help give my skin a glow and prevent any flakiness that happens when my skin is particularly dry.

AHAs are available in a variety of products and strengths which means you can find one that works well for your skin no matter your skin type.  Even if you have dry or sensitive skin like me, there is an AHA product for you.

Skincare professionals recommend AHAs because they have impressive research showing how well they work.

I’m often asked about AHAs since anything with the word “acid” in the name can be a bit intimidating. But there’s no need to be scared of alpha hydroxy acids, I have sensitive skin and I’ve found some gentle ones that give amazing results.

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diagram of skin layers showing how chemical exfoliants work

If you’re in a rush:

Compare only the BEST AHAs here

As I’ve mentioned before, not all products work the same on everyone’s skin. You may have a preference for a certain texture or prefer a leave-on mask as opposed to an at-home peel.

Maybe you need a gentle formula for sensitive skin or a strong formula to help fade stubborn dark spots.  In this guide, I’m going to go over the various types of AHAs as well as the top products for different skin types and different price points.

How do AHAs work?

Alpha hydroxy acids help diminish fine lines and wrinkles, fade age spots, reduce uneven skin tone, and help with large pores. They work on the very top layer of skin, loosening the bonds between the dead skin cells and the skin underneath. These dead skin cells naturally fall off on their own but, unfortunately, this process slows down as we age. 

By weakening the bonds between the skin cells, the AHAs speed up the process of skin exfoliation and allow your softer, younger-looking skin underneath to show.

They truly are amazing multi-taskers! Who wouldn’t want one product that can do so many positive things for our skin? Particularly if you are over 30, AHAs are a great tool to have in your arsenal for fighting skin aging.

Take a look at studies showing that AHAs are helpful for acne scars, melasma, and hyperpigmentation among other skin problems.

chart showing different alpha hydroxy acids and their benefits

AHAs increase Collagen in Skin

An additional benefit of AHA is that it increases collagen in the skin. Check out this study for all the details.

Collagen essentially serves as the building blocks of our skin. Unfortunately, collagen production begins to decrease in our 30’s and our skin slowly loses the scaffolding of those building blocks. This results in sagging skin and increased wrinkles.

Increasing collagen is a HUGE(but not commonly mentioned) benefit of AHAs. We often hear about Vitamin C and retinoids in relation to collagen. But AHAs are an overlooked but effective collagen builder.

How Should I use AHAs?

This study advises that concentrations of up to 20% are safe for daily application at home. Of course, you don’t need to use it every day to see results. 

I have sensitive skin and use a lactic acid AHA (this one by Sunday Riley) two to three times a week and have seen great results.

Most at-home AHA products that are meant to be left on the skin are between 5 to 15% AHA. The percentage of acid will also impact how often you use it. A 5% Lactic Acid product like this one may be one that you use daily, while a 10% product you might be one you use only two or three times a week. 

Check out this article for some great tips on using Vitamin C and Glycolic Acid together in the same skincare routine.

Some products are designed to be left on only for a short time and then rinsed off. These are often called at-home peels and can be as strong as 30% Glycolic Acid, like this one from The Ordinary. 

I’ve tried this peel but only could leave it on for 2 to 3 minutes before I felt like it was burning my skin. After washing it off I did feel it worked well but it was just too strong for me to enjoy using. If you don’t have sensitive skin it may work for you, but I wouldn’t start with it as my first AHA product. Work your way up to it!

If you do try an at-home peel, start with just a few minutes the first time. It’s always better to rinse it off too quickly than leave it on too long and find yourself with a red, irritated face. Not a good look!

How often to use the products and what strength to use is a personal decision based on how your skin reacts. I highly recommend you do a patch test of any new products on a small area of your skin that is sensitive, such as your neck. Wait 24 hours to see how your skin reacts before using it on your face.

Even if you’ve used an exfoliant before, you never know how you’ll react to any specific formula.

The chemical peels you see advertised by dermatologists and day spas can be over 50% concentration and are commonly glycolic acid, the strongest AHA. I would never try something like this at home, you could seriously burn your skin, leaving permanent damage.

chart showing different types of Alpha hydroxy acids and benefits

What is the Correct PH level for AHAs?

