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How to Start Using Acids in Your Routine

Exfoliating acids are the talk of the town, with every skincare expert, brand, and influencer musing on acid’s transformative powers. But there is a right and wrong way to incorporate an acid into your routine, especially if you’re a newbie. Below we deep dive into what acids can do, what types are best for your skin type, and how to properly use them in your daily regime. 

The (many) benefits of acids

Wondering if acids are right for you? Board-certified dermatologist Geeta Yadav, M.D., thinks exfoliating acids are “critical” for almost any skincare routine. “They are a wonderful choice for those just starting to think about anti-aging as well as people looking to take their anti-aging routine to the next level,” she explains. “Some are also ideal for those trying to fight blemishes.” Those with sensitive or sensitized skin might want to be more cautious when using acids — which we’ll explain below. 

There are two types of exfoliants: manual (think granulated scrubs) and chemical (acids). You may have exfoliated with manual or physical exfoliants in the past, especially with the childhood rite-of-passage walnut scrub. Unfortunately, a harsh, physical exfoliant with abrasive granules can lead to micro-tears in the skin, which can cause permanent damage down the road.

But while chemical exfoliants sound more intense, they’re typically more gentle and controlled — and therefore almost always preferred by experts. Not only can acids quickly exfoliate, but they can also provide solutions for common skin issues, like acne, skin texture, and dryness – the trick is to select the best type. 

The different types of acids

Amongst chemical acids, there are three most commonly found types: AHA, BHA, and PHA. 

Alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic and lactic acids

Ideal for those concerned with aging skin that would like to address fine lines and skin texture. “AHAs work at the surface level to help disintegrate the bonds that prevent dead skin cells from fully sloughing off your face to reveal the fresh new skin underneath,” says Dr. Yadav. 

Beta hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid

BHAs are best for those looking to target acne and blackheads, or just have more oily skin because this acid is oil-soluble, meaning it can cut through oily pores and address clogged pores. “BHAs exfoliate within the pore to help clear out sebum and prevent congestion,” says Dr. Yadav.

Poly-hydroxy acids

Poly-hydroxy acids are commonly labeled as gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic. While exfoliating acids aren’t ideal for more sensitive skin types, PHA is actually a wonderful option for dry skin types, even those with eczema and rosacea because of its gentle nature.

PHA molecules are much larger in size than AHAs and BHAs, which means they cannot penetrate as deeply. This is great for sensitive skin because the acid will work exclusively on the skin’s surface, without distributing the delicate layers underneath. “Poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) work similarly to AHAs, but because their molecules are larger in size, they’re much gentler on the skin,” explains Dr. Yadav. 

A note on non-exfoliating acids

Hyaluronic acid, azelaic acid, and tranexamic acid all have acids in their names, but they are not exfoliants. If you think back to chemistry class, acid refers to pH levels — acids have low pHs, while bases have high pHs. “That’s really all that means — not all ingredients that are acids are exfoliants, including hyaluronic acid and tranexamic acid,” says Dr. Yadav. 

What do these non-exfoliating acids actually do? Famed hyaluronic acid is a wonderful humectant, meaning it draws water into the skin, explains Dr. Yadav. While tranexamic acid works by blocking the interaction of melanocytes (pigment-producing skin cells) on your surface skin cells, which can inhibit hyperpigmentation. Azelaic acid is an exfoliant though, but it does not fall into the AHA/BHA/PHA categories. “It is produced by yeast found in grains like barley and rye and is great for fighting discoloration,” says Dr. Yadav. Azelaic acid has mild exfoliating benefits, but can also help reduce redness, inflammation, and post-acne spots.

How to Use Acids Properly in Your Daily Routine 

Choose Your Fighter 

“In my opinion, the acids used and the formula itself are truly what’s most important,” says Dr. Yadav. If you’re looking to slough off dry skin, try an AHA. Want to target pesky blackheads? BHA is a miracle worker. Looking for a more gentle option? Try a PHA to begin with, and utilize only every few days. 

