Best AHA exfoliants

The Best AHA Exfoliants

For those who have dry and/or sun damaged skin, one of the best ways to optimize the appearance and quality of the skin is to use an effective AHA exfoliant. While multiple skincare products contain one or more AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids), only those with a acidic (‘sour’) pH between 3 and 4 will actually as work as exfoliants on your skin. You can read more about how AHAs work in the following or skip down to the list of the best AHA exfoliants below. This list mainly includes AHA exfoliants in light-weight formulations, but we will also compile a list of more emollient, yet still exfoliating AHA moisturizers in the future. AHA exfoliants should always be formulated as stay-on products rather than cleansers or facial masks as the products otherwise don’t have enough time to exfoliate properly before they are washed off.

What is AHA?

AHA stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acid which is the umbrella term for a group of acids with a similar structure (a carboxylic acid with a hydroxyl group on the adjacent carbon – in case you were wondering). This means that there are actually many different AHAs out there (such as lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid etc.), but the most well-researched and used alpha hydroxy acid in skin care is glycolic acid. AHAs can be derived from various plants (malic acid from apples, citric acid from citrus etc.) and milk (lactic acid), but nearly all AHAs used in cosmetics are synthetically derived.

pH is important for AHA exfoliants

Remember pH testing tape from primary school chemistry? Red means sour/acidic, green is neutral and blue/violet indicates an alkaline. If you want an AHA product to exfoliate, a sour pH is crucial!

Regardless of the production method, the end product is the same and any AHA will affect your skin in the same way, no matter its origin. Producing AHAs synthetically is merely cheaper and simpler. What will influence the effect of an AHA on your skin is the pH and amount of it in a given product. While AHAs do have water-binding properties in low concentrations and higher pHs, only AHA exfoliants with concentrations higher than 4% and a pH between 3 and 4 will be able to “lift” or “unglue” the dead skin cells from the fresh living skin below by dissolving the substance that binds them to the skin. Most skincare products are formulated with a pH similar to that of the skin – which is around 5.5 – and in such formulas, no exfoliation will occur – regardless of the amount of AHAs they may contain. Using an AHA exfoliant can irritate the skin and thus you always want to start with trying one with a lower concentration, from 5% to 8% for example. Most AHA exfoliants, however, have a concentration of 10% or higher and these should only be used by those who have some experience with AHAs. The higher the concentration, the higher the risk for irritation. Concentrations higher than 15% are pretty tough on the skin and should probably be left in the hands of dermatologists and professionals conducting chemical peels that may require down-time. In the selection below we included AHA exfoliants with concentrations from 5% to 10% and appropriate pH values. For the pH ratings, we relied on the measurements done by the Beautypedia team if undisclosed by the manufacturers themselves.

Why use an AHA Exfoliant?

As mentioned earlier, AHAs have the great characteristic that they can dissolve the substance that binds dead skincells to the skin and thus reveal the fresh, healthy skin underneath, ultimately giving you a more glowing and even-looking skin. Although it may sound scary to “dissolve a substance” on the skin surface, it is actually a much more gentle and safe way to exfoliate than using scrubs or other abrasive procedures (microdermabrasion, rubbing with a washcloth etc.) which can easily be overdone and tear at the skin. Gentle exfoliation is indeed a great Optimizing step for your skin – not just because it reveals the fresh skin underneath the dull layer of dead skin but also because it can help to build collagen which makes your skin firmer. Using an AHA exfoliant is therefore recommended for anyone with dry, ageing and sun-damaged skin. However, as AHAs are water-soluble as opposed to (fat) lipid-soluble they don’t work as well on combination and oily skin. People with these skin types should instead go for a BHA exfoliant  as BHA is lipid-soluble and can penetrate through the thin film of sebum on the surface of the skin to exfoliate inside the pores. Check our list of the best BHA exfoliants here. Nevertheless, a light-weight AHA exfoliant like those listed below (except the Derma E Overnight Peel) might also work for those who have already tried BHA exfoliants and found them to be unsuitable for their oily or combination skin.

Who Shouldn’t use AHA Exfoliants?

  • Those who can’t commit to using sunscreen on a daily basis. Using an AHA exfoliant on a regular basis can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, but using sunscreen consistently will mitigate this problem.
  • Those with combination or oily skin will be much better off using a BHA exfoliant as the BHA can actually penetrate through the oily sebum.
  • Those few people who have been diagnosed with actual milk allergy (which is more severe than being lactose-intolerant) should be wary of AHA exfoliants containing lactic acid.