To be effective an AHA should be formulated at the correct PH level to penetrate the skin. A product with a high PH will not be effective and one with a too low PH will be extremely irritating. For AHA’s I recommend looking for a product with a PH between 3 and 4.   Paula’s Choice offers an excellent guide to PH and your skin here.

Best AHA Products

Now that we’ve covered how AHA’s work and how to use them, let’s dive into finding the right AHA for YOUR skin. You may need to try out a few to find one that works best for you. It’s always best to start out with a lower strength and less frequent usage than to risk burning your skin with too much too soon.

Best AHA for Dry Skin

Good Genes by Sunday Riley– This gentle lactic acid exfoliant is amazingly hydrating for dry skin. It contains squalane and aloe along with prickly pear extract to soothe skin. Licorice brightens and lemongrass is great for calming the skin and also smells amazing! 

Good Genes is my all-time favorite exfoliant. It’s not a cheap product but it’s sold in both 1 ounce and 1.7-ounce sizes so you can start with the smaller one if you want to spend less. If you’re like me, you’ll fall in love and then buy the bigger bottle since it’s cheaper per ounce.

Buying Tip: If you want to try it without a big investment you can buy a travel size available with Sunday Riley’s Luna Oil in their Power Couple or with the Ceramic Slip Cleanser in the Flash Fix. These are great ways to try it out without spending a lot. They also make cute gifts for skincare lovers.

Best AHA for Oily Skin or Acne-Prone Skin

Skinceuticals Blemish and Age Defense combines both AHA and BHA (beta hydroxy acids) in one product. Glycolic acid helps fight the signs of aging while salicylic acid cuts through the oil to help clear acne. Both of them will brighten and exfoliate the skin. Skinceuticals is a great skincare company and never puts out subpar products.

Best Inexpensive AHAs

The Ordinary offers several effective AHAs at bargain prices. Don’t think that these products aren’t good choices though just because they are cheap! They offer quality ingredients at the right PH to be effective. And without extra ingredients that may cause irritation. 

If you have more sensitive skin or are trying AHA’s for the first time, The Ordinary offers 5% and 10% Lactic Acid formulas as well as a 10% Mandelic Acid.

If you have less sensitive skin or want to step it up a bit the Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution is a good introduction to glycolic acid. I find I can handle this AHA up to 2 or 3 times a week with no problem, but not use it every day. However, I have friends without sensitive skin that can use this daily with no problems.

For skin that can handle a strong AHA, you can try the AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution. Please be VERY careful with these. They should be washed off after 10 minutes, but I don’t recommend you leave it on for nearly that amount of time at first. I have sensitive skin and tried this out a few times. I could never leave it on more than 3 minutes and eventually went back to my Good Genes! But if you don’t have sensitive skin then many people have great results.

Best AHA for Wrinkles

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% Gel Exfoliant contains glycolic acid, which has a smaller molecule size and is, therefore, more effective than lactic or mandelic acid. 

Paula’s Choice is one of the brands I trust the most; her products are always well formulated and at the best PH to be effective. I love her brand because you can trust it’s just what’s best for your skin, not what may be trendy at the moment.

Best AHA for Sensitive Skin

The Ordinary 5% and 10% lactic acids are great for sensitive skin. They both contain Tasmanian Pepperberry to help reduce irritation and Hyaluronic Acid for hydration. Lactic acid is less irritating than glycolic acid due to its larger molecule size.

Both of these have worked well for me and are effective. I don’t love them as much as the Good Genes, just because the Good Genes has such a smooth texture and is more pleasant to use. But if you are on a budget these are great choices.

Types of AHAs

There are a variety of acids commonly used in AHA products. Each of these acids can be effective at exfoliating, but some will work quicker than others.  Unfortunately, with quick results can come irritation. So if you have sensitive skin, like me, it’s better to stick with an acid that may have slower results but won’t cause redness or flakiness. 

