This Skincare Ingredient Is Beloved By Derms—and It’s Key to a Glowing Complexion

A different kind of acid trip.

By Caitlin Clark

I think my fellow skincare obsessives would agree: there are a few ingredients that, despite holding a prominent place in our beauty vocabularies, we’d be hard pressed to define. For me, AHAs (AKA alpha hydroxy acids) might be the best example. Maybe it’s the medicinal-sounding name, or the ingredient’s intimidatingly acidic nature, but knowing where to start when it comes to the best AHA products—and the savviest way to deploy them in a routine—has long eluded me.         

But these organically occurring exfoliators more than deserve our attention for their hardworking-but-gentle nature and the vast variety of concerns they address—fine lines, discoloration, acne scars, rough texture… you name it.

For a thorough brushing up on the power of AHAs, I tapped four skincare experts—Karen Fernandez, Lead Aesthetician at SkinSpirit, dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar, Dr. Heather D. Rogers, dermatologist and founder and CEO of Doctor Rogers, and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, founder of Dr. Loretta skincare.

Ahead, they answer all your burning AHA questions (including why the ingredient might actually burn) and share their recommendations for the best AHA products in the game.

Feature image by Riley Reed.

Sanetra Nere Logno applying skincare_best aha products
Image by Michelle Nash for our interview with Sanetra Longo

What are AHAs for the skin?

Long loved by dermatologists, Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are a group of acids (derived from fruits, nuts, sugars, and milk) that effectively exfoliate and promote skin cell turnover without being as harsh as physical scrubs. In-office peels are packed with a high concentration of AHAs, but you’ll find lower concentrations in a variety of at-home products, including cleansers, toners, and moisturizers.

The most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid, but others include malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid. 

Parachute founder Ariel Kaye applying skincare_best aha products
Image by Teal Thomsen

What are benefits of AHAs? 

AHAs work their magic by dissolving the outer layer of dead skin cells on your face, revealing a smoother, brighter complexion.

However, Dr. Ciraldo warns to be careful with the best at-home AHA products. “The most effective formulas are very acidic and have a low pH so you shouldn’t use them right up to eye skin since this can cause irritation, redness, swelling and even skin peeling,” she adds.

A few notable AHA benefits:

  • improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • stimulates collagen
  • prevents acne
  • helps absorption of other skincare products
  • can even out discoloration and scars
Megan O'Neill applying skincare_best aha products
Image by Belathée Photography for our interview with Megan O’Neill

How often should you include AHAs in your skincare routine?

Though AHAs are known for being relatively gentle, they’re still acids at the end of the day. Our experts share a few tips on how to handle with care.

  • First and foremost, only use AHAs in the evenings. “On nights when your skin is happy, meaning not irritated or inflamed, you can apply an active treatment that helps to promote cell turnover after you wash and dry your face,” Dr. Rogers explains. “This can be AHA, retinol, or bakuchiol.”
  • Start slow. Dr. Ciraldo recommends using an AHA product once or twice the first week and add an additional day each week.
  • Always follow an AHA product with solid moisturizer to support your skin while the active treatments do their work.
Janessa Leoné applying skincare in bathroom mirror_best aha products
Image by Teal Thomsen

Are there any ingredients that pair well—or should be avoided—with AHAs?

AHAs ask a lot of our skin, so it’s important to support it—not overload it.

Alpha hydroxy acids play especially well with moisturizing products. After freshly exfoliating your skin, it’s primed to receive all the nourishing benefits of ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalane, or glycerin.

And while you don’t want to do multiple treatments in one night (like following up an AHA serum with a retinol cream), it’s OK if one product blends multiple active ingredients. “For example, the Skinbetter Alpha Ret has AHA and retinol, which work brilliantly together,” Dr. Rogers explains.

However, Dr. Rogers warns never to use AHAs right after a procedure—even waxing. You could potentially burn the skin. “Also, you shouldn’t combine AHA with retinoids or a high percentage of acid, like 10% or higher L-ascorbic acid for if Vitamin C,” she adds.

Shanika HIllocks applying skincare_best aha products
Image by Michelle Nash

The Best AHA Products of 2022

From AHA-soaked pads to hardworking creams suitable for sensitive skin, our four experts share their picks for the best AHA products.

SkinMedica AHA:BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

u003cpu003e“SkinMedica’s AHA/BHA cleanser is a great way to incorporate these clarifying acids into your routine.u0022  — u003cemu003eKaren Fernandezu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

In The Glow How 5% Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Tonic

u003cpu003e“This toner is a skin slougher that gently exfoliates and removes impurities for super-smooth, dewy skin. It deeply cleanses pores, while hydrating, refreshing and helping to balance one’s complexion.” u003cemu003e— Natalie Aguilaru003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Skinbetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads

u003cpu003e“For the most powerful AHA action, SkinBetter Peel pads will act like a mini chemical peel facial at home. Use three times a week for anti-aging and clarifying results.” — u003cemu003eKaren Fernandezu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

goop GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid Overnight Glow Peel

u003cpu003e“Some people prefer pads, which are great for the face, neck, chest, and even shoulders to smooth skin and correct sun damage. Be sure to follow with a thick moisturizer.”u003cemu003e — Dr. Heather Rogersu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Dr. Loretta Micro Peel Peptide Pads

u003cpu003e“These pads combine the benefits of physical and chemical resurfacing in one product. They are lightly textured pads infused with 10% glycolic at low pH of 3.5 combined with very hydrating marine peptides to replenish moisture that is lost when you shed the surface layer of skin cells as well.” u003cemu003e— Dr. Loretta Ciraldou003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Sanitas Skincare Brightening Peel Pads

u003cpu003e“These peel pads are a professional strength, corrective exfoliating treatment that utilizes a triple acid blend to brighten, tone, and reveal clear radiant skin and a more uniform tone and texture.” u003cemu003e— Natalie Aguilaru003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

u003cpu003e“Again, this is well tolerated by most skin types, has no fragrance, and is a more affordable option.” u003cemu003e— Dr. Heather Rogersu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

L’Oreal Paris Skincare 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum

u003cpu003e“It is recommended for nightly use—it has been pH adjusted to more neutral pH and it has aloe to soothe skin. The acid has been partially neutralized, which is more compatible with sensitive skin.” u003cemu003e— Dr. Loretta Ciraldou003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Jan Marini Bioclear Face Lotion

u003cpu003e“This is an absolute favorite at SkinSpirit. It is a mixture of AHAs and BHAs and is gentle enough to use every day.” u003cemu003e— Karen Fernandezu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Skinbetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream

u003cpu003e“This is very well tolerated by most skin types and offers retinol and glycolic acid benefits.” u003cemu003e— Dr. Heather Rogersu003c/emu003e u003c/pu003e

Isdin Glicoisdin® 8 Soft Face Cream

u003cpu003e“I recommend this hydrating option for those with sensitive skin.”u003cemu003e — Dr. Heather Rogersu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50

u003cpu003e“This cult classic exfoliates nicely and is easy to work into your evening routine.” u003cemu003e— Dr. Heather Rogersu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Wander Beauty’s Fast Lane Instant Facial

u003cpu003e“This effective mask blends glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids to smooth the skin’s texture and unclog pores by gently exfoliating the build-up of dead skin cells. Alongside those amazing AHAs and BHA, this mask also has meadowfoam seed oil that locks in moisture and softens skin. This face mask dramatically minimizes the appearance of pores and fine lines. This is typically one of my go-to products before a last-minute night out.” u003cemu003e— Natalie Aguilaru003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e