Alpha, beta, hydroxy acids, vitamins, and derivatives -- the words on skin care products can be confusing.
This simple guide will help you understand the ingredients that may benefit your skin. Then, if you're still unsure which skin care products are right for you, ask your dermatologist or consult with a skin aesthetician at your local salon or beauty counter.
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
Alpha-hydroxy acids include glycolic, lactic, tartaric, malic, and citric acids. They have become increasingly popular over the last 20 years. In the U.S. alone, there are over 200 makers of skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids.
Creams and lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids may help with fine lines, irregular pigmentation, and age spots. Side effects of alpha-hydroxy acids include mild irritation and sun sensitivity. For that reason, sunscreen should be used every morning.
To help avoid skin irritation with alpha-hydroxy acids, it's best to start with a product with low concentrations of AHA. Also, give your skin a chance to get used to the product. Start out by applying AHA skin products every other day, gradually working up to a daily application. Don't use too much; follow the instructions on the package.
Beta-Hydroxy Acid (Salicylic Acid)
Salicylic acid exfoliates skin and can improve its texture and color. It also helps with acne.
Many skin care products contain salicylic acid. Some are available over-the-counter and others require a doctor's prescription. Studies have shown that salicylic acid is less irritating than skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids but has similar results in improving skin texture and color.
Warning: People who are allergic to salycylates (found in aspirin) should not use products containing salicylic acid. Salicylic acid can be absorbed into the bloodstream and may cause an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis. Pregnant or nursing women should not use products containing salicylic acid.
Skin care products containing hydroquinone are often called bleaching creams or lightening agents. These skin care products are used to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots related to pregnancy or hormone therapy (also called melasma).
Some over-the-counter skin care products contain hydroquinone. Your doctor can also prescribe a product with a higher concentration of hydroquinone if your skin doesn't respond to over-the-counter treatments.
If you are allergic to hydroquinones, you can use products containing kojic acid instead. Pregnant women cannot use hydroquinone.
Kojic acid is a more recent remedy for treating pigment problems and age spots. First developed in 1989, kojic acid has a similar effect as hydroquinone. Kojic acid is made from a fungus, and studies have shown that it is effective at lightening skin.