Some brands even have a blend of acids, allowing you to target several things, like acne and texture, all in a single sweep. Our Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner features a mix of PHAs and BHAs to minimize the look of pores and hydrate skin all at once. The percentage of acid is very important too. Some users will immediately grab the highest number available, thinking it will give them better and faster results — but it’s likely to cause skin sensitivity if it’s more than your skin can handle.

Take it slow 

Low, slow, and steady wins the race. “Start slow to determine your skin’s sensitivity levels and only use these formulas at night as they can cause photosensitivity (sensitivity to sun exposure),” advises Dr. Yadav. This could mean you use the acid as little as once or twice a week to begin, studying how the exfoliant affects your skin. 

Low, slow, and steady wins the race. “Start slow to determine your skin’s sensitivity levels and only use these formulas at night as they can cause photosensitivity (sensitivity to sun exposure),” advises Dr. Yadav. This could mean you use the acid as little as once or twice a week to begin, studying how the exfoliant affects your skin.

That’s why the Watermelon Glow AHA Night Treatment, for one, is designed to be used two to three times a week (depending on your skin’s tolerance, of course — we recommend patch-testing if you’re a newbie). It features a 2.5% blend of AHA — which is also highly concentrated and pH-balanced — that packs the same power as 10% glycolic acid, but without the same risk of irritation.

Not only does it work throughout the night to leave skin smoother, brighter, and softer by morning — keeping it gentle enough for all skin — but it also paves the way for the additional moisturizing ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and niacinamide, to better absorb into skin. As we’ll get to in a second, supplementing exfoliation with moisturizing ingredients can go a long way in keeping skin healthy and resilient.

Don’t forget to moisturize

Acids can come in many formats, including cleansers, toners, and serums. If using a toner, apply with a cotton pad, gently tapping around the face. When using an acid toner or serum,  follow up with a calming moisturizer. When exfoliating the skin with acids, it’s incredibly important to incorporate products with soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients into the rest of your skincare routine. Follow up with a hydrating moisturizer that will soothe and ease the skin. Because acids can cause photosensitivity, be sure to apply SPF every morning — though you should be doing that already.

Consider the whole formula

Formulas with exfoliating acids should be thoughtfully formulated to give you benefits without sacrificing your skin barrier in the process. Consider Strawberry Smooth BHA+AHA Salicylic Serum. This clarifying serum features a clever blend of ingredients that gently smooths skin’s texture, clears breakouts, and refines pores — all while calming and hydrating skin. (We really can have it all, folks!) 

This strawberry-boosted serum features a mix of natural BHAs and AHAs for clear, hydrated skin. It’s potent on pores, but gentle on the skin barrier, leaving skin hydrated, calmed, significantly more clear, and a noticeable reduction in fine lines and pore size. Plus, it’s gentle enough for daily use, even for the most sensitive skin types.

As the name might hint at, the serum harnesses the power of strawberries: strawberry water, strawberry enzymes, and strawberry leaf extracts naturally possess BHA, antioxidants, malic acid, and Vitamin C to help minimize blemishes, exfoliate dead skin, and help even skin tone. It also includes Glow Recipe’s exclusive 10% Clarity Acid Complex, which softens texture, unclogs pores, and exfoliates. Speaking of key ingredients, beyond the 2% BHA and 1% AHA blend, the serum has 3% azelaic acid (helping with calming redness and discoloration), hyaluronic acid (hydrates and plumps), allantoin (moisturizes and soothes) and bisabolol (calms and brightens).

With a pillowy water-gel texture and a fresh-picked strawberry aroma, clinically treating texture and blemishes has never been this fresh.

Read more about chemical exfoliation:

Glow Recipe

Strawberry Smooth BHA+AHA Salicylic Serum


Glow Recipe

Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner


Glow Recipe

Watermelon Glow AHA Night Treatment


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