What are the signs you’re using acids too much? Sure, everyone loves skin care acids, but you can easily overdose on them. Check out how to avoid that below.
Every day, industry experts understand more about skin care and beauty labs get more savvy in their product development. This dedication to the craft has lead us to some seriously miraculous ingredients, including acids, and it’s natural to get excited about them.
The question, though, is whether it’s possible to overdo it with the acids. Can you have too much of a good thing? And if so, what are some signs that you’ve gone overboard? For the answers to those questions—and more—we hit up a dermatologist and biochemist.
What are acids?
Let’s do a quick bit of review here before we dive into the deep stuff.
“Acids are tools used to fight acne, wrinkles, age spots, scarring, uneven skin tone, and even hydrate the skin,” explains Simone McKitty, a NYC-based dermatologist. “Most acids used on the face are derived from elements in nature, including fruits, trees and milk.”
For example, glycolic acid comes from sugary fruits, kojic acids come from mushrooms, and salicylic acid is derived from willow bark. Many acids have synthetic and natural versions, with the former often being more stable for skin care usage. McKitty explain that acids help you get new skin quicker through a process called cell turnover that reveals renewed, vibrant skin.
“When used at the right concentrations, acids are some of the most beneficial ingredients available in skin care,” says McKitty. “All facial acids have their own benefits and there is an acid suited for everyone.”
So, can you overdo it?
You know how you can reach for a piece of chocolate and that small morsel is so satisfying that you can’t help but reach for another? Stop at one or two pieces and all’s well, but devour the entire bar and you’re in for an evening of upset stomach. That’s a great analogy for what can happen if you go overboard with acids in your skin care.
“Like most things in life, too much of a good thing can be very bad,” says McKitty. “You can overdo it by applying too much, using a concentration that is to strong, combining it with aggressive exfoliating treatments like microdermabrasion, chemical peels, or by using too many at one time.”
The good news is that over-the-counter products come with low enough concentrations that you aren’t going to do any harm simply by using the product as instructed. It’s when you don’t follow these instructions—or hit the facialist too many times, or go to one who’s not very experienced—that you can experience symptoms of over-usage. (
Side note:Hyaluronic acid is a hydrating acid and therefore unlikely to cause issues.)
“Acids are considered as being safe in cosmetic products if the concentrations are lower than 10% and at a final formulation of a pH greater than 3.5, and when formulated to avoid increasing sun sensitivity or used with daily sun protection,” explains Mirela Mitan, who has PhD in biochemistry and has been creating skin care formulas for over 25 years. “When applied by a professional in a salon, the AHA levels are safe at concentrations less than 30% and a final formulation of a pH higher than three.”
These professional acids are designed for brief application and are carefully followed by thorough rinsing. They should always be applied by trained experts and accompanied by directions for the daily use of sun protection.
Signs your skin has been overexposed to acids:
“The first side effect of overdoing it is skin irritation, in particular a stinging or burning sensation,” says Mitan. Your skin may appear red or flaky, or feel itchy, tight, or painful to the touch.
“Your skin could also feel more dry than when you started,” says McKitty. She noted that some products can, however, make your skin worse before it is better or have drying as a side effect, as is the case with retinoic acid. Her advice is to always consult a dermatologist to help you devise a skin care game plan.
An increase in the number of breakouts is another sign of overdoing it. McKitty said this is particularly common in premenopausal women, or if you’ve applied too many peels and AHA-based products.
Long Term Effects
“In the long term, side effects include skin sensitization (an allergic reaction to acids), and melanin accumulation (dark spots) if the skin is exposed to UV without protection,” says Mitan.
Healing overexposed skin:
If you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms, it’s time to take a break from using acids in your skincare until the issue resolves. This may take anywhere from a week to months, so be intuitive and thoughtful. This is your precious skin, after all!
“When you restart, you may need to decrease the frequency,” says McKitty. “For example, I often start patients on retinoic acid only one to two times per week and slowly build them up to avoid irritation and dryness. I usually combine this with a hydrating acid such as hyaluronic acid serum and a moisturizer.”
Another good bit of advice is to diligently determine what your skin care goals are, and then seek out the acids that target your needs. This prevents you from throwing a smorgasbord of ingredients onto your face, and helps you fix your skin care issues more quickly.
“For most of these acids, you should start out only using two to three times per week before bedtime. A rule of thumb is using a small amount, approximately the size of a pea. Always follow with an appropriate moisturizer for your skin,” said Dr. McKitty.
It’s also best to start out using acids before bed versus in the daytime when you’ll be exposed to the sun. The two exceptions to the above rules are ascorbic acid and hyaluronic acid.
“Ascorbic acid because it has antioxidant properties and the ability to neutralize free radicals from the environment, so it is best used in the daytime. Hyaluronic acid because it’s very hydrating. It can be used both night and day and can also be applied more liberally,” explains McKitty.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, your best plan of action is to follow product instructions and the advice you’ve read here today. It’s also in your best interest to consult a dermatologist who can offer personalized care to prevent over-usage, heal already damaged skin, and help you achieve your skin care goals.