• therapyinc

How acids work...

I currently have a client who described using an acid based wash, acid toner & blemish control pads – all at least twice a day, in addition exfoliates twice a week, & no surprise, has developed what she described as ‘eczema’. The approach seems logical, but without understanding how the ingredients work or what to buy, from a virtual distance it looks like she’s prescribed herself seborrheic dermatitis.


A lot of skin care ‘how & what questions’ can be answered with the fact we’re literally a ‘body’ of signalling chemicals. Stretching your quads you might steady yourself on a wall – not quite the same thing, but most molecules like to hold hands & grab onto something stable. The outside shell likes to be full & will donate or share an electron to achieve this.


An acid does exactly that, it’s a molecule or ion (salt) capable of donating a hydrogen or forms a covalent (sharing) bond & you’re the magnet. In skincare they’re often combined to support each other, & in a routine of layering products it’s vital to get advice on what to use, with what else, & when. The vast majority of acids exfoliate, some are humectant (attract water) e.g. hyaluronic, others lipophilic (& easily combine with fat), like salicylic. That really is the basics, just so you can see how easy it is ask your skin to do too much, here’s some of their different properties…

  • Increase collagen production by stimulating fibroblasts (the cells whose main role is to secrete collagen).

  • Refine pores by binding to calcium (which converts sebum from a fluid to a thicker wax, building up & stretching pores)

  • Antibacterial as well as anti-inflammatory by descending into follicles overwhelming bacteria.

  • Accelerate dead skin cell sloughing

  • Dissolve & or absorb sebum

  • Stabilise the formulation by adjusting the pH

  • Boost hydration

  • Lower the concentration whilst maintain the benefits

  • Larger molecules lower irritation by taking longer to penetrate

  • Interact with the enzymes involved in melanin production

  • Produce ceramides by bonding to the skin to keep moisture in & irritants out

  • Antioxidant bonding with skin aging free radicals

The family of alpha hydroxy acids tend to work on the surface of the skin, cleaving away at the protein bonds between dead skin cells. Beta hydroxy acids penetrate beneath flooding the pores, absorbing excess sebum.


Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) neutralises free radicals, I almost imagine it as a vacuum, magnetising nasties before they attach to my skin.


What separates one from another is the strength & degree of penetration when applied to the skin. Glycolic acids vary in concentration & need to be neutralised to turn off their activity. Others require a partner to be effective or layering to achieve the desired result.

Important to note, whilst some sensation might be felt by the stimulation they cause, the acid in skin care doesn’t burn – although if your skin barrier is compromised or over processed you could create a skin care challenge you hadn’t bargained for. We can’t change your genetics or hormones, we can help you gain control with repetitive exposure to certain active ingredients, but it’s good advice to get advice.

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