Of all the products on the market today for skincare, the most readily recognized are the alpha and beta hydroxy acids. One of the reasons for their success, excluding an incredible marketing push, is the fact that they actually do what they claim to do. They both act as chemical “peels” for the skin.
Alpha-hydroxy acid is derived from fruit (citric, glycolic, tartaric and malic) acids or dairy (lactic) acids while Beta hydroxy acid is salicylic acid which is derived from aspirin. Neither of these products is new. Both have been around and in use for thousands of years. The difference is in the amount of research and marketing that has gone into the modern products.
While these acids do what they claim, that does not mean they are without their drawbacks. Sun sensitivity and irritation are the worst and most common side effects. So while they do reverse the effects of sun damage to the skin, at the same time they make the skin more susceptible to further damage from the sun. Unfortunately a sunscreen mixed with hydroxy acids is not very effective at the ph levels required for the hydroxy acids to be effective. You have to give the acids a little time to soak in and then apply a sunscreen.
Consumers are restricted to solutions of 10% or less. Trained cosmetologists are allowed to use solutions of 20% to 30% and physicians can handle 50% to 70%. Remember that as the concentration goes up so does the intensity of the side effects. While a doctors treatment may last much longer than your home treatment, it could take a full month to recover from the treatment.
The big difference between alpha-hydroxy and beta-hyroxy acids is that beta-hydroxy acid is oil soluble while alpha-hydroxy acids are water soluble only. This makes the beta-hydroxy acids the preferred solution to treating problems with oily skin such as acne, whiteheads, and blackheads. Beta-hydroxy acids also are less irritating since they are derived from aspirin and retain the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin.
Be wary when buying products proclaiming alpha- hydroxy as part of their makeup. They work best with concentrations of 5% to 8% and a ph of 3 to 4. This information is rarely, if ever placed on the labels. Obscure manufacturers have nothing to lose by playing loosely with these figures, while the better known producers have a reputation to protect. But the bottom line controls everybody’s actions.
A few pearls of wisdom:
Buy alpha-hydroxy formulated with a moisturizer
Do not buy alpha-hydroxy combined with a sunscreen
Do apply sunscreen liberally after your alpha-hydroxy has had time to soak in.
If practical, test the product with a ph test strip(available at pool, pet, and drug stores)