Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s) are being described as modern science’s formerly missing piece in the puzzle of how to combat fatigued and aging skin. This well-fitting “piece” promises to get rid of wrinkles and acne, restore skin elasticity and firmness, and give rise to younger-looking, smoother skin. And there is scientific research behind the “buzz.” The larger health-and-beauty-aids (HBA) manufacturers have produced clinical studies which demonstrate how their products can improve skin softness and clarity. The studies point to, on average, a 50 percent reduction in winkless and a 90 percent increase in skin clarity. What makes these products so extraordinary? How can you determine which AHA formulation is right for your skin and, most importantly, what kind of results can you expect?

Demystifying a mystery: Will the real AHA please stand up?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are a group of acids naturally occurring in fruits, milk, and sugar cane. Glycolic acid is found in sugar-cane juice; lactic acid occurs in sour milk and tomato juice; malic acid occurs in apples; tartaric acid is found in grapes and wine; citric acid occurs in citrus fruits and pineapples; and gluconic acid is present in skin tissue as an intermediate factor, or metabolite, needed in the cell-renewal process.

Glycolic acid is often included in AHA products, as well. Glycolic acid, however, can be harsh, expecially if it is synthetic. Lactic acid is preferred by some formulators because it an excellent moisturizer, one which helps reduce potential irritation.

Non-AHA compounds sometimes called AHA’s

At times, non-AHA compounds have been misidentified as AHA’s. Non-AHA compounds include: acetic acid, benzoic acid, formic acid, oxalic acid, monochloroactic acid and trichloroactic acid.

Dermatologists have been using alpha hydroxy acids for skin peeling, as a way to remove skin-surface defects, to remove scar tissue and to, frankly, reveal a more perfect complexion. Since 1990, considerable attention has been focused on the ability of glycolic and fruit acids (AHA’s) to stimulate skin peeling and, in so doing, result in marked “de-aging” benefits for the consumer.

What we know

Even with all of science’s knowledge, we do not completely understand how these acids really work. We do know, however, that years of sun exposure and the natural aging process slow down the skin’s ability to properly renew itself.

The result, says Dr. Albert Kligman, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, is rough-textured, and hyper-pigmented (blotchy and/or “overly” freckled) skin. When this top layer closes off nutrient-, sun-, and air-contact with the healthy skin underneath, the skin has a harder time producing new cells.

When an AHA is applied, it penetrates these dead upper layers of skin and breaks apart the bonds that hold them together. The skin sloughs off these dead cells to make way for the newer, healthier ones trapped underneath. With the use of AHAs over time, the skin’s regeneration system can be be restored, since the natural exfoliating process and skin-regeneration system will be enhanced.

We also now know that, when applying AHA’s, the increased stimulation of skin-cell renewal is responsible for immediate and long-term benefits easily observed and recognized by consumers. While lactic acid and glycolic acid “behaved” (in-tests) similarly the use of fruit acid (AHA’s, including glycolic) resulted in less irritation.

The question of acidity

The acidity level, or “pH,” of the formulation is also important in cell renewal. The lower the pH, the higher the acidity, which results in more skin irritation. As the pH level (number) gets higher (getting more “basic”), the ability to stimulate cell renewal diminishes. Some researchers believe that at above a pH of 6, very little skin-cell turnover goes on.

While there are different ranges that are effective, one range that results in effective cell turnover and minimum irritation is pH 3.5 to 4.0, although this does vary from product to product, depending if buffers are used or not (or which kinds) and on the consumers’ particular need (they want the product to be very powerful or gentle, for example), skin sensitivity and time of day applied.

The benefits of AHAs are numerous

They help reduce unsightly skin splotches caused by extensive sun exposure. They moisturize by attracting water already on the skin and make it absorb faster and more effectively. But the exfoliating properties of AHAs are where the real magic lies. They smooth rough-textured and hyper-pigmented skin, and help slough off dead skin cells to make way for new cells (see “What we know,” above). Dry, flaky skin cells disappear, and the hyper-pigmented skin (and fine lines) become less noticeable.

Recent advances in AHA formulations

There have been a number of improvements made in existing AHA products in an effort to make them even more effective. For example, it has recently been suggested that adding beta hydroxy acids (BHA’s) to AHA’s creates a synergistic effect. It is said that the beta hydroxy’s speed up the exfoliation of the alpha hydroxy’s, thereby producing faster results. Salicylic acid (also used to make aspirin) is one source of BHA’s. A good source is natural salicin, the natural source of salicylic acid located in willow bark extract.

Another improvement has been the addition of buffering ingredients to reduce the irritation of AHA’s. By adding such compounds as chamomile, green tea, manufacturers have found that there is a reduction in the stinging and burning that sometimes occurs upon initial use of AHA products. Other partner ingredients are: aloe vera, comfrey, and rose-hips extract.