The Line-Up: Best AHA Exfoliants

Best AHA exfoliants

Overview of the Best AHA Exfoliants

ProductThe Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HAPC Skin Perfecting 8% AHA GelAlpha Skin Care Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic AcidOlay ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-PeelDerma E Overnight Peel
Size:30 ml30/100 ml50 ml38 ml60 ml
AHA Concentration:5%/10 %8 %10 %Undisclosed (probably ≤10%)5 %
Best for:All skin types.All skin types.All skin types.All skin types.Normal to dry skin.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

I. The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

The most commonly used AHA is glycolic acid, but for beginners or those who find glycolic acid too irritating in whichever concentration it might be a good idea to try an exfoliant with lactic acid or mandelic acid. The Ordinary actually offers all three of types of AHAs, but our top pick is The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA (pH = 3.6-3.8) which combines the somewhat milder lactic acid with the superior skin-replenishing antioxidant hyalouronic acid (HA) to provide a more gentle exfoliation than glycolic acid. Other ingredients which will keep irritation in check are skin-restoring glycerin and an anti-irritating extract made of Tasmanian Pepperberry. There is also an even milder version of this product – The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA which contains the same ingredients. Be aware, however, that this doesn’t mean that you are altogether safe from irritation – just that there is a lower risk than, say glycolic acid. On the other hand, AHA exfoliants with lactic acid are perfectly safe to use for people with lactose intolerance, while those diagnosed with an actual milk allergy should proceed with caution.

Ingredients – The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA: Aqua (Water) • Lactic Acid • Glycerin • Pentylene Glycol • Propanediol • Sodium Hydroxide • Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer • Tasmannia Lanceolata Fruit/Leaf Extract • Acacia Senegal Gum • Xanthan Gum • Isoceteth-20 • Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate • Ethylhexylglycerin • 1,2-Hexanediol, Caprylyl Glycol.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid + HA

has been rated the following:

3.8 out of 5 (70 reviews)


4.0 out of 5 (65 reviews)

*as of March 17th, 2019

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

II. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

Paula’s choice offer three different AHA exfoliants; the Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA, the Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA and finally the Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant which is the choice for this list although all three products are excellent well-formulated AHA exfoliants. The Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant (pH between 3.5 and 3.9) is due to its gel-like consistency suitable to use for all skin types as there are no overly emollient ingredients that could cause problems for more oily skin types. Nevertheless, the AHA exfoliant contains several soothing ingredients to counteract any potential irritation from the peel – such as extract of chamomile flower and green tea, sodium hyaluronate and sodium PCA. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant is also available as a travel/trial size of 30 ml.

PC Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Exfoliant

has been rated the following:

4.1 out of 5 (281 reviews)

5 out of 5 (expert review)

4.2 out of 5 (313 reviews)

*as of March 17th, 2019

III. Alpha Skin Care Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic Acid

Alpha skin Care Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic Acid

Alpha Skin Care Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic Acid

Alpha Skin Care was previously named Alpha Hydroxy and there is a good reason for this as the brand has several high-quality AHA exfoliants – with concentrations starting at 10% AHA and going as high as 14%. The Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic Acid (formerly 10% AHA Oil Free Formula) has a light-weight texture and is thus suitable for all skin types, even the oiliest, but those with dry skin will probably want to follow up with a more moisturizing product. The ingredients list is very simple but contains hydrating panthenol (vitamin B5) and anti-aging green tea extract. Alpha Skin Care Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic Acid has a pH of 4.0.

Ingredients – Alpha Skin Care Essential Renewal Gel 10% Glycolic Acid: Water • Glycolic Acid • Ammonium Hydroxide • Sodium Lactate • Green Tea Extract • Carrageenan (Sea Kelp Extract) • Panthenol (Vitamin B5) • Propylene Glycol • Diazolidinyl Urea • Idopropynyl Butylcarbamate • PVM/MA Decadiene Crosspolymer.

Alpha Skin Care 10% AHA Gel 

has been rated the following:

4.2 out of 5 (802 reviews)

5 out of 5 (expert review)

4.0 out of 5 (220 reviews)

*as of March 17th, 2019

Olay ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-Peel

Olay ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-Peel

IV. Olay ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-Peel

Olay has for some unknown reason chosen to discontinue the well-formulated ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-Peel, but as the product is still widely available for the time being we chose to include it on this list anyway. The actual amount of glycolic acid in the product is not disclosed but being listed as the third ingredient the Beautypedia team estimates that it could be as high as 10%. What is certain, however, is that the Olay ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-Peel is as effective an AHA exfoliant as they come with a pH around 3.8 and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as allantoin and calendula extract to counteract the potential irritation that a peel can cause.

Olay ProX Nightly Micro-Peel

has been rated the following:

4.0 out of 5 (91 reviews)

5 out of 5 (expert review)

5 out of 5 (4 reviews)

*as of March 17th, 2019

Derma E Overnight Peel

Derma E Overnight Peel

V. Derma E Overnight Peel

If you are new to AHA exfoliants and not sure how much your skin can tolerate, you might want to start out with a lower, yet effective concentration. Derma E Overnight Peel contains 5% glycolic acid as well as lower amounts of lactic and malic acids with a pH of 3.5. It also contains a mix of emollient ingredients such as jojoba oil, glycerin and stearic acid which will soothe and moisturize dry skin. The only bad thing about the Derma E Overnight Peel is the (tiny) amount of lemon fruit extract which is only there for fragrance while the passion fruit extract does have some skin-soothing properties.

Note: Derma E is currently in the process of shifting their packaging from a simple color blocked version into a more sophisticated pastel-colored style, so you might stumble upon products packed in either way.

Derma E Overnight Peel

has been rated the following:

3.9 out of 5 (241 reviews)

5 out of 5 (expert review)

4.0 out of 5 (24 reviews)

*as of March 17th, 2019

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