During most of my twenties, I had really bad acne, which is unfortunate since my skin was pretty clear during my teenage. What's even more unfortunate was that when it got really bad, I was a beauty journalist at Elle magazine in London. I felt like such a fraud. How could I be a beauty expert and have acne? So, I made it my sole quest to clear up my acne—and I did.
Quite a few different things helped, like giving up skimmed milk and banning oil from my skincare regimen. But it was a product that I added into my routine that made the biggest difference: skincare acids. Acid may sound harsh—something that sore, inflamed, spot-prone skin could do without—but trust me when I say acids are a must and a far gentler and more effective way to exfoliate than with a granule-based exfoliant, like a scrub.
There are so many different types of acids out there, but broadly speaking there are three main groups: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) and Polyhydroxy Acids (PHA). Each works slightly differently and has different functions, but all have a place in my spot-fighting and preventing armory.
First up, AHAs. There are lots of different types of AHAs, but the most well known are lactic and glycolic. AHAs work on the surface, nibbling away at dead skin to reveal a brighter, glowing complexion beneath. They also help to even skin tone and texture. AHAs stimulate HA production (or natural moisture factor) as well as exfoliate the skin.
I use an AHA toner most mornings after cleansing before applying my serums. Since you're unearthing new, baby-soft skin I always apply SPF 50 afterwards—even on cloudy days.
These are my three go-to AHA products:
Ren's Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic is gentle enough to use daily and on sensitive skin. Use a cotton pad to swipe the formula with hydrating lactic acid and gentle azelaic acid onto the face. It smells like citrus and leaves my skin looking dewy.
These handy pre-soaked pads are rich in glycolic acid, which is the most well-known AHA. This skincare acid makes light work of dead skin, pigmentation and even fine lines.
Pixi Glow Tonic is a great entry-level skincare acid. It boasts 5% glycolic acid, but also aloe vera and ginseng to keep skin soft, hydrated and happy.
Now, when I do get a spot or breakout, I reach for BHA. Salicylic acid is the most well known BHA and it is oil-soluble, which means it can get deep down into your pores and exfoliate inside, making light work of blackheads and spots. BHAs are best for oilier skin types because they work their way into blocked pores, dissolving sebum and dead skin cells.
If you know your breakouts are hormonal, preemptively use a BHA in your routine a week or so before you usually breakout to prevent spots forming. And, if you have acne, BHA should be your skin's new BFF.
These are my favorite BHA products:
I swear by this leave-on lotion with BHA. Simply apply it to the skin after cleansing and follow with your usual serum or moisturizer. Easy and effective.
Yes, this is affordable, but it actually works to prevent breakouts and lessen the effects of those already on the skin. Apply a layer to your T-zone to help breakdown unwanted blackheads, too.
These handy pads are great for travel. They contain kaolin to absorb excess oil and tea tree oil, which has an antibacterial effect on the skin. Follow with a hydrating serum—something with hyaluronic acid to ensure skin stays supple.
PHAs are the newest skincare acid on the beauty block. PHAs are considered cousins of AHAs, however, they consist of a larger molecule and penetrate only on a surface level. PHAs don't penetrate as deeply as AHAs or BHAs, making them great for all skin types. They are humectants and can be great for dry, dehydrated skin.
Sensitive skin or skin that is easily irritated by AHAS or BHAs, and tend to get an occasional breakout, could benefit by incorporating PHAs in their skin care routine.
These are my PHA-based picks:
Lixirskin's concept is that our complexions become used to the products we apply. The idea with the Night Switch products is that you use one, like this PHA/AHA 10%, before switching to another Night Switch in the line-up (there is one with BHA and another with retinol). Use this if your complexion could do with brightening, or your skin tone and texture is a little uneven.
Glossier's Solution contains a blend of AHA, BHA and PHA. If you're not sure which product to choose, this do-it-all toner isn't a bad place to start.