Making AHA’s work for you

It’s important to find the right AHA formulation for your skin type and skin needs. Typically, AHA’s come in creams, lotions and oil-free liquids, and contain AHA’s in the 4 to 12 percent range, although this varies. The liquid version is said to offer the advantage of giving you more control over the application – both in terms of the amount of AHA used and the type of moisturizer you choose. The creams and lotions, on the other hand, offer the advantage of one-step application. Although each AHA product is made differently, there are simple guidelines that can be used to make the right decision.

Read the label carefully. The ingredient statement should list any of the natural acids described either in the middle or on top of the list. The closer the acids are listed to the top, the higher the concentration in the product. If no acid is listed on the ingredient statement, the product does not contain any alpha hydroxy acids.

Unfortunately, because the exact concentrations of the acids are not always listed, it might be difficult to determine the product’s strength and exactly what it will do. You might have to try a few products before you find the one you like and one that does not irritate your skin. Before using alpha hydroxy acid formulations, however, you should first determine your skin type.

So what is my skin type?

Dry skin usually looks and feels dry, and is may be cracked and flaky. Lactic acid cream-based moisturizers or alpha hydroxy acid formulations in conjunction with moisturizers can be of great benefit to people with dry skin. AHA preparations containing 4 to 8 percent acid are often beneficial since they are less likely to irritate than a formulation containing higher amounts of AHAs; nevertheless, the percentages do vary.

Normal skin usually does not need heavy moisturizers. Try a cream- or lotion-based product with AHAs because they cause rapid exfoliation and won’t dry out the skin.

Oily skin needs a water-based AHA to get rid of the dead skin and excess debris and oil clogging the pores. The comnination of alpha and beta hydroxy acids increases a high degree of initial “cell shedding,” which benefits oily skin that is prone to clogging.

Sensitive skin is very delicate, and you should be especially careful when choosing an AHA based product. Many products containing AHA’s in the 4 to 8 percent range contain buffering ingredients such as chamomile and green tea (discussed earlier) to help soothe and minimize potential irritation. it’s a good idea to use either a cream or lotion to help give your skin extra moisturizing.

The do’s and don’t’s

“Many people make the mistake that if a little is good, more is better,” says Dr. Seth Matarasso, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. Because AHA products contain strong active ingredients, test the product on your arm first. It is common to experience some slight tingling and redness when you first apply it but if it continues for more than 20 minutes, you may be having an adverse reaction.

If you have never used an AHA product before, start by using the product once every other day at bedtime. If you have dry skin, wait about 15 minutes after washing your face, then apply a small amount. Avoid using AHA’s around the eyes, unless the instructions specifically call for it. This is because the skin around the eyes is very thin, and is much more sensitive than the rest of the facial skin.

Sun protection

While you will, no doubt, be thrilled at how good your skin looks and feels after you begin using AHA’s, you may want to consider using an all-natural sunscreen to protect your newly revealed skin against those harmful rays of the sun. Some manufacturers include a sunscreen in their AHA preparations; others prefer that you apply it separately because of the possible irritation a sunscreen can produce with freshly exfoliated skin.

“The Bottom Line”: results

Part of the excitement surrounding alpha hydroxy acid preparations comes from the realization that they are one of the first groups of cosmetic skincare products which produces real, and visible, results.

But it does not happen overnight. After about two weeks, you should notice that your skin feels smoother and looks fresher. You will also begin to notice that blotchy and uneven skin tones including brown spots) have started to fade away. Fine lines gradually seem to disappear, even wrinkles become less noticeable.

Bringing out our natural beauty, really, is the key, isn’t it? Or, as Longus said in the 3rd century:

There was never any yet that wholly could escape love, and never shall there be any, never so long as beauty shall be, never so long as eyes can see.

Now that your skin is glowing, what are you going to do about your hair?

In her book, Skin Deep, Margaret Dinsdale states, “… Humans are plagued and blessed … by their hair. Our society places great emphasis on [it]….” She notes that while our hair is actually dead, it is porous. Thus, it can be dry, normal, oily, etc. Among the most important steps to achieving healthy-looking hair is a healthy scalp. Here are some herbal rinses which Dinsdale says are refreshing to the scalp.

For Day or Fine Hair: Roman chamomile, comfrey root, horsetail, marshmallow root, plantain, or scented geranium.

For Oily Hair: Bay leaf, juniper berries, nettle, southernwood, or yarrow.

For Problem Hair: Bay leaf, birch (leaves or bark), burdock seed, comfrey root, juniper, lavender, nettle, sage, or thyme.

Rinses containing these and other herbs can be purchased at your natural products store, or made at home by combining one tablespoon of the herb or herbs with a cup of water.