If your skin goals include a bright, even-toned or decongested complexion, then you may want to consider adding alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) to your arsenal.
AHAs are water-soluble acids derived from fruits and plants. They’re considered a chemical exfoliant, which means that they use chemicals — specifically acids or enzymes — to buff away dead skin cells. They cause “controlled trauma to the skin,” leading to quicker cell turnover, according to Dr. Jessie Cheung, a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago. That process results in less hyperpigmentation and more even-toned skin. You can find AHAs in a variety of skin care products, like cleansers, masks, moisturizers and more.
To help you better understand the power of AHAs, we consulted board-certified dermatologists to break down everything you need to know about AHAs for the skin, including the benefits, side effects, and essential products you can try.
Our top picks
- Best overall: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
- Best budget pick: AcneFree Witch Hazel Mattifying Toner
- Best for sensitive skin: Naturium 12% Mandelic Acid
How we picked the best AHA products in 2023
To help us find the best products with AHAs, we spoke to board-certified dermatologists about what to look for. Here’s what they recommended:
- Type of AHA: AHAs are a category, not an actual ingredient. “Glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid are the most common AHAs found in products,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell. Glycolic and lactic acids tend to be stronger, while mandelic acid is a little less potent and, therefore, may be better for sensitive skin. We prioritized products that use those ingredients in their formulations.
- Smart ingredient pairings: Certain ingredients pair well with AHAs. For example, peptides, which are strings of amino acids that support collagen production and skin elasticity, can slow the penetration of AHAs, making them less irritating, says Cheung. AHAs also pair well with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin because the moisture from these ingredients can help soothe any irritation that may pop up from using an AHA, she says. We looked for formulas that pair AHAs with some of these ingredients.
- Formula type: You can find AHAs in face washes, moisturizers, masks and more. However, AHAs can be irritating to sensitive skin and may make skin more sensitive to the sun. Because of this, experts we spoke to recommend using products with them s at night. Below, you’ll find mostly serums, plus a few other products with AHAs for variety.
The best AHA products in 2023
Below, we rounded up dermatologist-recommended products that have AHAs like glycolic acid, lactic acid and more.
This Isdin serum comes recommended by Cheung — it has glycolic, tartaric and malic acids for exfoliation, hydration and a glow without any irritation, she says. It’s housed in individual glass ampoules that help maintain the potency of the ingredients, according to the brand. To use, the brand recommends shaking the ampoule, using the included tool to open the top and then apply the serum to your freshly washed face before following with moisturizer at nighttime.
This serum comes highly recommended by Garshick and combines an AHA (mandelic acid) with salicylic acid, which is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). “BHAs are oil soluble and can penetrate deep into pores to unclog pores and get rid of blemishes,” she says. “Together these ingredients help to improve skin texture and tone.” Use it at night, after washing your face, according to Glow Recipe.
Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, is a fan of this toner that’s especially good for oily skin because of the combination of glycolic and lactic acids that exfoliate and remove excess oil. It also has chamomile and witch hazel, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties to help shrink the pores’ appearance, she says.
This serum, which has both glycolic and lactic acid, removes dead skin cells and reduces the appearance of fine lines, says Garshick. “I find that skin looks radiant and refreshed after use.” Because AHAs can irritate some, this formula has plant extracts to help soothe the skin, according to Drunk Elephant. Some people experience slight tingling when they first start using this product — though it should dissipate after a few uses, according to the brand. Try using it every other night until your skin gets used to it.
This cleansing gel combines mandelic, lactic and salicylic acids to gently exfoliate your skin, and glycerin, to replenish moisture. The end result is that your skin looks and feels smoother, says Garshick. This cleanser starts out as a gel, but changes into a creamy consistency as you massage it over your face, according to the brand. Garshick recommends using it a few times a week to keep skin looking bright and smooth — if you use it more than that, you may notice irritation or redness.
