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Part Four of our Skin Care Primer Series: Alpha-hydroxy-acids

Now that we’ve established the foundation of our skincare regimen with daily sunscreen use and topical tretinoin therapy, it’s time to maximize our results. There are a number of products available that complement the effects of tretinoin therapy, but none are as important as alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs).

AHAs are several, naturally-occurring compounds that have been used to improve the quality of the facial skin since the time of the ancient Egyptians! Examples include glycolic acid (found in sugar cane), lactic acid (found in sour milk), malic acid (found in apples), citric acid (OJ anyone?), and tartaric acid (found in grapes).  These compounds are all light acids which when used topically can help remove dead and damaged cells, brighten the skin, and improve tone.

The secret behind AHAs is their ability to help break the bonds (cellular glue) that hold the skin cells together. In our last post, we briefly discussed the growth and regeneration of the skin. Recall the very top layer of the skin is essentially dead cells. As this layer builds up with age the skin takes on a dry, uneven appearance. AHAs act as a chemical exfoliant; they loosen the connections between these dead cells and allow them to be shed. The elimination of these cells reveals the healthy, younger skin beneath. This hidden skin is brighter, smoother, and firmer.

Like tretinoin, AHAs will also speed the time it takes for the skin to turn over. Speeding skin turnover allows more even distribution of the skin pigment melanin. This can help eliminate pigment irregularities like age spots and is crucial to the treatment of melasma.

AHAs are probably best known for their use in light chemical peels. If anyone has ever had a “lunchtime” peel or “weekend” peels, it is likely AHAs were used. While repeat light chemical peels can certainly be beneficial, they do not replace daily care. These peels are performed every few weeks and use higher concentrations of the acids. Daily use of lower strength AHAs (along with your foundation of sunscreen and tretinoin) provides equal, if not better, results for less cost and less downtime.

AHAs also have the added benefit of working synergistically with other skin care products. Next week we’ll discuss both Vitamin C serums and peptides in detail, but daily AHA use maximizes the effects of these agents as well as that of tretinoin. Because AHAs thin the dead top layer of skin (which happens to be a barrier to skin care products) they allow better penetration of other products. A good skin care regimen is like a team; while any individual player is good, greatness comes from the team effort.

Like tretinoin, the keys to AHA treatment are proper introduction/use of the product and patience.

AHAs are generally very well tolerated, but when first used they can cause some drying and irritation. Introduce your AHA product slowly, using it every other day for the first two weeks before moving on to once daily use. If you start to notice irritation or unwanted effects, scale back for a week. In the end, almost everyone can tolerate daily use.

Although almost every patient who consistently uses AHAs will notice benefits, these effects take time. Remember that it takes the skin at least 40-45 days to regenerate (called a “skin cycle”), often longer with increasing age. Most people will notice a significant improvement after two skin cycles, so expect to use the product for a minimum of three months before substantial improvement is seen. Like all worthy endeavors, you will need to invest the time and the effort necessary to bring the desired results to fruition.

AHAs are an integral part of any good skincare regimen. If it seems daunting to try and craft your own skincare schedule, don’t worry, you’re not alone and we are here to help. Schedule a skincare consultation and we can help customize a routine to meet your skin’s unique needs, 860-676-2473.