Chemical serums and exfoliators are the new Korean sheet masks. But, only in terms of trends. Dermatologists and skin specialists have, for years, provided and recommended treatments that involve acids for various skin issues, or just for vanity. But now, Instagram is all about the acids right now. Everyone has these elaborate skincare routines, involving acids for different skin types. We get Dr. Harshna Bijlani, medical head of The AgeLess Clinic and celebrity skin expert, Ghazal Alagh, Co-Founder of Derma Co., and Dr. Sushant Shetty MD (Skin)Head – Medical Operations, Services and Engineering, Kaya Clinics to share an easy guide to pick the right acids. 

The most common skin concerns being addressed by acids are acne, pigmentation, anti-aging, unclogging pores, and skin turnover. “As is the case with all skincare products, the first step to determining what acid you could use is to first understand your skin type, skin concerns and then understand what various acids can do for you, explains Bijlani. When asked about choosing acids for men, she says, “Skincare acids don’t need to be distinguished as per gender, but rather skin type and concern. Having said that, let’s remember that men tend to have oilier and thicker skin due to testosterone, hence the acids they pick should be more potent,” explains Alagh. 

It’s very important to know which acids can be used together, and which can’t. For example, glycolic acid and vitamin C work very well together. Use your acids typically in the night as they tend to make you more photosensitive, and stop using your acids a couple of days before you get any clean-up or facial done as it tends to make your skin more sensitive. When you start using any new acids or acid-based products, do a patch test first. They are lovely substitute for beaded scrubs. 

You must’ve also heard the terms AHA and BHA, and wondered what they are? AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids. Popular AHAs, like glycolic and lactic acid, help with exfoliation, brightening, anti-aging, and skin turnover. These can be used in the form of serums, moisturisers, face creams and so on. Popular BHAs (beta hydroxy acids), on the other hand, like salicylic acid, are especially great for those with acne-prone or oily skin. They help exfoliate, unclog pores and control oil production and can be used as exfoliants, cleanser or toners.

Most common acids used in skincare


Salicylic acid is a BHA that works to control oil production, exfoliate and reduce sebum production, which, in turn, makes this a great anti-acne ingredient. It can be used once a day or once every few days for those with acne prone skin. 


Hyaluronic acid is popularly known for its hydrating properties as well as anti-aging effects. There are some lovely products that contain a mix of hyaluronic acid with ascorbic acid, and various other acids that can work well for a wide range of skin types and concerns. It is commonly found in moisturisers, serums, ampoules and so on, opines Bijlani. 


It is also classified as an AHA, but has a higher molecular weight than glycolic acid, and helps in exfoliation and reducing dark spots, making the skin more even-toned. Lactic acid is also known to retain more water in skin, while most of the other acids dry out the skin, opines Dr. Shetty. 


Bijlani says, “Retinol is a milder or baby version of tretinoin, which is a prescription medicine, with both being derivatives of vitamin A. The effects of retinol are smoother skin – due to its ability to improve cell turnover, it helps with fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating collagen, helps with open pores, gives your clearer skin, helps with acne, etc. While some people consider retinol a scary ingredient due to all the precautions you need to take while using retinol, if used correctly, retinol is a fabulous ingredient that shows some amazing results. I would recommend doing a patch test before using it. Preferably speak to your doctor and create a skincare routine that eases you into correctly using retinol.”


Classified as AHA, glycolic acid is effective because of its small molecular size. It basically acts as an exfoliant and because of its low molecular weight, it also penetrates slightly deeper, improving cell turnover and leading to younger, firmer and hydrated skin. It also helps in skin even tone by fading dark spots and acne scars. This acid improves the appearance of skin texture with continuous use, says Dr Shetty. 


Kojic acid is best for brightening and lightening the skin. It is used for fading away dark spots, pigmentation, and post-breakout marks. This acid can be used for all skin types, especially those with hyperpigmentation and melasma,” says Dr Shetty.