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Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Their Potential (Aging Skin)
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Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Their Potential

By Mariusz J.A. Sapijaszko, MD FRCPC (Dermatology)

Most of us who are conscious about skin care have heard of alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs). Their benefits have been studied considerably, and are now recognized as an important part of optimal skin care. This article is a review of alpha hydroxyl acids, their varied use in cosmetic and medical applications, associated risks, as well as our current understanding of how they work. For more information on other cosmetic procedures, you may wish to visit

Alpha hydroxyl acids are compounds that are derived from certain food products such as sugar canes, sour milk, apples, grape wine, and citric fruits, that can have beneficial effects on the skin. Of those AHAs, glycolic acid, which is derived from sugar canes, have the smallest molecular size, which is beneficial in penetrating the skin, where it can have an effect on the cells.

Glycolic acids can have varying effects on the skin depending on concentration levels. At the lower concentrations (5 to 10%) glycolic acids have the effect of reducing cell adhesion, promoting exfoliation of the outer skin, which creates a smoother feel after treatment. Over the counter products such as Reversa® contain this concentration of glycolic acids. This exfoliating effect can also help with the treatment of acne, photodamage, or wrinkling, which makes these products extremely appealing. Unfortunately for some people, especially those with sensitive skin, glycolic acid can be an irritant, and recent formulations often combine glycolic acid with amino acids, which reduce the risk of irritation while maintaining the benefits of the glycolic acid. At these lower concentrations, daily use is considered to be without risk.

At higher concentrations (10 to 50%), the benefits of glycolic acid are more pronounced. The effects, like those below 10%, are however, temporary. Higher concentration glycolic acids work on contact, and have effects similar to chemical peels. The acid promotes the splitting of cells, and is an effective treatment of acne or photodamage, but must be applied under careful supervision of a qualified physician. Multiple treatments of high concentration glycolic acids can have beneficial results for the skin. However, as with chemical peels, risks and side effects may include hyperpigmentation, redness, minor scarring, and activation of cold sores in those that have the virus latent in their systems.

In conclusion, alpha hydroxyl acids have an important place in total skin care, and we expect further study and development in treatments based on the use of these acids that extend beyond skin exfoliation. For more information about skin care, go to


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