Likewise, we all know hyaluronic acid. It’s the grand dame of re-hydrating. And its ability to hold 1000 times its own weight in water to plump-up skin, is legendary.
Hence, it also has a whole battalion of products spotlighting hyaluronic as the hero ingredient.
Despite our science lessons teaching us otherwise, it looks like we’re not afraid of acids anymore. Or, at least, we’re less afraid of them. We’ll still skip sulphuric, thanks very much, but Alpha Hydroxy Acids (or AHAs) have emerged as the top skin exfoliator for smoother, brighter skin.
Glycolic acid is, of course, the breakout star. Pick up any liquid or chemical exfoliator these days, and the likelihood is, it’ll contain glycolic, which has a solid reputation for loosening the bonds between dead skin cells and lifting them away to reveal the fresh skin beneath. It’s a process our skin should do naturally, but becomes sluggish as we age.
But, formulators are beginning to question: aren’t there other, more effective options available to us?
“We’re constantly shifting to meet consumers’ changing needs, and what’s also changed are the acids available to us,” Noella Gabriel, co-founder of Elemis revealed when introducing the brand’s newest innovation, the Pro-Collagen Tri-Acid Peel. It’s a notable departure for Elemis, which has historically favoured enzymes for exfoliating, after taking the stance that glycolic acid is too harsh on skin.
Now, they’re offering a product that contains three skin acids. “It’s all about molecular size,” explains Noella. It may sound counter-intuitive, but large molecules are gentler on skin, “the larger the molecule, the less penetration you have. Large molecules work on the surface, cleaning away dirt, grime and dead skin cells,” Noella adds. The smaller the molecule, the deeper it will be able to penetrate. “Different molecular sizes create a catalyst action,” explains Noella. They can work on different levels of the skin.
While many dermatologists are quick to verify the benefits of glycolic for exfoliating; as with all ingredients, not everything works for everyone. Many skin types, especially if they’re weakened or sensitive, can struggle to get on with glycolic acid, which can exacerbate skin conditions if they’re over-used.
“Every acid is different and each acid suits a different skin type or outcome,” explains Georgie Cleeve, founder of skincare brand, OSKIA. “It is worth bearing in mind, that using strong acids regularly can compromise the microbiome of our skin. Our skin is amazing and will revert back to its normal pH within an hour or so, but the acid conditions can have long-lasting effects on our precious skin flora. Exfoliation has phenomenal benefits to the skin – such as reducing pigmentation, scarring and fine lines by boosting cellular turnover, but protecting our skin microbiome and our barrier function does need to be addressed.”
It’s why many brands have been branching out in order to offer skin solutions that feel more gentle, or offer dual benefits to our skin, such as exfoliating whilst nourishing simultaneously.
So if you can’t get on with your usual exfoliator, you’re looking for an extra boost of hydration or your after smart new ingredients, these are the new wave of acids to be aware of…
“This is a wonderful exfoliating Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) great for very sensitive and dry skin,” explains Georgie. “It’s a sugar acid from Lactose and one of the largest molecular sizes, meaning that it doesn’t penetrate into the skin but very, very gently exfoliates just the surface making it less irritable.
It is highly effective for dry and sensitive skin because it is also an antioxidant and importantly a humectant [which draws in moisture,” she adds. It means the after-feel is different. It won’t leave your skin feeling dry and tight. It’ll leave it feeling hydrated and luminous.
“Found in Centella asiatica [which is the ingredient used in Cica creams], this is a natural derivative,” explains Mark Curry, founder of skincare brand The Inkey List. “It’s not a hydrating acid, or an exfoliating acid but an anti-ageing acid ingredient for troubled skin. It can do two things; support the skin barrier and help with the induction of collagen synthesis for plumper and stronger skin.
Simultaneously this will smooth redness and irritation and has antioxidant activity.” Which means contrary to what you might think, it’s beautifully soothing.
“It’s been hidden under the name Gotu Kola (from where it is extracted) and been used as a wound healer for centuries used as a whole ingredient. It’s fabulous,” confirms Georgie.
“Again, this is one of the exfoliating super acids,” says Georgie. “It has a larger molecule which allows for slower penetration in the skin and in turn, is better tolerated by the skin,” adds Noella. It’s a great all-rounder since it can also balance sebum and diminish the appearance of pigmentation and melasma.
“I recommend it for people who are older wanting brighter, clearer and more clarified pores,” says Mark.
“It’s a classic AHA and can support skin cell turnover. It also has the ability to rebuild the glue that binds cells together and support collagen production and the skin barrier, he adds.
“Poluglutamic Acid is a powerful hydrator for the skin’s surface. It can hold four times more moisture than Hyaluronic Acid, locking in moisture and helping the skin to appear instantly smoother,” explains Mark. “It binds water to the surface of the skin more powerfully than Hyaluronic Acid (which in my view is over hyped as the ‘cure’ for dry skin when applied topically),” says Georgie.
“It also forms a protective surface layer preventing trans-epidermal water loss, which strengthens your skin’s barrier function, as well as reducing the natural breakdown of Hyaluronic Acid in your skin,” she adds. Overall, this is a great acid to enhance skin moisturisation, reduce the appearance of fine lines and brighten skin tone,” says Mark.
“This is an acid more commonly seen in premium skincare. It supports a whole bandwidth of problems but is especially good at tackling pigmentation and age spots. It works to brighten your skin’s complexion, as well as aids the reduction of dark spots and uneven skin tone. Plus, it pairs nicely with Vitamin C during the day and retinol,” says Mark.