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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What are AHAs? Miracle ingredients or not?

Exfoliating is the most important thing you can do for your skin. Getting rid of the mounting dead cell layers will go a long way to restoring and maintaining healthy skin. Exfoliation gives your skin more clarity, cleaner pores, and a much smoother texture. Alpha hydroxy acids are one way to achieve this well-exfoliated surface.

Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, dissolve the intercellular cement that binds your skin cells together. These acids essentially loosen the glue between the cells, allowing them to slough off more readily. This creates smoother skin, steps up circulation, and can lessen the lines caused from dehydration. I’m referring to superficial lines—not deep wrinkles. The results vary, but in general you should experience an improvement in the texture of your skin with the use of AHAs. They really can make the surface of your skin incredibly smooth, which helps with the dehydrated (dry) feeling that is so common. You may also experience less debris clogging your pores after using AHA products. I have seen this type of improvement in some of my clients with chronic congestion problems.

Alpha hydroxy acids are sometimes termed fruit acids since several of the acids come from fruit sources. There are many different kinds of AHAs available for use in skin care products. Some of these acids are glycolic, derived from sugarcane; lactic, from sour milk and other sources such as bilberry or passion fruit; tartaric, from grapes and aged wine; and citric, from citrus fruits such as lemon and orange.

AHAs are what I term passive exfoliators. Just by the mere fact that they are sitting on your skin, they are helping to decompose cells, leading to a smoother texture. But it is my belief you still need to actively exfoliate (with a gommage or scrub) on a regular basis to get the optimum effects from passive exfoliation. In doing so, you help to eliminate much more of the buildup that the AHAs have broken down. For example, let’s say you pour paint thinner (AHAs) on a sidewalk (your skin) covered with paint (dead skin cells). The paint thinner dissolves and breaks up a lot of the paint, but until you get a hose and really blast the sidewalk with a powerful stream of water (an active exfoliator), the decomposed paint just sits there. Putting AHAs on your skin helps to decompose skin cells, but until you actively exfoliate, you are only doing half the job—and only receiving half the results.

If you are prone to couperose (capillary damage) or if you have sensitive skin, be careful with AHAs. And if you have rosacea, AHAs are definitely out! Their acidic nature makes them an irritant, which can cause a mild to strong burning sensation on skin that is sensitive. I have found AHAs also heighten redness in my clients with couperose. In some cases where the AHAs are really helping to unclog pores, the payoff is greater than the slight redness it may be causing. Just be aware AHAs can cause further damage to the fragile capillaries. If you continue to feel a stinging or burning sensation when using AHAs, I’d take the hint and stop using them. As prevalent as alpha hydroxy acids are, they are not for everyone. Listen to the clues your skin is giving you.

Something else that is a point of concern is the use of “mono acids” (meaning one). Glycolic is probably the most commonly used mono alpha hydroxy acid. When you continue to use an acidic compound over a long period of time (especially in high strengths) thinking that if a little is good then more is even better, it can be too severe for your skin to tolerate. Your skin can become irritated, which in turn can cause edema (water retention or puffiness). This reaction can cause a negative breakdown of healthy tissue, not just the decomposing of surface dead cells. There are companies who recognize this dilemma and are putting out multiacid AHA products. Using multiple acid formulas is preferable to mono acid products because you are utilizing acid compounds from several sources instead of just one. In the long run, the skin will react better to this variety.

How strong is too strong? Lower-strength (3% or less) AHA compounds do not present a threat to the health of your skin and can be used daily without concern. When using high-strength AHAs (10% or more), it is much better to use them on a semiregular basis rather than using them every day. Again, high-strength products can become too much of a good thing.

Many AHAs on the market—especially glycolics—are synthetic. One of the large chemical companies here in the U.S. produces most commercial-grade glycolic. The technology was first developed for glycolic acid to be produced from sugarcane, its organic source. Then synthetics were substituted. My personal preference is organic over synthetic. You get the whole synergistic effect of the natural extract instead of an imitation. If the AHAs in a product come from organic sources, most likely they will state that on the ingredient list.

Another thing you may have heard about is BHAs, or beta hydroxy acids. The basic difference between AHAs and BHAs is this: AHAs dissolve intercellular cement—the gluelike substance that binds cells together. BHAs break down the cells themselves. Betas dissolve dead tissue with a protein-dissolving action similar to enzymes, like papaya and bromaline (from pineapple). Salicylic acid, for instance, is a beta hydroxy acid derived from willow bark.

Compared to many of the trends and fads on the market today that are of no benefit, I think AHAs and BHAs are actually beneficial. They’re not for everybody, but they can give you good results without incurring too much, if any, damage. The premise behind many of the products and procedures in skin care is to exfoliate the skin, and alpha hydroxy acids deliver. They aren’t the be-all and end-all, and they certainly don’t take the place of actively exfoliating and deep cleaning your skin, but AHAs can smooth your complexion and help keep your pores from clogging as well as providing your skin with a healthy, radiant appearance.

For more information on other ingredients and procedures, see: