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How AHA Exfoliants Work

How AHA Exfoliants Work

Extensive research has made it clear that daily exfoliation is essential for beautiful skin. By removing the built-up layers of dead surface skin, you’ll easily and quickly reveal the smoother, younger-looking skin hiding beneath! A leave-on AHA exfoliant is among the best ways to improve your skin.

Paula’s Choice Skincare has several AHA options … one will be perfect for your skin type and skin concerns! But first, just what is an AHA?

What Is an AHA?

AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid—don’t let the word “acid” scare you: AHA ingredients are more gentle on your skin than most scrubs or cleansing brushes could ever be!

Several different AHAs are used to exfoliate skin. The two most effective, common, and well-researched AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Other AHAs—malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid—also have benefit, but the research on these three AHAs is minuscule compared to the research on glycolic acid and lactic acid.

With any AHA exfoliant, the pH of the product matters! Glycolic acid and lactic acid work best at a pH between 3 and 4. Unfortunately, many products that contain AHAs do not adhere to this tight pH range, which means the AHAs in those formulas will be less effective, or possibly completely ineffective. Every Paula’s Choice Skincare AHA product is formulated within that ideal pH range, so you’re sure to see the best results possible.

How AHA Exfoliants Work on Skin

When we’re young, our skin naturally sheds built-up layers of dead skin, without any help. But, as the years pass, several factors slow this process, bringing it almost to a halt. The culprits—sun exposure, dry skin, oily skin, and other skin problems—lead to skin’s surface becoming thickened, dull, dehydrated, and older-looking. The glow goes, the dullness grows … not pretty.

A leave-on AHA exfoliant can step in to remove this skin-dulling buildup via a gentle, skin-softening process that leads to a visibly renewed appearance. AHAs work on the sticky substances that keep unhealthy, dead surface skin in place, ungluing the dead skin on the surface and allowing it to shed. This benefit can be a game-changer for the look of your skin!

AHAs exert their benefit on the uppermost layers of skin’s surface. They’re best for normal to dry skin, but all skin types can benefit from them. Research has shown that AHA products containing glycolic acid or lactic acid in concentrations between 5% and 10% are ideal for optimal, youth-reviving, non-irritating exfoliation.

Why Not Use a Scrub?

Exfoliation often brings to mind face or body scrubs, but most such scrubs are just not good for skin. Scrubs almost always contain rough-edged abrasive ingredients to scrape off the built-up dead surface skin. This way-too-harsh method creates micro-tears in skin’s surface, leading to problems your skin won’t like!

A gentle scrub, used very gently, is an OK option for more thorough cleansing of the surface of skin, but it cannot scrub away the layers of dead skin. To get rid of those surface layers of dead skin, you need a leave-on exfoliant, and AHAs or BHA are best. (We discuss how BHA differs from AHAs in a separate article.)

How to Use an AHA Exfoliant

It often takes some experimenting to see which AHA works best for you. Some people can use higher concentrations (such as 10%) without a problem, while others find that lower concentrations (such as 5%) work best. Some find that alternating use of higher and lower strengths of AHA is the ideal solution. Our RESIST Skin Resurfacing & Smoothing Set is perfect for that strategy because this duo provides a 5% strength and a 10% strength glycolic acid in two different bases, lotion and liquid.

Whichever exfoliant you choose, it should be applied after cleansing and toning. It’s that simple. The other products in your routine, such as serums, boosters, and moisturizers, are applied after the AHA exfoliant, in order of their consistency, going from the more liquid to the thickest. (Don’t forget, during the day, sunscreen is always the last product you apply!)

Tips to Get the Best Results from an AHA Exfoliant

  • You do not need to wait between steps for each product in your skincare routine to absorb. The AHA will work even if you apply another product immediately before (such as your toner) or afterward, really! The pH of the AHA exfoliant won’t change.
  • Although daily exfoliation is optimal for many people, you might find that exfoliating every other day works best for you. Again, it takes some experimentation.
  • Don’t forget to protect your freshly revealed skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. This step is fundamental to younger-looking skin.
  • Don’t apply an AHA body lotion to freshly shaved legs. Shaving is a form of exfoliation, so no need to double up on those days.

For information on the benefits of specific Paula’s Choice Skincare AHA exfoliants, see our article, “Which Paula’s Choice Skincare AHA Exfoliant is Right for Me?

References for this information:
Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, October 2015, pages 21–26
BioMed Research International, 2015, volume 2015
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, volume 2015
Clinical Cosmetic Investigative Dermatology, December 2014, pages 9–17, and November 2010, pages 135–142
Archive of Dermatological Research, June 1997, pages 404–409

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!