Everything You Need to Know About Face Acids

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Acids are totally groovy. Just ask your aunt with the ankle flower tattoo or, as it turns out, any dermatologist. If you have anti-aging, anti-acne, or anti-dry-skin concerns — or, in other words, are human — acids can drastically help you deal with your face. (And, no, using them doesn't feel like a chemical peel.) They work by helping you get new skin quicker through a process dermatologists call “turnover.” New skin is shiny and bright, and looks better than old skin. As Dr. Julie Russak explains, “Dead cells absorb light rather than reflect it, resulting in dull-looking skin.” Below, our non-painful everything guide to getting to know your essential face acids.

Glycolic acid is a good starter acid. If acids were a boy band, glycolic acid (a type of alpha-hydroxy acid) would be your Justin Timberlake. It's the one most recommended by dermatologists to acid virgins because it's gentle and has proven anti-aging properties. Compared to other acids, glycolic has the smallest molecules and thus penetrates the skin most easily for dramatic results. Dr. O’Brien of Tribeca Park Dermatology explains: “Glycolic acid stimulates collagen, which helps with fine lines, wrinkles, and the general tone of the skin." Dr. Lancer, dermatologist to Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, suggests trying a 6 to 10 percent glycolic- or fruit-acid-based cream twice a week for two weeks for results. (Try Lancer Skincare’s Retexturizing Cream, which has 10 percent glycolic acid.) Or, if you've used face acids before, and are up for something a little bit stronger, Skinceuticals Retexturizing Activator Replenishing Serum with 20 percent glycolic acid, is a good bet.

Acids can help you get fewer pimples. If you've ever blindly grabbed at a drugstore acne product in a zit-related panic, you've probably already tried salicylic acid. A type of beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic is the second most common acid because of its ubiquity in acne products. As its molecules are larger than glycolic, its treatment percentages are lower. Reach for a product with salicylic acid when you want to get rid of pimples — its anti-inflammatory properties will help dissolve dead-skin buildup. Try Neutrogena's Rapid Clear Acne Eliminating Gel

Acids can also help you moisturize. If you have dry-skin concerns, try hyaluronic acids. It's not like the others in that it doesn't dissolve dead skin. It's a natural carbohydrate (unlike cupcakes) found in the human body that cushions and lubricates skin. Babies are born with a high amount of hyaluronic acid and the amount in our bodies decreases as we age. It can be found in moisturizers and even be used as an injectable, with Juvederm and Restylane. If you want to ease into it, try CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM or Philosophy's Take a Deep Breath Oxygen Gel Moisturizer, two moisturizers that contain hyaluronic acid. 

If you're scared of acids, try a wash. If you haven’t used any acids before and are nervous, try incorporating one into your routine with a wash. Dr. O’Brien says, “With a wash you can limit the amount of contact time with the skin and avoid over-drying.” Try Peter Thomas Roth's Glycolic Acid 3 Percent Face Wash or Mario Badescu's Glycolic Foaming Cleanser.

Don't try an acid peel at home. Acids are not necessarily going to hurt. If you’re using a moisturizer or face wash with an acid, it might slightly tingle for a brief amount of time. If you are getting a professional chemical peel, it will tingle for a longer length of time. But if you are Amazon-ing DIY acid peels late at night, it will hurt. Half the reviews for acid peels on Amazon vacillate between "This was amazing~!~" and "This gave me a chemical burn so bad that I couldn't leave my house for two weeks." You are not the exception. You are the rule; you will get burned. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Lancer cautions against attempting your own medical-grade peel at home: “You risk extremely serious burns, scarring, and permanent damage to the skin."

You can only tell if acids are working over time. Dr. Lancer explains how you can tell whether your acids are working: “Acids should noticeably brighten and even out the skin; you will notice pigmentation, freckling, and unevenness lessen over time. You will not necessarily 'feel' anything, but skin should be smoother to the touch after a period of regular use. It is also quite easy to notice when you have overused acids: Your skin will appear red, irritated, itchy, and dry. If this occurs, stop the use of the product for a few days and amp up your moisture application.”

Don’t go smearing a pineapple on your face. Sure, you could smush a bunch of oranges and pineapples on your face and hope that you're giving yourself a fruit peel, but, unsurprisingly, all the dermatologists we interviewed don’t suggest that. Not even with organic fruit. Dr. Lancer simply says, “It is possible, but not advisable.”