Side effects of alpha hydroxy acid

Written by wendy j. manning
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Side effects of alpha hydroxy acid
(Photo by Sunshine City, Flickr Creative Commons)

Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is a natural acid derived from milk, fruit, vegetables and plants and is used in many skin care products both over-the-counter and prescription. When used according to directions over a period of time, alpha hydroxy acid can replenish dry skin, and in some cases reverse the effects of sun damage.


Prior to 1994 and the introduction of alpha hydroxy acid, Retin-A was being used as an exfoliate to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fade age spots. The problem was Retin-A caused many people to experience skin irritation, rash and severe dryness. When alpha hydroxy acid was introduced in 1994, cosmetic manufacturers were falling all over themselves to produce AHA products as quickly as possible. In the rush to get products onto the shelves, many contained 50 per cent AHA, which made for toxic acidity levels. The result in the those early years was not favourable and often caused burning, scarring and prolonged photosensitivity. Products using alpha hydroxy today contain levels of no more than 10 per cent.

Side effects of alpha hydroxy acid
Photo by Derek7272, Flickr Creative Commons

Types of Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Today, alpha hydroxy acid can be found in a wide variety of skin care products from toners and masks to skin brighteners. One type of AHA is glycolic acid, which helps to remove dead skin cells. Lactic acid is another AHA used to removed dead skin cells as well as soften and soothe dry skin. Citric acid is an AHA often found in facial cleansers to restore the pH balance of skin.

How Is It Made?

Alpha hydroxy acid is derived from a variety of natural ingredients. Glycolic acid is found in brown sugar. Some home recipes include mixing brown sugar with an oil that will not clog pores, such as grapeseed oil. Lactic acid is found in dairy products, such as yoghurt and milk. Mixed with powdered milk and honey it makes a facial mask. Yoghurt and cucumber are the ingredients in many home facial recipes to combat acne. Citric acid, found in citrus fruits, often found in face wash and toners to restore pH balance to skin. Combined with egg white it can be used as a restorative mask. To reduce oily skin, mash strawberries and mix with honey for a refreshing face mask.

Side effects of alpha hydroxy acid
Photo by Clairity, Flickr Creative Commons

Adverse Side Effects

Do alpha hydroxy acids sound too good to be true? For some people with sensitive skin, the answer is yes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received reports of adverse effects of AHA on people with sensitive skin. Reported have been such problems as itching, skin irritation, blisters, chemical burns and an increase in sunburn. The most serious reactions seem to occur from products that are known as "peels." The good news is damage caused from AHA to those with sensitive skin is reversible and heals over time.

Safe Use of Alpha Hydroxy Acid

Based on studies funded by the cosmetics industry, alpha hydroxy acid is safe to use in cosmetic products as long as the AHA level is no higher than 10 per cent, pH levels are greater than 3.5, and the user follows the directions on the package. According to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, cosmetic products must list the net quantity of ingredients. Always read the labels on skin products to be safe.

Side effects of alpha hydroxy acid
Photo by Perfecto Insecto, Flickr Creative Commons

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