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Myth Busting: Could the Acids in Your Skin Care Routine Be Causing Long-Term Damage?

Alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid are all the rage in skin care, and for good reason. Who doesn’t love a glowing, baby soft complexion? But could these ingredients be damaging your skin in the long run? Below, two experts weigh in.

I recently had the chance to co-host a Soko Glam curations video with co-founder Charlotte Cho (check it out here!) and at the end, I asked viewers to share the topics they want to see on The Klog. One of them stuck out. Melissa asked:

“I keep seeing very differing info in the skin care industry lately on whether or not using AHAs (not in regards to using too many or too often—but using them in general) can easily compromise your skin’s natural moisture barrier over time (especially for sensitive or dehydrated skin folks).”

I too have heard rumblings about the potential of acids to be harmful for skin in the long-term. In addition to weakening the moisture barrier, the thinning of the dermis and the acceleration of aging are other unsavory claims that I’ve come across.

As someone who regularly uses products that contain AHAs, I had to find out whether or not these concerns are valid, so I consulted with two skin experts: Dr. Julie Karen, a New York City-based dermatologist and Heather Wilson, a licensed esthetician and director of brand development at InstaNatural. Read on for what they had to say.
“Regular use of safely formulated AHAs/BHAs should not compromise the skin’s barrier, thin the dermis, or accelerate the signs of aging,” says Wilson right off the bat.

Dr. Karen agrees, explaining that the effects of using AHAs are quite the opposite of the concerns mentioned above. “AHAs can help reduce dark spots, and improve hydration and reduce wrinkles through increasing hyaluronic acid within the dermis,” she says. “And sloughing of unwanted deadened skin cells should not be confused with thinning the skin.”

In addition to these benefits, Dr. Karen says that “AHAs, glycolic acids chief among them, help improve radiance and brightness by abetting exfoliation of deadened skin cells that accumulate on the skin’s surface.” Plus, through exfoliation, chemical exfoliants can help enhance the efficacy of subsequently applied topicals.

However, it’s important to note that acids are strong ingredients and can damage the skin if used incorrectly.
“Anytime you consistently use products with a pH that is too low or too high, you do risk disrupting your skin’s acid mantle (or moisture barrier).” says Wilson. “When you’ve compromised the skin’s acid mantle, you can experience redness, irritation, dryness and sensitivity.”

To avoid this, she recommends introducing acids slowly into your routine in order to build your skin’s tolerance and being wary of over-exfoliation. Depending on the product, use two to three times per week is likely sufficient.  “Pay close attention to how your skin reacts to a product and decrease use if you notice signs of irritation or dryness,” says Wilson.

RELATED: The Skin Care Ingredients You Shouldn’t Mix

You should also avoid mixing products that contain acids with those that contain other strong ingredients such as retinol or vitamin C. And finally, make sure you are using acids as part of a well-rounded routine. This means properly hydrating skin after use and wearing sunscreen consistently.

Bottom Line

Says Dr.Karen: “Hydroxy acids have short- and long-term benefits that include improved radiance, smoothened fine lines, improved moisturization (especially when followed immediately by a moisturizer), all of which contribute to healthier, younger appearing skin.”

If you’re worried about negative effects, or if you find AHAs to be too harsh for your sensitive skin, consider using PHAs instead. “These close relatives are larger molecules and therefore absorb more slowly to skin and have lesser potential for irritation,” says Dr. Karen

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