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The science of acid-based serums

If acid is bad for skin, why are acid-based serums so popular?

Serums are a major component of modern skincare routines.
Serums are a major component of modern skincare routines. (Unsplash)

For most people, the word ‘acid’ is a reminder of chemistry labs, where you were warned by your teacher to wear gloves and protective eye-gear and handle them with care. How, then, do we feel confident enough to use the increasingly popular acid-based serums in our skincare routines? For women across the world, acids have become the go-to ingredient when it comes to skincare. Right from undoing sun damage and tanning to evening out skin tone, removing whiteheads and blackheads, clearing acne and reducing wrinkles, acids in serums have found widespread acceptability. A lot of women prefer acid-based serums to exfoliate skin than natural scrubs.

“ I am very careful about what products I use on my face, and I switched from scrubs to acid-based exfoliation when I read that scrubs actually cause micro-tears on your skin and that can lead to damaged skin and wrinkles. Ever since I switched to using acid-based serums, I have noticed a huge difference. My blackheads and whiteheads have reduced. My pores also don’t clog and I have fewer breakouts,” says 37-year-old Mumbai-based HR professional Sarika Mehta.

Also read: How to hydrate your skin, inside out

Independent beauty writer Sunaina Pathak says she started using acids in her skincare after seeing a number of beauty-bloggers and YouTubers she follows rave about them. She is a bit sceptical about using acids daily, but she finds them useful to remove tan and exfoliate.

There are a number of acids used in skincare products. Salicylic acid helps clear acne and breakouts. Glycolic acid helps even out skin tone and combat skin-ageing and wrinkles but it has to be used regularly for the desired effect to show. While mandelic acid is known to even out the skin-tone, reverse sun-damage and reduce skin pigmentation, kojic acid helps reduce pigmentation especially in Asian and Indian skin. Hyaluronic acid, which is naturally produced by human skin, keeps it well hydrated and lubricated. Lactic acid, a mild exfoliant and moisturizing acid, is perfect for people with sensitive skin, and citric acid reduces skin dullness.

These acids are divided into two categories: alphahydroxy acids (AHAs) and betahydroxy acids (BHAs). AHAs are the most commonly used acids in skincare products and are the entry-level ingredient if you haven’t used acid-based serums before. They act as exfoliants and boost collagen production. BHAs penetrate deep into the skin and help clear clogged pores, preventing acne. However, they need to be used with caution.

How do acids really work? Dr Rinky Kapoor, consultant dermatologist and dermato-surgeon, The Esthetic Clinics, Mumbai, says, “Acids are the magic ingredients in your skincare arsenal that you can use to rejuvenate the skin. The trend of using face acids is not new; there is evidence of ancient royalty using different types of acids to restore the natural pH balance of the skin. Used in the right concentration and mixes, face acids do not burn. They are especially formulated to suit different skin types. Face and body acids also help in reducing ultraviolet damage, decrease collagen degradation and restoring the skin’s natural protective barrier.” This means that even when the acid-based product is not on your skin, it is still working its magic, says Dr Kapoor.

In addition, acids for skin care treatments are often derived from natural ingredients but are more refined and concentrated to treat specific skin problems. “Be mindful of the active ingredients that you are using on the skin. When using AHAs, avoid vitamin C and retinol, and don’t mix the face acids. Most acids are not meant to be applied daily,” says Dr Kapoor.

So are all acid-based serums and skincare products laced with chemicals? Not necessarily. The “bad” chemicals are actually the likes of parabens, phthalates, sulphates, mineral oils, additives, and silicones, and you should check the product label for these, says Manish Chowdhary, founder, Wow Skin Science. “We use select acids, which are safe and natural. such as hyaluronic acid, which is naturally-occurring in your body and is supplemented through these serums,” says Chowdhary.

Before you start using any acid-based serum or other product, it is advisable to do a patch-test. You should also see a dermatologist before using any of these products if you intend to use them to solve a specific skin issue, like aggressive acne or hyper-pigmentation.

The dermatologist will test your skin and advise the necessary products in accordance with the type of skin you have or the kind of skin problems you are facing. Also, don’t go overboard with all the products at once, or expect results overnight. Expected results take time and over applying will only delay the result.


Simple tips to get the best out of acids for your skin

Don’t start using all kinds of serums at once

Don’t buy products that have more than 10% acid concentration

Mixing acids may result in irritation and dry peeling skin

Try using acids at night

Always apply a good sunscreen post acid treatment

Start with your chin and neck and move upwards when applying acid

Don’t apply on cuts and wounds

Acid-based products brighten the skin, don’t expect ‘skin whitening’

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