Acne and Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) Exfoliation

Products with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) have become widely used in recent years. For people with acne, AHAs can be helpful in clearing the skin, because they basically act as exfoliants, and speed up the process of shedding the topmost layer of skin cells. This can help keep pores clear.

AHAs for acne

Studies have shown that AHA's are effective in reducing lesions caused by acne vulgaris, the medical term for common facial acne, which affects some 85 percent of all people 12 to 24 years old. AHAs can reduce acne lesions within two weeks of starting treatment. You can see a continued reduction in lesions even after the treatments are finished. If you have acne, and are using other acne products, talk with your doctor first. Too much exfoliation can leave your skin looking worse than before. If you start using an AHA, the extent of exfoliants depends on the type and concentration of the AHA, its pH (acidity), and other ingredients in the product. Most cosmetics sold to consumers contain AHAs at levels up to 10 percent. This can be useful against acne, because it can keep pores from becoming blocked.

If you have acne and are considering use of an AHA, check the ingredients on the label. AHA ingredients may be listed in different ways, such as L-alpha hydroxy acid or these other ways:

glycolic acid and lactic acid - these are the types most common in cosmetic products

  • malic acid 
  • mixed fruit acid, citric acid, tri-alpha hydroxy fruit acids 
  • glycolic acid + ammonium glycolate 
  • triple fruit acid, sugar cane extract 
  • alpha hydroxy and botanical complex 
  • glycomer in crosslinked fatty acids alpha nutrium (three AHAs)
  • alpha-hydroxyethanoic acid + ammonium alpha-hydroxyethanoate 
  • alpha-hydroxyoctanoic acid, alpha-hydroxycaprylic acid, hydroxycaprylic acid 

Of these, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the most frequently used in cosmetics are glycolic acid and lactic acid.

Products with AHAs are marketed for a variety of things:

For example, they can smooth fine lines and surface wrinkles and they can improve skin texture and tone. For oily skin and for acne, they can also be helpful because they unblock pores.

It is important to follow the use instructions on the label. Do not exceed the recommended applications. Make sure you test any product on a small area of skin to see if it causes irritation, and if it does, don't use the product.

AHAs may make users more sensitive to sunlight and especially to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation component of sunlight. UV exposure can damage the skin and at high doses, especially over a long period, can cause skin cancer. That's why sun protection is essential if you are using AHA lotions or AHA creams on your skin. Use a good sunscreen or wear sun protective clothing and hats to protect your skin from sunburn. FDA says it is important to use sun protection, including a sun screen, if you use an AHA product, even if you haven't used the product that day. If you use the AHA at bedtime, be sure to apply an additional sunscreen in the morning before going into the sun.

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