Breaking Down the Acids in Skincare


Many different types of acids are used in skincare products because they get results: hyaluronic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, salicylic acid... If making sense of all the acids listed on a label is giving you acid indigestion, we can help. Here are some of the most commonly used acids in skincare, along with the details on why you should be including them in your anti-aging arsenal.

Kojic Acid

Kojic acid is primarily used to fade hyperpigmentation. It’s made from mushrooms and is used to target age spots, scars, and sun damage. Kojic acid works by interfering with the body’s production of an amino acid called tyrosine, which is essential in melanin production. Less melanin, or pigment, means lighter skin. For bonus points, it also has antioxidant properties.

Hyaluronic Acid

It seems like every skincare commercial is touting the benefits of hyaluronic acid, and it’s easy to see what’s behind the phenomenon. Hyaluronic acid is a hydration marvel. A 2016 study showed that hyaluronic acid molecules have been reported to attract and retain 1,000 times their weight in water. 

The acid itself is a sugar molecule found naturally in the skin. The molecule helps lock in moisture by binding water to the skin cells. As we age, however, our bodies produce less of this hydration helper, which is one of the reasons many of us struggle with dry skin as we get older (it’s the most common skin problem for women over 40). Skincare products with hyaluronic acid help hydrate the skin and make it look smoother, plumper, and glowingly fresh. We’d be happy to recommend a good one, wink nudge: TriHydrate™ Concentrate, which includes 3 forms of purified hyaluronic acid. For more on this powerful ingredient, check out our Hyaluronic Acid 101 article.

Lactobionic Acid

Lactobionic acid is a skincare multitasker – it’s an exfoliator, a moisturizer, and an antioxidant. One of the reasons lactobionic acid is creating a buzz is because it’s such a gentle exfoliant. Exfoliants remove the skin’s outer layer of dead cells, making skin look refined and brighter. The problem? Many can cause irritation, particularly if you have sensitive skin.

Lactobionic acid is derived from milk (but it’s not the same thing as lactic acid), and it’s a larger molecule than other acids, like glycolic. That means it isn’t able to penetrate as deeply into the skin, which makes it less likely to cause irritation. If you’ve used exfoliating acids in the past and been left with irritation, this is a great one to try (be sure to test it on the skin behind your ear or on your forearm before applying it to your face, of course).

Ferulic Acid

Ferulic acid is an antioxidant used in many dark spot correctors. It’s naturally derived from plants (but can also be made in a lab). Antioxidants like ferulic acid help neutralize free radicals caused by environmental damage – think UV rays and pollution – that that can wreak havoc on our skin. Products that contain vitamin C and E also often include ferulic acid, because combining all 3 can boost their antioxidant benefits. And many products will combine ferulic with another acid.
VitaCorrect™ Solution includes kojic acid, ferulic acid, and a form of vitamin C called ethyl-vitamin C.

Glycolic, an Alpha Hydroxy Acid

Glycolic acid is classified as an alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA. Because it’s such an effective exfoliant, glycolic acid has become the gold standard for AHAs. Glycolic acid is stronger than lactobionic acid, partially because it’s a smaller molecule. This means it can penetrate deeper into skin, where it can get to work loosening the bonds that bind dead skin cells together, and even help stimulate collagen production.

Because it’s such a powerful AHA, glycolic acid can cause mild stinging and redness–always test it on your forearm or behind your ear before using it on your face. Our ComfortBead™ Cleanser contains both glycolic and lactic acid, so to help avoid the irritation we formulated it with exclusive Epidermal Cushioning Technology™. This allows the acids to be delivered in a skin-comforting formula designed to not irritate or dry out the skin.

Ascorbic Acid

Ah, good ol’ vitamin C. Ascorbic acid and L-ascorbic acid are among the most potent forms of vitamin C used in skincare and powerful antioxidants to have in your arsenal. Used topically, vitamin C helps fight the emergence of dark spots and visibly lighten existing dark spots. One issue to watch out for: Vitamin C is notoriously unstable. When exposed to light, it can degrade and stop being as effective. This is why vitamin C products are typically packaged in a dark bottle. 

Salicylic Acid

If you’re battling breakouts, chances are you’ve encountered this beta hydroxy acid, or BHA. BHAs are more oil soluble than their water-soluble AHA counterparts, so they can sink more deeply into the layers of the skin. Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark, and it dissolves the debris and gunk–including dead skin cells–that can accumulate in pores and cause breakouts. Salicylic acid not only helps prevent pimples, it shortens their lifespan as well.