Thousands of years ago, she and other women knew a secret that modern skin researchers have only recently rediscovered: Acids derived from natural foods have the power to reduce wrinkles and ease dryness, age spots, and even acne.
Today, you don’t have to soak in a vat of buttermilk. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are available in a staggering variety of skin lotions and cleansers — from pricey spa formulas to bargain-priced drugstore brands. Derived from a variety of natural ingredients — including citric acid from oranges and lemons, glycolic acid from sugarcane, lactic acid from milk, malic acid from apples, pyruvic acid from papayas, and tartaric acid from grapes — they’re a natural way to exfoliate dead skin layers.
How Do AHAs Work?
AHAs work by gently dissolving the intercellular “glue” that makes old skin cells stick to the epidermis. The result: The outermost layer of your skin looks brighter and finer. These skin smoothers may also stimulate the production of skin-supporting collagen and elastin. Some dermatologists also believe that AHAs enhance the skin’s moisture-retaining ability so the tissue maintains its soft, padded firmness. The downside: AHAs make skin extra-sensitive to the sun. If you don’t wear a sunscreen, you may actually increase your risk of wrinkles! Also, AHAs sometimes cause redness and irritation.
With so many types of AHA products on the market, these professional tips can help you choose the best one for you:
Don’t let “low” concentrations fool you. AHA products sold over the counter usually have AHA concentrations that are below 10 percent. They’re gentle (provided you follow the label directions) and designed for regular use. Look for one with an AHA as the second or third ingredient to be certain you’re getting an effective concentration.
Have acne or oily skin and sun damage? Consider salicylic acid. This beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) is oil soluble; AHAs are not. The advantage: Salicylic acid can penetrate oil-clogged pores and loosen dead skin cells inside. It’s also less irritating than AHAs. The downsides: Salicylic acid may discolor dark skin. It also makes all skin types even more sensitive to sun exposure than AHAs do. Daily sunscreen is an absolute must.
Be patient–and realistic. Drugstore wrinkle smoothers are gentle and slow. It can take 6 months to see a visible difference in fine lines.
Stick with one product. Use one product containing AHAs at a time–not a lotion and a cleanser, for example. (A lotion is probably a better bet, since the acid stays in contact with your skin longer than it would if you used a skin cleanser.) Also, don’t combine a drugstore product with a prescription wrinkle cream or one purchased at the doctor’s office. Too much exfoliation will leave your skin red and irritated.
Use sparingly. A dime-size amount is enough for your whole face. Using too much can lead to redness, burning, itching, pain, and even, in rare cases, scarring.
Keep it away from your eyes.
Don’t use AHAs on the delicate tissues surrounding the eyes unless the cream is specially formulated for that use. Facial products are too strong and lack the moisturizers needed for these areas.
If your complexion is dark, consult your doc before using an AHA (or BHA). People with darker skin are at a higher risk for scarring and pigment changes from AHAs than those who have paler complexions.
Need faster results? See a trained cosmetologist or dermatologist. Cosmetologists use AHAs with concentrations of up to 30 percent in chemical peels that can smooth fine lines in one to three applications. The downside: You have to repeat the process every 3 to 6 months. Meanwhile, dermatologists use concentrations of 50 to 70 percent. Smoother skin may last for 2 to 5 years, but you’ll have severe redness, flaking, and even oozing for the first 1 to 4 weeks after the treatments.