The demand for cosmetic-grade acids, especially Salicylic and Mandelic acids, is on the rise because they’re great skincare agents that can help treat acne and improve skin texture when used at the right concentrations. In the tedious battle against acne and breakouts, one should note that the biggest enemies of acne are Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) and Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs).
For quite some time, dermatologists and experts recommended that these two acids shouldn’t be used together. However, skincare has come a long way since then and many have found that mixing BHA and AHA can provide more effective acne treatment.
But what exactly are BHAs and AHAs, and what should be done to fully utilize these useful acids?
What are Beta Hydroxy Acids?
BHAs are great exfoliators because they contain oil-loving molecules that can dive deeper into pores and remove dead skin, sebum, and dirt on the dermal layer of the skin. These acids are most suited for oily and acne-prone skin types because BHAs can remove blackheads, whiteheads, and dry skin, which can cause acne. Salicylic acid is a BHA, and a popular one at that.
What are Alpha Hydroxy Acids?
AHAs moisturize by breaking cellular bonds in the skin, accelerating its natural shedding process. These acids are suited for most skin types, but can be especially useful for sun-damaged skin since it gets rid of dead skin cells and consequently reduces signs of sun damage. Some AHAs, such as mandelic acid, can improve the skin’s pigmentation and reduce dark spots.
Mandelic acid can be effective on its own, but it’s usually combined with salicylic acid for maximum exfoliation and moisture. While salicylic acid is praised for its effective acne prevention and treatment, it doesn’t have to do all the work—sometimes, the most effective way to treat acne is by mixing these two acids.
Let’s talk about each acid individually before we discuss the benefits of combining them.
What is Salicylic Acid?
To fully understand how salicylic acids work, it’s good to learn about its components and structure. A BHA is different from an AHA by the number of carbon atoms separating the hydroxy components from the acid components—BHAs are separated by two while AHAs are separated by one. According to Randy Schueller, a noted chemist and Editor in Chief of The Beauty Brains, this structure makes BHAs oil-soluble and able to penetrate into parts of the skin that need the most cleaning.
What does it do for the skin?
This is what makes salicylic acid an effective acne treatment: before blackheads and whiteheads can even turn into pimples, they’re unclogged and melted by salicylic acids. When salicylic acid gets into the deeper parts of the pores that have dead skin and sebum, it removes these unwanted debris.
Salicylic acid is also a great exfoliator because it’s able to break apart intercellular structures on the skin’s outer layers, promoting the shedding of dead skin. Normally, some skin cells clump together which may result in cysts and larger pores. When salicylic acid is applied to the skin, it essentially breaks these clusters apart by dissolving the structures.
What skin type is salicylic acid best suited for?
Because BHAs are oil-loving acids, salicylic acids are recommended for people with oily and acne-prone skin. Its antibacterial properties allow it to combat cystic acne when used properly—that means a correct dosage and frequency. When you use too much or too little, it can cause redness and itchiness. People with sensitive skin should be cautious when using salicylic acid because it can cause dryness.
What is Mandelic Acid?
Mandelic acid is a gentler type of AHA because its molecules are almost twice the size of its alternatives, which means that it takes more time to penetrate the pores. However, it’s still a good exfoliator because this acid promotes cellular regeneration when it breaks the adhesivethat clumps cells together.
Mandelic acid is extracted from bitter almonds, and is usually used for its acne-treating properties. What sets it apart from other AHAs is its oil-solubility which enables it to dissolve oil buildup and bacteria in pores. For this same reason, it works best with other BHAs such as salicylic acid, which is an oil-loving acid.
What does it do for the skin?
Aside from effectively exfoliating skin and promoting cell turnover as mentioned above, it’s able to brighten the skin when used continuously. Many dermatologists use mandelic acids for chemical peels because it’s able to clear pores when it dissolves oil buildup that can cause acne. Ultimately, when used in right amounts, mandelic acid can combat acne, signs of aging, dark spots, and acne scars. According to Dr. Wei Chen, Associate Director of Research & Development at The Estee Lauder Companies, mandelic acid strengthens collagen, which is what gives the skin its bounce and youthful glow.
What skin type is mandelic acid best suited for?
Because this is the least irritating acid, mandelic acid is ideal for people with sensitive, acne-prone skin. It’s also great for people with hyperpigmentation because the increased cell turnover that it promotes reduces dark spots and sun damage. If you’re wary of getting into the world of cosmetic-grade acids, mandelic acids can be a good start for you—it’ll leave your skin feeling soft and smooth, and it works on almost every skin type.
The Power Duo of Salicylic Acid and Mandelic Acid
While the general recommendation was to always use AHAs and BHAs separately, some combinations of these acids prove to be more effective than when they’re used on their own. For higher-strength chemical peels, mandelic and salicylic acids work well together to exfoliate and treat acne-ridden skin.
Some studies have shown that since salicylic acid has the ability to penetrate and clean pores very well and mandelic acid has antibacterial properties, mixing these two acids together produces an effective treatment for acne and hyperpigmentation. This same study reported that at the end of its 20th week, participants found it to be highly-effective in treating comedones, scars, and acne.
This study was done on all four Fitzpatrick Skin Types with acne, acne scarring, and pigmentation, and it has been noted to be more effective compared to its alternatives. Salicylic-mandelic peels are used to treat both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne, and can lessen the amount of breakouts after a couple of months of using this AHA/BHA combination.
Safety & Precautions
If you have an at-home product, make sure to read and understand the instructions carefully before applying anything onto your skin. Some products are meant to be left for only a couple of minutes, while some products should stay on the skin for a couple of hours. Treat your skin gently after applying the peel by using moisturizers that can help with dryness and flakiness.
In general, chemical peels are safe and completely harmless but can cause some temporary side effects such as stinging and redness. There are plenty of options to choose from, whether you want an at-home or professional treatment. It’s good to do a little research before going through a treatment so that you’ll know what’s best for your skin type.