Dr Justine Kluk - Consultant Dermatologist London

Have acids had their day?

Not too long ago you could ask any skincare expert which product or ingredient they’d recommend for glowing skin and nine times out of 10 their answer would be some kind of exfoliating acid. But is the tide starting to turn?

I was recently asked by Refinery29 if exfoliating acids have had their day, and I thought I would share my thoughts with you.

Spoiler alert: I do think acids can add value. But, they have to be used for the right candidate and combined carefully with other skincare products because of the risk of irritation.

Are exfoliating acids falling out of favour in your professional opinion? If so, why do you think this is?

I don’t think that alpha and beta hydroxy acids, such as glycolic, salicylic or lactic acid have completely fallen out of favour, and they do have a role when incorporated carefully and judiciously into a skincare regimen for the appropriate candidate.

Because the touted benefits are universally appealing, recent popularity has led to overzealous and sometimes inappropriate use with some users experiencing irritant contact dermatitis. The conversation has now turned to how we can be more gentle with skincare product choices, for example using a poly hydroxy acid instead for those who can’t tolerate alpha hydroxy acids but still desire some form of chemical exfoliation. There is now more of an emphasis on protecting the skin barrier by using a non-stripping cleanser. I’d also recommend moisturising daily to help protect and strengthen the barrier too.

Exfoliating acids have their place in skincare, but do you think we’re overusing them? If so, what does that look like and have you seen this in patients?

Exfoliating acids can promote smoother and brighter skin. When combined  with other active ingredients, such as retinoids, using multiple different acids in your routine, introducing products too rapidly or using them too frequently can all lead to an impaired skin barrier and increased skin sensitivity. This might appear as dryness, redness, roughness, flaking, soreness, tightness, itching and reduced tolerance of your other usual skincare products. 

My approach to this sort of situation as a Consultant Dermatologist is to take everything back to basics and start with a simplified, gentle, unfussy skincare routine. 

Nobody needs a ten step skincare routine. The fussier the routine, the longer things will take to settle down. Use a mild gel or cream cleanser to cleanse your skin and moisturise generously twice daily, or more. In the mornings, follow with sunscreen. Choose non comedogenic (non-pore blocking) options if your skin is oily or prone to spots. Your basic routine is now complete. 

It is usually necessary to reduce or stop the exfoliating acid/s and other active ingredients, like retinoids, for a while to give your skin barrier a chance to rest and recover. This may feel like a bit of a setback, but it doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your skin goals. It just means you’ve got to be smart and make your basics work better for you.

Do you think the wealth of information online in regard to acids (e.g. mixing or layering them) is causing more harm than good?

I think that many people are simply overwhelmed by the abundance of information they can access online or on social media. Opinions are often conflicting and many influencers are providing anecdotal remedies, with no formal experience, expertise or training in managing skin health or disease. This situation leaves people to cobble together snippets of advice and draw their own conclusions, and the results are often less than desirable. 

Is it harmful that we can buy high strength acids from brands/online? How can they damage skin?

When used with caution, over the counter exfoliating acids can be beneficial. I think clear guidance from brands should be available about:

  1. How much to use
  2. The need for gradual introduction
  3. Advice on who the product might not be suitable for e.g. people with a pre-existing dermatological diagnosis (e.g. eczema or rosacea), or those taking certain medications (e.g. isotretinoin)
  4. Which other products should be avoided e.g. simultaneous acid or retinoid application
  5. Which products should be encouraged e.g. moisturiser, gentle cleanser and sunscreen
  6. Advice to only consider adding other actives when regular use is established without any irritation

Find the article on refinery29.com, or come see us in clinic for Dermatologist led skincare advice.

© 2022 Dr Justine Kluk. Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents of this post in any form is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, copy, distribute or commercially exploit the content. Nor may you transmit it or store it in any other website or other form of electronic retrieval system.

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