Meet Mandelic Acid, an AHA Suited for Sensitive Skin

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Liz deSousa for BYRDIE

Whenever our skin is feeling dull and congested and is in serious need of overall rejuvenation, we turn to peels. They remove the uppermost, superficial layer of skin to promote the growth of newer, healthy skin and address skin problems like acne and hyperpigmentation. While it seems like we've covered everything that you need to know about peels, there is one in particular that has been flying under the radar. Say hello to mandelic acid.

To get a better understanding of what a mandelic acid is, we asked dermatologists Eva Simmons-O'Brien, MD; Ranella Hirsch, MD, board-certified dermatologist and cofounder of Atolla; cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, of BeautyStat Cosmetics; and Angela Caglia, celebrity facialist and founder of skincare brand Angela Caglia, to give us the breakdown of why we should seriously consider incorporating it into our skincare routine. Scroll down to see what the experts had to say about this potent product.

Mandelic Acid

Type of ingredient: Exfoliator.

Main benefits: Increase in cell turnover, anti-acne, anti-aging.

Who should use it: In general, people with sensitive or acneic skin who want an exfoliant that's less harsh than traditional AHAs.

How often can you use it: A few times weekly depending on your skin type. Use less often in sensitive skin types to avoid over-exfoliation.

Works well with: Hyaluronic acid, other hydrators.

Don't use with: Other AHAs, other peels, retinol, retinoids.

What Is Mandelic Acid?

It's not some new, top-secret ingredient we've never heard before—it is another form of an ingredient we've come to know and love for our skin. "Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)," says Simmons-O'Brien. "AHAs are good for the skin, as they work to loosen connections between impacted surface skin cells (called desmosomes) to allow the cells to shed naturally leading to a fresher, brighter complexion."

"Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid derived from almonds," says Hirsch. As she explains it, "All AHAs function to exfoliate the skin (and increase sun sensitivity, so sunscreen is a key part of using any AHA regimen). It is usually found in combination with other products, and functions to improve skin texture via exfoliation."

As Robinson describes, mandelic acid's molecular structure is what makes it so unique. "Larger in molecular weight compared to glycolic acid (another type of AHA) so it may be gentler on skin as it penetrates more slowly," he says. 

Benefits of Mandelic Acid

  • Exfoliates: Mandelic acid is a chemical exfoliant, meaning it removes layers of older skin cells through a reaction with the skin (rather than exfoliating via abrasive scrubs).
  • Promotes cell turnover: By releasing skin cells attached to the surface of the skin, mandelic acid works to increase cell turnover, reducing the appearance of skin damage or acne.
  • Brightens skin: Exfoliated skin appears brighter and mandelic acid goes a step further, strengthening the skin so it stays bright with continued use.
  • Reduces hyperpigmentation: Increased cell turnover and exfoliating properties mean the acid reduces the look of dark marks and sun damage.

According to Simmons-O'Brien, you can expect the same skin benefits from a mandelic acid peel that you would expect from a normal one, such as cell turnover to firm up the skin. This one, in particular, is great for reducing pore size and brightening the skin. "Acneic skin can get impacted and clogged, making this a good choice for clearing skin debris and smoothing the complexion," she says. "Mandelic acid has shown some benefits for brightening the skin as well, so it can help support a regimen to clear photodamage."

If you have super-sensitive skin, a mandelic peel might be the best option for you. "It has a larger molecular structure than other acids, such as glycolic and salicylic, so it does not penetrate as deeply," says Caglia.

Is Mandelic Acid Safe to Use on Sensitive Skin?

According to Hirsch, mandelic acid is a great option for sensitive skin types because of its larger size. "Especially relative to other alpha-hydroxy acids in the category, mandelic acid doesn't penetrate very deeply, which tends to make it safer for sensitive skin."

Side Effects of Mandelic Acid

As with any AHA, there is a potential for mandelic acid to irritate your skin. But unlike almost any other AHA, the potential is extremely low. With any new product, patch testing is always a good idea.

How To Use It

Just like any regular peel, avoid retinol use for at least three to five days before. "You should stop using Retin-A and avoid contact with any acid treatment at least two weeks in advance," says Caglia. "Also, this peel shouldn't be applied to tanned or sunburned skin."

Otherwise, it's probably safe to combine mandelic acid with most other products. "Given it’s more gentle, it could be combined with other active ingredients," says Robinson.

For post-peel activities, Caglia says to avoid any activity that will make you sweat. Simmons-O'Brien says to avoid the sun, as your skin will be more sensitive to burning under the sun's UV rays.

Mandelic Acid vs. Glycolic Acid

According to Hirsch, the key difference here is molecule size. While glycolic acid and mandelic acid are both chemical exfoliants, the molecular size of glycolic acid is much smaller, which means it penetrates the skin more deeply and, subsequently, can produce a more dramatic effect.

"Both mandelic acid and glycolic acid are alpha-hydroxy acids. However, mandelic is derived from almonds while glycolic is derived from sugar cane (or a couple of other sources)," says Hirsch. "Mandelic is oil soluble, glycolic is not."

Best Products

the ordinary mandelic acid
The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA $8.00

Perfect for sensitive skin types, The Ordinary's Mandelic Acid works to target hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and fine lines. In addition to the brand being wallet-friendly, its products are also cruelty-free and vegan.

 Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel $38.00

Lather away makeup and impurities with this gel cleanser from Dr. Dennis Gross. Best for oily, normal, dry, or combination skin types, this product works to balance excess oil, refine pores, and even tone and texture and can be used both morning and night.

Elemis Pro-Collagen Tri-Acid Peel
Elemis Pro-Collagen Tri-Acid Peel $115.00

Elemis's Pro-Collagen peel features a trifecta of ingredients that are beneficial to the skin. The Tri-Acid Complex is composed of a blend of actobionic, asiatic, and mandelic acids that work to exfoliate and hydrate the skin, while two types of algae effectively hydrate and firm. Sounds good to us.

  • Does mandelic acid brighten skin?

    Mandelic acid can assist with brightening the skin, lightening melasma, and fading dark spots.

  • When should I apply mandelic acid?

    Mandelic acid should be applied as part of your nighttime skincare routine, after cleansing and before moisturizing.

  • Is mandelic acid good for oily skin?

    Yes, mandelic acid is beneficial for those with oily skin, as it helps to control excess sebum production.

  • Is mandelic acid safe for sensitive skin?

    Because of its smaller molecular size (compared to other chemical exfoliants), mandelic acid does not absorb as deeply and is, therefore, more suited for sensitive skin types.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Jacobs SW, Culbertson EJ. Effects of topical mandelic acid treatment on facial skin viscoelasticityFacial Plast Surg. 2018;34(6):651-656. doi:10.1055/s-0038-1676048

  2. Sarkar R, Arsiwala S, Dubey N, et al. Chemical peels in melasma: A review with consensus recommendations by Indian pigmentary expert groupIndian J Dermatol. 2017;62(6):578-584. doi:10.4103/ijd.IJD_490_17

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