(Back To Basics)

If You’re Battling Acne & Fine Lines, This Gentle Acid Is Ideal For Your Skin

Meet your new skin care super hero.

With new products, brands, and categories popping up every day, beauty can be a bit overwhelming. Back to Basics is our rudimentary beauty series that serves as your crash course on the science behind some of the best formulations in the game. This week, we’re taking a look at mandelic acid as a skin care ingredient.

Exfoliation is one of the basic pillars of skin care, but with so many options out there, it can be confusing to know which way to go. First, you have to decide if you want a chemical or physical exfoliant. If you go the chemical exfoliation route, you can choose between alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Then you get into the various types of each, including salicylic acid (a popular BHA) and AHAs like glycolic, lactic, and the lesser known mandelic acid.

As a skin care ingredient, mandelic acid doesn’t get enough credit. Many people are completely unaware of it, despite the fact that so many experts recommend it for all skin types — including sensitive skin types since it can resurface, smooth, and brighten the complexion without causing excess irritation. If you’ve been struggling to find a chemical exfoliant that works for your skin, it might be time to learn more about the benefits of this little-known ingredient (which is actually much more widely available than you might assume).

Ahead, learn everything you need to know about this under-the-radar skin care ingredient, straight from leading dermatologists, from benefits, how to best use it, and the mandelic acid skin care products to add to your beauty rotation.

What Is Mandelic Acid?

According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick, mandelic acid is an AHA that’s derived from almonds. Just like all other AHAs, including glycolic and lactic acids, it exfoliates the skin, getting rid of dead skin cells and revealing brighter, smoother skin underneath.

Board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology Dr. Geeta Yadav, seconds this, saying, “Like all AHAs, mandelic acid is excellent at resurfacing the skin, removing the layer of dead skin cells that can cause the skin to look dull. This action also accelerates your cellular turnover, meaning the rate at which your skin naturally sheds dead skin will speed up, as will the formation of new skin deep below the surface. Through this mechanism, acne can be reduced, and fine lines and wrinkles become less noticeable.”

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What Are The Benefits Of Mandelic Acid?

What separates mandelic acid from other AHAs is its ability to safely and comfortably exfoliate sensitive skin. “Since it is a larger molecule than other AHAs, it is a good option for those with sensitive skin as it doesn’t penetrate as deeply or as quickly, so [it] tends to be less irritating,” Dr. Garshick says.

Dr. Yadav says it’s not just sensitive skin types that can benefit from mandelic acid. Those who are trying to even out their skin tone and correct sun damage and/or conditions like melasma might also consider incorporating this AHA into their skin care routine since it can exfoliate the skin without triggering irritation and inflammation (the more irritation and inflammation you experience, the more likely it is you’ll see more dark spots and hyperpigmentation appear).

It can also greatly benefit acne-prone skin. In fact, according to Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, MD FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist with over 40 years of experience and the founder of Dr. Loretta skincare, it has been studied the most in acne-prone skin. “In one study published in The Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology in 2019, a 45% mandelic acid peel was found to be equally effective to a 30% salicylic acid peel in people with mild to moderate acne.” [For reference, salicylic acid is a BHA that’s renowned for its ability to treat and prevent breakouts].

Then, there are skin types prone to dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Since it can lift dead, pigmented cells from the surface of the skin without spurring even more melanin production, it’s a good option for people who are trying to even their skin tones and treat existing sun damage. Take it from Dr. Ciraldo, who says, “It may also benefit mature skin where cell renewal has slowed.”

Are There Any Risks With Mandelic Acid?

The experts say that the only downside to using mandelic acid is using too high of a concentration or introducing it too quickly into your routine. Even though it’s a gentle AHA, at the end of the day, it’s still an exfoliant, and you don’t want to overdo it. “Like any exfoliant, mandelic acid may be irritating if too much is used or if it is used too frequently,” Dr. Garshick says. She also notes that it can make you more sensitive to the sun (like all other exfoliating acids), which is why daily sun protection is key. And if you already have reactive skin (or have a condition like rosacea), SPF use is even more crucial.

How To Use Mandelic Acid For Your Skin

“As is true with any acid formulation, it is wise to start off slow,” Dr. Ciraldo cautions. She recommends beginning with a low percentage peel, washing it off after a few minutes for the first week or two in order to minimize potential irritation, and using it just three times a week at the start — until you have a good idea of what your skin can tolerate.

Not all mandelic acid products are peels, however — serums and creams are also available. Dr. Yadav recommends looking for a product that contains mandelic acid at a concentration of 10 to 15 percent. “The frequency of application will depend on how well your skin tolerates AHAs and mandelic acid in particular; many people can use this ingredient daily once they’ve acclimated to it.” Just make sure you’re diligent about applying SPF during the day, keep an eye on how your skin is reacting, and enjoy smoother, more even skin with the newest addition to your beauty routine.

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