News from CRIS: Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

February 26, 2024

What are alpha hydroxy acids?

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are naturally occurring or synthetically derived ingredients popular in cosmetic products.

The most common AHAs in cosmetic products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Other AHA ingredients in cosmetics include citric acid, hydroxycaprylic acid, hydroxycapric acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid (1,2).

What do alpha hydroxy acids do?

Manufacturers add alpha hydroxy acid ingredients to cosmetic products to help reduce surface wrinkles and smooth fine lines, improve skin tone and texture, cleanse pores, and improve skin condition. We also see AHAs containing products marketed to adjust skin pH levels (1).

Do alpha hydroxy acids ingredients work?

Evidence suggests that AHA ingredients can improve skin appearance (1,2). While the ingredients can have the desired effect, it's important to remember that more doesn't always mean better.

Using too many AHA ingredients (or any ingredient) can cause harm and damage to the skin. It's essential to follow the manufacturer's recommended use guidelines.  

Have regulators studied alpha hydroxy acid ingredients?

Unlike many cosmetic ingredients, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has researched AHA ingredients to explore their safety regarding increased UV sensitivity and skin cell damage (1).

Researchers confirmed that AHA products can increase skin sensitivity to UV light damage. Thankfully, they also confirmed that ceasing product use reverses the sensitivity.

The FDA also partnered with the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to see if there are adverse long-term skin-cancer-related effects from using one of the most common ingredients in AHA products, glycolic acid, and light exposure (i.e., photocarcinogen). The FDA and NTP did not find glycolic acid a photocarcinogen (1).

However, with all things, the dose makes the poison, so it's essential to remember how much product we use, how frequently we use the product, and what other ingredients and products we are using in conjunction with the AHA-containing products that could impact our skin sensitvity.

Do I need to use sunscreen if using products containing alpha hydroxy acid?

Yes, it's recommended that people using products with AHA ingredients use an SPF-containing sunscreen, as the AHA ingredients can increase sensitivity to the sun's damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Mineral and synthetic-based sunscreens with broad spectrum SPF will provide needed protection.

What else do I need to know about alpha hydroxy acid ingredients?

It's important to remember that your skin pH needs to stay in a specific range to remain healthy, and adding products that alter your skin's pH level could have adverse effects.

Additionally, products containing AHA ingredients used by licensed medical professionals to perform medical procedures differ and are more potent than over-the-counter cosmetic products.

Using products with high concentrations of AHA ingredients or high or low pH levels without the guidance of a medical professional is not advised.  


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