These pads, which you should use at night after washing your face, come in sets of two that you’ll apply back to back. The first pad is soaked in glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids to exfoliate the skin. You’ll want to massage it gently over your face and neck until the pad feels dry. Wait two minutes and then repeat with the second pad, which has retinol to reduce fine lines, and resveratrol and green tea extract to protect skin from free radicals, according to the brand. (The brand recommends using every other night for best results.) “I find that they improve skin’s radiance and tone and can also improve the appearance of fine lines,” says Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. Each box comes with five sets of pads.
If your skin is on the sensitive side, consider this serum from Naturium, which comes recommended by Garshick. It has a blend of mandelic acid, natural fruit acids and niacinamide, which work together to exfoliate your skin without leaving the skin dry. The active ingredients may settle at the bottom of the bottle, so you should shake before use, according to the brand. To use: Wash your face at night, apply the serum evenly over your entire face and then follow with a moisturizer.
How to shop for products with AHAs
When shopping for a products with AHAs, our experts recommend keeping the following things in mind:
AHAs are compatible with most skin types
AHAs can be provide benefits for various skin types. For example, their exfoliating nature can help minimize oil and unclog pores for those with acne-prone skin. If you have mature skin, they can help brighten a dull complexion, says Garshick.
Those with sensitive skin, however, may want to proceed with caution, according to Cheung. Mandelic acid is one of the more gentle AHAs, so it may be a good one to start with if you are more sensitive, says Camp, who also recommends checking with your dermatologist about what may work for your skin.
They work quickly and are powerful
“AHAs offer almost instant gratification,” says Cheung. That’s because they’re fairly powerful — which is also one of their downsides. They can lead to sun sensitivity and irritation (which is why they are often recommended for nighttime use), she says. When using AHAs regardless of the time of day, you should be extra diligent about slathering on sunscreen no matter the season.
There are a number of AHAs to choose from
Though there are a number of AHAs, they don’t all work the same for everyone. It is important to figure out which acid will work best for your needs.
- Glycolic acid easily penetrates the skin and delivers “glowing” results because it exfoliates and removes dead skin cells, says Cheung. Glycolic acid is colorless, derived from sugar cane and the smallest AHA, which means it can penetrate pores more easily to help in the exfoliation process. Because glycolic acid is small and can really penetrate your skin, it may cause irritation for those with sensitive skin.
- Lactic acid is another popular AHA that improves the overall texture and tone of the skin, according to Cheung. It is a bit larger in molecule size than glycolic acid, so doesn’t penetrate as deeply as glycolic acid. Because of this it may be a little more gentle. It can also help reduce the appearance of large pores, age spots and hyperpigmentation, says Cheung.
- Mandelic acid is less irritating than glycolic acid, according to Cheung. However, it is less active than glycolic acid, so it is best suited for people targeting hyperpigmentation or those with sensitive skin rather than oily skin.
They may interact poorly with other products
Before you incorporate AHA products into your beauty routine, consider your current lineup of products; pay close attention to your ingredient list — AHAs might not play nice with retinols or physical exfoliators (like grainy scrubs), says Cheung. Like AHAs, retinol and physical exfoliators also exfoliate, so when combined they can be too aggressive. As a result, they may irritate your skin.
On the other hand, there are certain ingredients that pair really well with AHAs. Because AHAs remove dead skin cells, it’s helpful to also look for products with hydrating ingredients (like hyaluronic acid or glycerin) to add moisture back into your skin.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Jessie Cheung is a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago
- Dr. Marisa Garshick is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell
- Dr. Hadley King is a board-certified dermatologist in New York
- Dr. Brendan Camp is board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City
Why trust Select?
Nicole Saunders is a former associate commerce editor for Select on NBC News, covering wellness and lifestyle.
Bethany Heitman is a contributor at NBC Select and a journalist who regularly covers topics like beauty, home and lifestyle. For this story, she interviewed board-certified dermatologists for their guidance on what to look for when shopping for products with AHAs.