What are skin acids: Decoding Acids in Skincare

When we mention acid what comes to mind is usually something like sulphuric acid, with thoughts of burning skin and gory images. Yet the truth is that acids have been used for beautifying the skin for thousands of years.  For example, spoiled milk and fermented apples have been used in beauty rituals in a number of cultures. 

Depending on the type of acids chosen they can improve dry skin, fine lines, wrinkles and even blemishes such as acne. There is an art to developing acid formulations. Sophisticated acidic products are delicately formulated to minimise skin irritation and ensure the effectiveness of the product in respect of the claims that are being made.

Types of Acids in skincare:

There are basically four types of acids that are widely used in the global skin care industry

1- the exfoliators 

2- the brighteners 

3- the hydrators

4- the anti-agers


The Exfoliators

Exfoliating AHAs seep into skin cells and loosen ceramides, the glue-like substance holding cells together. Glycolic, salicylic, lactic and malic acids all fall into this category. These acids help reveal shiny newer skin cells that lie beneath the dead surface skin. 

Getting rid of dead skin increases cell turnover, allowing new cells to reflect light for a healthy glow. Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and is the most widely used acid, in levels ranging from 1-10%.  Glycolic acid rejuvenates skin with minimal irritation. It removes dead cells, smoothes texture, shrinks pores, lightens spots, evens out scars, reduces the appearance of wrinkles and keeps skin bright. Its small molecular size enables it to penetrate cellular walls and actively stimulate cell turnover.

Lactic acid is best for sensitive skin and fights signs of aging. It is derived from milk. It exfoliates and softens lines and wrinkles. It is not as irritating as glycolic acid. It easily penetrates the skin because it is a small molecule. It appears in many skin care products, primarily because it provides skin hydration benefits.

Malic acid is a weaker version of glycolic acid. It is more suited to those with extremely sensitive skin. It loosens the bond that holds dead skin cells together and also provides anti-aging benefits.

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). It poses little irritation risk, as it is self-neutralizing. It works as an exfoliator to remove discolored and damaged skin cells. It improves tone, and produces a drying and lifting effect. Salicylic acid treats acne because it dries up blemishes by unclogging packed pores and loosens trapped dirt and oils. It stimulates desquamation, collagen and elastin production, and provides antioxidant, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory support. It works for most skin types. Salicylic acid, derived from willow bark, is less irritating than AHAs, but may cause an allergic reaction in patients with aspirin sensitivities. 

We recommend using BOA exfoliant with AHA or BHA  as an optimal way to exfoliate skin. Both AHA and BHA loosen up the ceramics on aged skin while our BOA exfoliant, which acts as a lint roller, can pick up these dead cells and remove them completely from the skin to reveal the beautiful skin underneath, which gives the skin such a glowing and healthy look.

The Brighteners

Kojic, L-ascorbic, azelaic and mandelic acids all work at a deeper skin level to halt melanin production and impart a brightening effect. All of these ingredients work over a period of time.

Another brighter, L-ascorbic acid, is derived from vitamin C in synthetic form. It imparts antioxidant benefits, brightened skin and increased collagen, while providing free-radical protection against photo-damage and elements in the environment, such as pollution, that damages skin.

The Hydrators

These acids work at a deeper level of the skin so that it is more hydrated. Hyaluronic acid provides a hydrating effect. It allows skin to hold on to water and is compatible with every skin type. It is the key ingredient in many moisturizers and injectable fillers. It works differently because it is a moisture magnet. It keeps everything hydrated and together. In the products it provides a softer skin feel because it pulls moisture from the air down into the skin. 

In our BOA detoxifying cleanser/Mask, we use Sicilian Cactus Aloe (a natural version of Hyaluronic acid) that gives your skin a boost of antioxidants and calms the skin.

Kojic acid is another hydrating ingredient that provides powerful protection against photo-damage and against pollution that damages skin. It is best for evening out skin colour and lightening discolouration and age spots. It is a fungus derived from Japanese mushrooms. Kojic acid boasts effects similar to hydroquinone. It is suitable for those who want long-term lightening without the risks that come with hydroquinone.

Finally, Kojic acid works to disrupt the production of melanin to make skin look more even in colour. 

The Anti-Agers

This acid category includes ferulic acid, azelaic acid, retinoic acid and alpha lipoic acid. Ferulic acid is used for making new collagen in skin and stopping free radical damage. It is derived from the seeds and leaves of certain plants. Ferulic acid is usually combined with another ingredient such as retinol or vitamin C or E to provide supercharged protection from the sun and pollution.

Azelaic acid is best used for controlling redness and acne. Derived from grains, it soothes irritated skin, therefore it is used for calming rosacea-initiated redness, inflammation and bumps while evening out skin tone. 

Retinoic acid is used for acne and anti-aging purposes. Derived from vitamin A, it revs up collagen production, keeps pores clean, accelerates skin cell shedding and evens skin tone. It can be harsh and some people can not tolerate the harshness of the treatments.

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative. It converts to retinoic acid and is a DNA regulator. It effectively treats UV-induced aging and discoloration, assists in collagen synthesis and encourages healthy cell formation.  Retinol is capable of oxidizing to retinoic acid through enzyme activity, providing the benefits of Retin A without side effects.   Most skin types tolerate retinol in topical and acid formulations. 

Alpha lipoic acid is best for antioxidant protection and minimizing wrinkles. Derived from plants, alpha lipoic acid is said to possess great penetrability; i.e., it can enter all parts of a skin cell and provide extreme protection against free radicals. This helps prevent damage to the skin and lifts skin’s vitamin levels of E and C back to normal, giving the skin a healthy glow.

Our BOA rejuvenating serum with its unique blend of rich oils and emollients offers a natural alternative to some of the acids.  It will penetrate deep into the surface of the skin to instantly nourish and plump your skin. It also reduces redness while smoothing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and stretch marks. It forms a barrier to lock in moisture and protect your skin from environmental irritants, which can cause premature aging and inflammation.

The complete BOA ritual can complement and enhance the functionality of some of these acids to achieve beautiful glowing skin without the side effects of some of these more aggressive acidic ingredients.


Most of the scientific background to this blog is based on the research  paper by Navin M. Geria, Senior Technical Advisor and Principal Doctors Skin Prescription


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The BOA Skin Academy Blog hopes to bring you educational, insightful and interesting reading material on the topics of skincare, beauty, rituals, self-care and wellness. All topics are chosen and written by the BOA team, with credits where credit is due. If you have a suggestion for a topic or a question about what we have written, we would love for you to get in touch. Please email us at info@boaskincare.com and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

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