They sound intimidating, but acids are a cure-all of sorts. The key to getting the best results? Finding one that’s compatible with your skin. These are some of the most tried-and-true acids, plus our favorite products that include them.
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If your skin is rough and sun-damaged, opt for glycolic acid.
Part of the alphahydroxy acids (AHAs) family—water-soluble, naturally derived exfoliating agents—glycolic acid is the smallest molecule of all the acids, so it can deeply penetrate skin. “Glycolic acid is the old standby for freshening the skin,” says Beverly Hills, CA, dermatologist Rhonda Rand, MD. “It accelerates cell turnover and helps stimulate new collagen and elastin production.” An excellent exfoliator, the acid lifts away the outer layer of dead skin cells to help soften lines, wrinkles and scars and allow for the growth of new skin.
Find it in: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Bright Reveal Peel Pads ($21), acid-drenched rounds that, when used before bed and topped with moisturizer, deliver a significantly brighter, smoother complexion.
If you want to stimulate collagen, use retinoic acid.
When you’re serious about halting signs of aging on your face, retinoic acid is the one you want to reach for. Derived from vitamin A, retinoic acid removes the top layer of dead skin to reveal new, healthy skin underneath (it can also be used to treat acne because of its exfoliating abilities). “When retinoic acid is applied to skin, it stimulates collagen synthesis, normalizes cell maturation and thins the dead, outer protective layer of the stratum corneum,” says Chicago dermatologist Quenby Erickson, MD.
Find it in: La Roche Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel ($30), which boasts a gentle .01 percent of the acid to keep skin clear without causing sensitivity.
If your skin needs plumping, give hyaluronic acid a try.
Naturally found in the body, hyaluronic acid is responsible for creating plump, dewy, hydrated skin. Skin care products that contain the acid work to moisturize the skin and give it a plumper look, but when it comes to filling in lines and wrinkles, an injectable form of the acid needs to be used. “Hyaluronic acid is one of my favorite acids to use because it attracts water to and in between the cells, giving a fullness to the skin while also preserving moisture,” says celebrity aesthetician Kat Rudu.Find it in: SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier ($100), which boosts skin’s natural supply of the acid to improve texture and the look of wrinkles fast.
If your skin is dehydrated, treat it with oleic acid.
Super hydrating and the antidote for parched, dry skin, oleic acid is a naturally occurring fatty acid found in many natural oils that is beneficial in providing moisture and relief to seriously dehydrated skin. “Oleic acid is incredibly moisturizing and regenerative to the skin and has amazing anti-inflammatory properties,” says Rudu. “The oleic acid found in olive oil mimics the skin’s natural sebum, so it is compatible with the skin and will not clog pores or cause breakouts.”Find it in: StriVectin Advanced Recovery Oleic Rapid Recovery Milk ($79), an oil-meets-milk solution to hypersensitive, superdry or less-than-firm skin.
If your skin looks dull, lactic acid may be the answer.
Like glycolic acid, lactic acid is also an AHA. But, it differs in that it tends to be more mild, although it works toward the same goal. “It’s a great choice for more sensitive skin or drier skin because it’s gentler,” says aesthetician Alexandra Wagner, adding that it also helps somewhat with hyperpigmentation. Sourced from fruits, vegetables and even milk, lactic acid works to hydrate and brighten skin, too. “It aids in evening out the skin and getting rid of any dead skin on the surface for a smoother, brighter look.”Find it in: Elemis Peptide⁴ Overnight Radiance Peel ($78), a sweetly scented wash-off peel that feels milky and nourishing, not dry or stripping.
If you experience breakouts, clear them up with salicylic acid.
An anti-inflammatory acid, the reason why salicylic acid works so well on oily and acneic skin is because it breaks up what’s clogging the pores, helping to limit the incidence of blackheads and whiteheads. Available as chemical peels, at-home acne products and spot-treatments, the concentrations of salicylic acid range. Keep in mind that salicylic acid can be drying, so if your skin is prone to flakiness, it’s best to use it in conjunction with a moisturizer that is light and noncomedogenic.Find it in: Glytone Acne Clearing Toner ($25), the ultimate blemish-zapping toner that won’t break the bank.