One major difference between the types of AHAs is the size of the molecule. A smaller molecule will penetrate deeper into the skin (and more quickly!), making it effective but also potentially irritating. A larger molecule will penetrate less deeply and more slowly, reducing irritation.  

These larger molecule acids can still be very effective. In fact, lactic acid is my all-time favorite AHA. You just need to adjust your expectations that you may see results a little slower than you will with a smaller molecule acid like glycolic.

Mandelic Acid

Mandelic acid is the most gentle commonly used AHA. While it won’t show results as quickly as the stronger AHAs, it is still effective over time. Mandelic acid also has anti-microbial properties, making it a good choice for you if you have acne-prone skin.

Malic Acid

Malic Acid is an AHA derived from apples. It’s commonly found in conjunction with other acids and is rarely used alone. The study I mentioned earlier showed that AHAs increased collagen in the skin using a combination of glycolic and malic acid.

Lactic Acid

Lactic Acid is my favorite AHA. It’s commonly found in strengths of either 5% or 10%.  It’s rare to see it higher than 10% since at that point it would probably be more effective to use a 5% glycolic acid product. One benefit specific to lactic acid is that it is hydrating, making it a great choice for dry skin.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is the strongest acid commonly used in AHA exfoliants. It has the smallest molecule size of the group. You will see results quicker with glycolic acid than you would with a comparable percentage of lactic or mandelic acid. Glycolic is also the most common AHA used for in-office peels by dermatologists.

Where to use AHA in your routine

You can use AHAs in the morning, evening or both. This will partly depend on what other products you are using.

If you use a Vitamin C serum in the morning I recommend you use the AHA in the evening since both of these products should be applied to freshly cleansed skin. Applying one over the other will not be as effective.

Check out my How to Get Flawless Skin: An Anti-Aging Skincare Guide for more information on how to incorporate AHAs into your morning or evening as well as good choices for cleansers, treatments, and moisturizers.

For my own routine, I use AHA in the evening after cleansing. I often wash my face an hour or more before I go to bed. This allows my AHA time on my skin before I apply my retinoid. Since both the acid and retinoid can be irritating, I like to spread the application out by at least an hour. I apply a heavy moisturizer next, and sometimes, in the winter, a facial oil. I have a guide to some great inexpensive facial oils here.

Tips for Using AHAs

Most Important Skin Tip- Always use sunscreen every day when you use AHA! See my favorite sunscreens here.

Use Sunscreen

This is the most important tip for AHAs. AHA’s are revealing fresh, new skin on your face. While this skin is glowing and even-toned it’s also very sensitive to the sun! Without sunscreen, you will not only burn easily but also be susceptible to developing dark spots and other photodamage from UVA rays.

Start Slowly

Starting off with a strong AHA is probably a mistake.  There’s no need to rush and try to undo years of sun damage in a matter of days. Believe me – I’ve tried. It won’t work!

If you don’t have sensitive skin then it’s probably Ok to start off with glycolic acid, but keep the percentage low and use it no more than 2 or 3 times a week. After a few weeks with no problems, it’s fine to increase the frequency and then eventually move up to a stronger product.

Patch Test

The first time you try a new AHA product it’s a good idea to patch test it on a small area of skin. In fact, that’s a good idea for any new skin product! Patch testing allows you to see if any redness or irritation occurs. I generally like to use my neck since the skin is somewhat sensitive there.

Don’t Use Multiple Exfoliators At Once

If you are going to start exfoliating your skin only try one product at a time. If you start an AHA and also add a physical scrub you’ll not only likely irritate your skin, but you won’t know which of the products is actually effective. 

I generally find physical exfoliators more damaging to the skin anyway, and I don’t recommend them.  But with any new skincare product, it’s a good idea to add it alone so you can tell what effect it’s having.

Final thoughts on Finding the Best AHA for your Skin

I hope this guide has been helpful to you in learning about AHAs and finding the best AHA for your skin type. With the choices available today everyone can find one that works for their skin. Let me know below if you have a favorite I haven’t mentioned here.

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