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Upkeep’s Guide to AHAs

Get ready to glow, baby.

April 1, 2022

We’ve all had those mornings.

We wake up, look in the mirror, and find that our skin looks dull. 

There are many reasons why this happens: a wild night out, dry or cold weather, heating and air conditioning, or nutrition problems. While some of these things are out of control, we also have a fast-acting solution available to us: the category of skincare products called Alpha Hydroxy Acids, or AHAs for short. They create brighter, smoother skin. You may already know about AHAs, but you might not know which one is best for you. And even though they’re pretty easy to use, people can still make some mistakes with them. Today we’re breaking down how AHAs work, the different types, and how to use them. Read on to get your most glowy skin.

What are AHAs and how do they work?

Alpha hydroxy acids work by interacting with a membrane protein in skin cells. They create a chemical reaction that dissolves the glue that holds old skin cells together. This reveals new skin cells underneath and gives you that fresh, bright glow. 

What concerns do AHAs treat?

AHAs are great for reviving dull, tired-looking skin. They also: 

Even out skin tone 

Lift pigmentation

Exfoliate surface of the skin


At higher concentrations, AHAs increase collagen density in the dermis, which means they temporarily reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.  If your skin is super dry, AHAs can help your moisturizers work better, because you’re removing that barrier of dead skin cells. On both the face and body, AHAs help with keratosis pilaris–a condition where your skin makes too much keratin and creates little bumps that don’t go away on their own. 

Can I use AHAs to treat acne?

AHAs are water soluble, which means they can’t penetrate through your skin’s natural oils. If your skin is super oily or you suffer from acne, you’ll want a beta hydroxy acid product instead of an AHA. The only BHA commonly used in cosmetics is salicylic acid, which penetrates into the pores, loosens dead skin, and dissolves oil build up. AHAs can help with pigmentation left behind from acne but it’s not the best tool for addressing the cause of acne directly. 

What are the different types of AHAs?

Glycolic acid is one of the most common AHAs. It’s made from sugarcane. Of all the AHAs, glycolic is the strongest–but that also makes it the most irritating. 

Lactic acid comes from milk and is gentler than glycolic. If your skin is sensitive, this is the AHA for you. Plus, lactic acid has humectant properties, which means it attracts water to your skin. So it’s also good for dehydrated skin. 

Malic acid comes from apples. It’s a weaker AHA so it’s typically seen in combination with lactic or glycolic. 

Mandelic acid comes from bitter almonds. Like malic acid, it’s also fairly mild and used in combination with stronger acids. 

How should I use AHAs?

It’s best to start with a mild product and work your way up. 

You can get chemical peels from a qualified provider (think: dermatologist), but we should note that high concentrations of AHAs can cause post-inflammatory pigmentation for people with darker skin tones. 

Don’t overdo it–your skin can get irritated with too much AHAs. If your skin is super sensitive, you might just want to use an AHA product once or twice a week. If your skin is less sensitive, you can use them once a day or so. 

AHAs will make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure. Not that you need another reason to wear your SPF on the daily (no exceptions!) but it’s especially important with AHAs. 

Over-the-counter AHAs are generally considered safe to use during pregnancy, but we always recommend that you check with your doctor to make sure. 

One of the reasons we love AHAs is that they provide an instant brightening effect. But with consistent use over time, they can help even out your skin tone.

So, now you have the scoop on AHAs and can add an AHA product to your routine with confidence. Bright, glowy skin is just around the corner! 

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