What Are The Downsides To Using AHAs?

AHAs are ingredients that have recently become very popular in skincare products. They've always been in many different products — but you might be more aware of it now, as more brands are marketing what ingredients they use. When you look at a skincare product label, you're likely to see ingredients such as AHA, retinol, hydraulic acid, or vitamin C in a big font instead of only in the ingredient list (via Fashionista).


Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are the active ingredients used in chemical exfoliants. Ipsy explains that they are used to remove the top layer of dead skin to brighten dark spots, prevent acne, and boost collagen production. Many of your products may already have AHAs in them without you even knowing, like salicylic, glycolic, lactic, citric, and mandelic acids. These acids can have small or large molecules depending on which one you use. The smaller it is, the easier it is to absorb deeper into the skin — potentially causing irritation. You need to be careful of the side effects of AHAs. Depending on how they affect your complexion, you may have to suspend use of AHAs altogether.

Watch out for side effects

The downsides of AHAs occur when skin is too sensitive to withstand the strength of the acid. You can accidentally damage your skin's moisture barrier if you use products with AHAs, because their pH level can throw the levels of your skin out of whack if you use too much. Your skin type also affects whether these acids suit your skincare routine. Licensed esthetician Heather Wilson explained to The Klog that when misused, these products can cause sensitivity, irritation, peeling, dryness, and redness. These side effects are symptoms of a damaged acid mantle or moisture barrier.


One reason why you may experience these side effects is if you have sensitive skin. Another is if you aren't following up your chemical exfoliant with other skincare products meant to add hydration. After using AHAs, you should finish your routine with products like hyaluronic acid or ceramides, and you should wear sunscreen daily. You should stay away from retinol or vitamin C for the next few days. AHAs are good at removing dead skin, but they are a strong product that leaves your skin vulnerable if you don't have a well-rounded skincare routine.

Try PHAs instead

You don't need to worry if AHAs are too potent for you. Other products will give your skin similar results without damaging your moisture barrier. Polyhydroxy acids, or PHAs, are in the same family as AHAs and BHAs. They're all chemical exfoliants that remove your top layer of dead skin cells. If AHAs are way too potent for your face, PHAs are a gentler version that should work for you. Some of these acids are gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic (via Healthline).


PHAs are a better choice for sensitive skin because they have larger molecules that won't absorb as deep into the skin, according to Sublime Life. They're not as harsh, so people suffering from eczema and rosacea can also use these products. However, to use them properly, ensure you start with a low percentage of acid in your product and always do a test patch. If you don't see any irritation, you can slowly increase how frequently you use the product. An ideal skincare schedule will include using an exfoliate two to three times a week with recovery days in between.