Meet Phytic Acid: The Gentlest AHA That's Secretly Full of Antioxidants

The lowdown on why you should consider this overlooked acid.

Updated 10/01/19

 @jamealynee

When it comes to acids in skincare, there are dozens of different names to keep up with. Salicylic, glycolic, kojic, lactic, hyaluronic, ascorbic…. The list goes on. But with so many different ingredients, it can be tricky to know which type of acid to drop (onto your skin). What’s even more confusing is that some of these “acids” aren’t even acids at all, and they each work in much different ways, with many different potential benefits. Here, we’re breaking down one of the lesser-known skin acid varieties: Phytic acid. Touted for its gentle, yet potent, antioxidant properties, phytic acid boasts a myriad of benefits for many different skin types and concerns. Here’s what you need to know.

What is phytic acid and what skin benefits does it offer?

 A quick Google search pulls up some confusing results about phytic acid—specifically, what the heck it actually is. Is it an acid? An antioxidant? Both? According to cosmetic chemist Ginger King, the chemical composition of phytic acid renders it an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), although a very gentle one. It is typically derived from grains, legumes and rice. While it does possess similar benefits to other skincare acids (namely exfoliation), what sets phytic acid apart is its antioxidant properties.

“While it may offer mild exfoliating benefits, it is commonly used in skincare for its antioxidant properties,” explains Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research, Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Like other antioxidants, phytic acid can help to neutralize free radical damage in the skin. “For this reason, it is commonly incorporated into products designed to brighten pigmentation and treat conditions like melasma,” Zeichner continues.

Another interesting factor about phytic acid: “It is a chelator,” King says. This means that it holds the ability to absorb (or chelate) certain minerals. That might sound bad, because in general minerals are beneficial to our health, but specific ones can have detrimental effects on the skin when they become too abundant. According to board-certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, phytic acid “appears to work mechanistically to absorb up iron molecules in the skin, which are responsible for causing damage to DNA.”

Phytic vs. Lactic and Glycolic acids

 How does phytic acid stack up against other AHA’s that are arguably more common in skin care? In the order from strongest to the gentlest on skin, it goes like this: Glycolic acid, lactic acid, then phytic acid as the mildest option, explains cosmetic chemist Ginger King. As mentioned, all three of them can help promote exfoliation via increasing skin cell turnover rates. Phytic acid, because its antioxidant properties tend to overpower those of exfoliation, does this in a gentler manner than its other AHA counterparts. In other words, “Because phytic acid functions more as an antioxidant than a true exfoliating agent, it is less irritating to the skin,” Zeichner explains.

Phytic acid is often compared most closely to lactic acid, but there is an interesting difference between the two in terms of potential skin irritation. “Lactic acid can cause a stinging sensation, especially for Asian skin,” King says. What’s more, because lactic acid is derived from milk, it can cause irritation in certain groups of people. “Just like people have lactose intolerance, people can also be more sensitive to lactic acid.

Who should use phytic acid?

“Phytic acid is ideal for someone with acne or prone to blackheads as it helps to clear out and shrink pores while also helping to brighten the skin following post-inflammatory lesions,” Linker says.

If you have sensitive skin and have been weary of using acids in the past, phytic could be your best option. “Overall, phytic acid is the gentlest of all acids so is ideal for someone with sensitive skin or rosacea,” Linker says. 

What are the best ways to use phytic acid?

If you really want to maximize its strength, phytic acid is more powerful when used in combination with glycolic, which is why you’ll often see the two formulated together. You’ll find that phytic acid is “most commonly found in products like toners, masks and peels to offer intensive treatments with short contact on the skin,” Zeichner says. “It is commonly used both in face and body products and he’s often combined with other hydroxy acids.”

Even though it is gentle, phytic acid concentrations in skin care formulas typically range between just 0.5-5%, depending on what the product is intended to do (for exfoliation, percentages skew higher), and also because most products will also contain other hydroxy acids.

What are the best products with phytic acid?

Liquid ExfoliKate® Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment
Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment $58
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Some of our favorite phytic acid at-home peel products are Peter Thomas Roth’s new PRO Strength Exfoliating Super Peel, which contains a whopping 35% phytic acid extreme (yet is still surprisingly gentle on the skin), and Kate Somerville’s Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment, which contains glycolic, malic and lactic acids (in addition to phytic). On the toner front, some of our top picks include Goop Beauty’s G.Tox Malachite + AHA Pore Refining Tonic and everyone’s cult-favorite, Biologique Recherche P50

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