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.
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: Once a week, because over-exfoliating causes irritation and other potential skin conditions.
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.
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.
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.
The Best Products That Contain Mandelic Acid
"It contains mandelic acid for the AHA exfoliation but a low enough percentage to not cause any visible peeling and not be risky for someone to use at home. It also contains bentonite and kaolin to absorb oil and impurities. It has the proteolytic enzyme papain from papaya that helps to remove additional cell buildup. For mechanical exfoliation, microfine pumice and rice powder gently scrub the skin. It clears pores and is a nice at-home treatment between peels. Be sure to use once a week due to an increased risk of dryness or enhanced sebum production resulting in acne," says Simmons-O'Brien.
Caglia chooses this serum because it packs in powerhouse ingredients like vitamin K, green tea, and mandelic acid. While it's rich in anti-inflammatory properties and plenty of antioxidants, it goes on super light and soaks into the skin well. Use this to reduce any redness or irritation.
Like other mandelic acid products, The Ordinary's targets uneven texture, pigmentation, and fine lines, but it's gentler than some other products (making it a good choice for those with sensitive skin). In other words, it won't dry you out. The combination of mandelic and hyaluronic acids here ensures that your skin is baby smooth.
Hyperpigmentation doesn't stand a chance against this night serum, which is incredibly well-reviewed and seemingly equally well-liked. It utilizes antioxidants and peptides too, along with salicylic acid—so it can take on the most stubborn of skin issues.
Sometimes, you might be doing all you can to get glowy skin without realizing the skin you want is hiding under layers upon layers of dead cells. Susanne Kaufmann made this mask to brighten and lift, but also to gently exfoliate away anything unwanted, making it perfect to apply right before a big event.
When beauty PR maven Emily Parr couldn't find a set of face washes that fit her needs, she created her own. This acid wash smooths and brightens without irritating skin thanks to the soothing combination of plant-based oils it was formulated with. The result? Skin that's still moist, but with all of the undesirable gunk stripped away.
This peel is one of Naturopathica's hero products, so you know that it's good. Sweet cherry purée and lactic acid both smooth and soothe the face, while natural fruit acids (including mandelic acid) help in eliminating leftover grime.
Does mandelic acid lighten 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.
Jacobs SW, Culbertson EJ. Effects of topical mandelic acid treatment on facial skin viscoelasticity. Facial Plast Surg. 2018;34(6):651-656. doi:10.1055/s-0038-1676048
Sarkar R, Arsiwala S, Dubey N, et al. Chemical peels in melasma: A review with consensus recommendations by Indian pigmentary expert group. Indian J Dermatol. 2017;62(6):578-584. doi:10.4103/ijd.IJD_490_17