We rounded up the top five beauty acids and made it easy to pick which is best for your skincare needs.

By Deanna Pai
November 20, 2019
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Have you noticed all the cleansers, serums, and lotions touting acids? Best known for their exfoliating power, these surprisingly versatile skincare ingredients can hydrate, clean pores, brighten, and more. And while the idea of applying acid to your skin may give you pause, we can confirm these ingredients are totally safe—not to mention worthwhile—for your complexion. But they aren't all created equal. Use this handy guide to find the right type of acid for your skin's needs, whether that's an anti-aging boost, smoother skin, blemish control, deep hydration, or maybe a blend of more than one skincare benefit.

  • For Anti-Aging: Glycolic Acid
  • For Smoothing: Lactic Acid
  • For Treating Acne: Salicylic Acid
  • For Hydration: Hyaluronic Acid
  • For Multi-Purpose Skincare: Acid Blend
Courtesy of L’Oréal Paris

Glycolic acid, derived from sugarcane, is one of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids, a class of acids known for exfoliation. This multitasker sloughs off dead cells, boosts collagen growth and lightens dark spots, so it’s ideal for treating signs of aging, says Kenneth Howe, M.D., at Wexler Dermatology in NYC.

Use a serum or pad with 10-15 percent glycolic acid two to three times a week at night. This is your exfoliation step, so skip any other scrubs.

Buy It: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum, $39.99, L’Oréal Paris 

Courtesy of Dermstore

Cleopatra was on to something with her legendary milk baths: Lactic acid (found in milk) is an effective body exfoliant. “It can handle rough skin and stubborn dryness and boost hydration,” Howe says. This acid is best at softening the buildup of thick skin (like on elbows, knees, and heels) and smoothing bumpy patches associated with dry skin conditions like keratosis pilaris. Once or twice daily, apply a lactic acid-infused body lotion.

Buy It: AmLactin Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion, $15.99, Dermstore

Courtesy of Neutrogena

“Salicylic acid penetrates hair follicles really well and exfoliates within the pore,” Howe says. The acid helps clear out and eliminate the keratin plugs that form acne, so it’s often used in products for oily and breakout-prone skin. Choose either a cleanser or a spot treatment (not both) to use once a day. If your skin gets dry, flaky, or red, switch to every other day.

Buy It: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser, $8.49, Neutrogena

Courtesy of Target

Our bodies naturally produce hyaluronic acid, a humectant that helps the skin retain moisture. But as we age, the amount in the epidermis (the outer skin) decreases, Howe says. That causes skin to look dull and dry. “Replenishing the levels reverses this. And hyaluronic acid is good for people who have very sensitive skin because it’s not irritating,” he says.

For dry skin, top the hyaluronic acid with your moisturizer or use a formula containing an emollient like glycerin to seal it in. If your skin is oily, hyaluronic serum alone delivers enough hydration, Howe says.

Buy It: Alba Botanica Hydration Sensation Gel Cream, $14.59, Target

Courtesy of Nordstrom

Considering a blend? “There are synergistic effects between acids. A combo of glycolic and salicylic acids, for instance, offers anti-aging and acne-fighting benefits,” says cosmetic chemist Al-Nisa Ward. One caveat: The increased potency means more potential for irritation and sun sensitivity, so start by using two to three times a week and be sure to wear SPF.

Buy It: Murad Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel, $65, Nordstrom


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