Let’s talk about acid. No, not the kind that makes you trip — we’re talking about the ones that take your skin to a higher, brighter level: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). This group of exfoliating acids is most commonly known for being part of the not-so-secret sauce found in chemical peels. But as their popularity grew, these intensive ingredients have found their way into our favorite topicals and at-home treatments. Before we dive into the best alpha hydroxy acid products, we tapped a few board-certified dermatologists to break down how these powerful actives boost our skin’s appearance.

What are alpha hydroxy acids?

According to Orit Markowitz, MD, New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin, AHAs are derived from sugarcane or other plant sources (think citric acid), which is what makes them different from their oily-skin-conducive counterparts, beta hydroxy acids (BHA), and gentler, sensitive-skin-friendly polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). The most common AHA in skin-care products is glycolic acid, the most intensive under the AHA umbrella, and lactic acid.

What are the skin-care benefits of alpha hydroxy acids?

Dr. Markowitz says that AHAs have the ability to target the superficial layer of skin, therefore creating a smoother complexion with a more even skin tone. Board-certified, NYC-based dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD, notes that AHAs remove the outer layer of dead and damaged skin on your face, revealing softer and brighter skin. “AHAs help even out skin pigmentation irregularities from melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” she previously told Allure. Alpha hydroxy acids can also stimulate your face’s production of skin-firming collagen, which diminishes the look of fine lines in the process.

The skin-care benefits from alpha hydroxy acids are bountiful but the dermatology experts also highlighted that this particular group of active ingredients can cause your skin to feel a little more sensitive than usual, especially pertaining to sun exposure. So when first using AHA products, try incorporating them into your routine at night, and use sunscreen during the day to protect your pores from sun damage.

Now that you’re finished with your crash course on alpha hydroxy acids, it’s time to put all of these learnings into practice. Below, take a look at 17 skin-care treatments filled with these potent exfoliating ingredients.

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