SPY Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Exfoliating With Skin Care Acids

Skincare Acids Guide
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* Find out why you should be putting acids on your skin
* Acid exfoliants for all skin types and concerns explained
* Retinoids, AHA’s vs. BHA’s, hyaluronic acid and more

If the thought of putting acid on your skin sounds daunting–and downright dangerous–we can’t really blame you. We’ve all heard nightmarish stories of friends coming out of the derm after a chemical peel and not being able to step foot out of the house for a day or two on account of beet-red skin. But the truth is, incorporating an acid into your current routine can lead to some major improvements across the skin spectrum, and if you choose the right one for you, there’s no down time involved. It’s time to drop some acid–on your skin, that is.

Acids work as an exfoliant, and they can help improve a slew of skincare concerns including acne, acne scars, dark spots, wrinkles–you name it, acids can help improve it.

Acids can be tricky when it comes to putting them on your skin — even if you’re a chemistry PhD. There’s plenty to choose from, and each treats different concerns with different gradients of potency. A general rule of thumb: take it slow if you’re a newbie.

Most dermatologists recommend that you start out by incorporating an acid into your nightly skincare routine 2-3 time per week, as some can cause irritation, redness and peeling. Once your skin gets used to them, however, you can gradually increase your usage as needed.

Read ahead for our guide on finding the right skincare acid for your skin type, concern, and age.




Retonic acid is just another fancy word for retinoids or retinol. Under this branch, there are several types of retinoids, all ranging from mild to more intensive in efficacy and of course, side effects. You can find out all you need to know about retinol and retinoids here. In short, this type of acid is one of the most effective exfoliants you can find because not only does it help slough off dead skin cells, but it also revs up collagen production, making it one of the best solutions for anti-aging concerns. When it comes to fine lines, retinoids are probably your best option, but if you have sensitive skin, make sure to start out slow as they can be irritating and can cause extreme dryness when you first begin using them.

Benefits: Great for anti-aging, dullness, texture, enlarged pores, non-cystic acne and hyperpigmentation.

[caption id="attachment_98993" align="aligncenter" width="404"]Differin Retinol Amazon Image courtesy of Amazon[/caption]




While technically classified as an acid, this one doesn’t actually exfoliate, but it does help your skin retain moisture and plumpness, which can help address excess dryness and reduce the look of fine lines. It’s a great ingredient to use in conjunction with harsher exfoliants and retinoids as well, as its moisturizing properties will help counteract irritation, redness, and excessive dryness.

Benefit: Hyaluronic acid helps skin retain moisture, hydrating, plumpness.

Cosmedica Skincare Hyaluronic acid Image courtesy of Amazon




As the most gentle acids in the bunch, ferulic acid is a great ingredient for those with extra-sensitive skin types. It won’t give your pores a deep clean or combat acne, but it’s a great antioxidant, which helps prevent free-radical damage and prevent premature aging. Because it’s such a “gentle” acid, you’ll often see ferulic acid mixed in with other anti-aging ingredients like retinol and vitamin C.

Benefits: anti-oxidant, fights free radical damage and protects against pollution.

Timeless Skin Care Anti Aging Serum Image courtesy of Amazon




Also known as good old Vitamin C, this antioxidant acid is a great defense against free radical damage, and is especially beneficial to those who live in pollution-ridden cities, and people who are smokers. Vitamin C also improves skin by helping promote collagen production, thereby making it an excellent ingredient for giving your skin a glow, fading dark spots, and evening out texture.

Benefits: brightening, combats dullness and texture, helps blur fine lines, fights free radical damage, and helps fade dark spots and acne scars.

Klair Vitamin C Serum Image courtesy of Amazon




BHA works in similar way as AHA’s, sloughing off dead skin cells to exfoliate. This acid is particularly great for those with oily and acne-prone skin types, as it’s an oil soluble acid. If you’ve ever used any acne-fighting product, you’ve used BHA — the only acid under this branch is salicylic acid, which is the gold standard active ingredient in most over-the-counter acne treatments. Not only does BHA help treat acne, but it also helps to tighten your pores (and make them look smaller) and keeps excess oil at bay.

Benefits: Able to penetrate pores deeper than most other acids, helps combat excess oils, reduces blackheads and non-cystic acne.

[caption id="attachment_98968" align="aligncenter" width="261"]Paula's Choice AHA Serum Image courtesy of Amazon[/caption]




Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs for short) is a branch of acids with a decent track record for their ability to effectively exfoliate the skin, without excessive irritation and redness. Under this branch, there are a few different types under the AHA umbrella: glycolic, citric, malic, and tartaric. They work to brighten the skin and improve texture by sloughing away dead skin cells, and they’re especially great for those with sensitive or dry skin.

Benefits: Generally mild and well-tolerated on most skin types, brightening properties, reduces look of pores, targets fine lines and texture.

BeautyRX Dr Schultz Exfoliating Serum Image courtesy of Dermstore