By Vaila Bhaumick 

It’s with trepidation that I begin to write an article on skincare after the ‘Be a Lady, They Said’ video, criticising impossible standards for women, went viral last week. The topic of beauty standards is a touchy subject these days. However, particular skin problems such as acne can have an impact on a person’s mental health, so obviously, looking after your skin can be crucial.

The word ‘acid’ can invoke fear when it appears alongside the term skincare. But acids are natural compounds and are incorporated in skincare regimens for a good reason. With their anti-ageing, anti-acne and anti-dryness properties, they are a healthy addition to your skincare toolkit. Acids help to peel away dead skin, allowing newer healthy skin to be revealed, giving you that ‘glow’. 

So, which acids are the best ones to adopt as part of your skincare routine? There are so many on the market, found in face washes, lotions, masks, skin pads, exfoliants and serums. Here, we give the lowdown on the three most commonly used—lactic, glycolic and salicylic.

Lactic, Glycolic Or Salicylic Acid?

Before we dive into the specifics of these three, it’s useful to note that there are two types of acids used in skincare—AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids). AHAs, such as glycolic or lactic, are water-soluble, whereas BHAs, such as salicylic, are oil-soluble. Both types are exfoliants—AHAs peel away dead skin from the surface, and BHAs go deeper into pores to remove dead skin cells.

Lactic acid comes from milk sugars and is a naturally-occurring acid. If you have sensitive skin, lactic is an excellent choice as it tends to be milder, perhaps because it is found in the gut bacteria. An exfoliator and moisturiser at the same time, it’s a good all-rounder, particularly for your body. It is especially recommended for those with dry, flaky skin or keratosis pilaris

We only leave this on for 15 mins but still saw results

Glycolic acid, an AHA like lactic acid, is derived from sugar cane. It is the AHA queen of exfoliation, and because it is antimicrobial, it is most commonly used for acne complaints. Unlike other acids used for the treatment of acne, it doesn’t dry the skin – quite the opposite actually, it helps retain moisture. Glycolic acid has a peeling effect that gets rid of all the nasties from the pores, meaning fewer breakouts and clearer skin. Great news!

We love how this works even on sensitive skin

Salicylic acid comes from willow tree bark and is a BHA, putting it in a different category from glycolic and lactic. It is oil-soluble so can get down deeper into pores, removing excess oil and dead skin. Why is this a good thing? It is much better at treating acne because it goes down under the skin to the source, deeper than glycolic. The benefits of salicylic acid go beyond acne treatment though and include smoothing fine lines and wrinkles, brightening skin, and aiding blackhead removal.

Things To Keep In Mind When Using Acids

Let’s go back to our first thought about acids being a bit scary. Are there any side effects we should know about, or other things to keep in mind?

If you intend to use both glycolic and salicylic acids, go slow and introduce them one at a time. Both of them produce quick results, and so if you go ‘gung-ho’ on them, you might end up over-exfoliating and experience some stinging or redness. Continue to be vigilant, even once you are used to using both simultaneously. 

Sun exposure is another consideration. AHAs like glycolic acid increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so wearing sunscreen is the best course of action, for up to seven days after use.

All acids have the potential to cause irritation if used too frequently or at too high a dosage. However, AHAs, especially glycolic acid, have a higher likelihood to irritate due to their smaller molecule size. BHAs, like salicylic, have a larger molecule size, as well as natural anti-inflammatory properties.

Salicylic acid is found in certain foods and in high doses in medications like aspirin. If you have an allergy or intolerance to aspirin or other drugs containing salicylic acid, seek a medical professional’s advice before using it. Generally speaking, if you feel any ill-effects from using an acid, stop immediately and talk to your doctor.

Finally, if you have a darker skin tone, be aware that some acids, particularly glycolic acid, can cause discolouration. Lowering the dosage you are using can help to avoid this, but if you are uncertain, again speak to a dermatologist.

The bottom line is: acids have a part to play in helping your skin look healthy and radiant, but always ask for advice from a professional if you are unsure about the side effects. Everyone has their reasons for wanting to look beautiful and healthy, and that is ok, but it is crucial that we feel that way too.