Hyaluronic to salicylic: A guide to using acids in your skincare routine

Acids can sound harsh, unforgiving and intimidating. But in reality, they’re an amazing tool.

In fact, according to Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a Toronto-based dermatologist and medical director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre, acids are the key to a thorough skincare routine.

“Most acids start by exfoliating the top layers of dead skin, allowing other products to penetrate better,” said Barankin. “The skin will also appear brighter.”

With continued use, your skin will become increasingly receptive to acid and your skincare routine will become more effective overall.

You can find some acid products at the drug store, but they likely won’t be as effective as prescription products.

“Using store-bought products are most likely safe, but due to Health Canada regulations, (they’re probably) ineffective due to the limited percentage of active ingredients.”

For the best bang for your buck — and to ensure you’re using the acid in a safe and controlled manner — you should consult a dermatologist or medical esthetician.

A skincare professional can “assess you for your skin type, skin condition and suggest products,” said Barankin.

They can also show you how to use the products, decide how often you should be using them and help to set realistic expectations.

“It’s human nature to overdo (it) and try to speed up results,” Barankin told Global News. “This will backfire — have no doubt! Acids are strong and shouldn’t be misused. It isn’t difficult to burn the skin or have an adverse reaction. If this were to happen, having a professional available will help repair the skin more quickly and more aptly.”

While acids, in all its different forms, will affect each person’s skin differently, there are some general rules of thumb.

“For acne- or oily-prone skin, using a cleanser or toner with glycolic and salicylic acid daily will help prevent the build-up of dead skin cells and reduce congestion,” said Barankin.

If you have pigmented or sun-damaged skin, reach for a daily serum. “A daily serum containing a low dose of kojic and arbutin during the day, used with a retinol at night or a weekly peel of mandelic or kojic acid will help reduce the appearance of dark spots and help brighten the skin,” Barankin explained.

“Daily vitamin C or ascorbic acid applied in the morning will also help protect against sun damage.”

Serums and moisturizers are the best vehicles for those people with dry or sensitive skin. Those containing hyaluronic and lactic acid “will help keep skin hydrated and reduce irritation,” Barankin said.

Acid is touted as a skincare game-changer, but knowing which are best for you can be tricky. Here, Barankin breaks down the main players and their uses.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid adds volume to the skin, and it calms the skin through hydration.

We produce hyaluronic acid naturally, but the amount decreases as we age. “The hyaluronic acid molecule doesn’t last long and must reproduce regularly,” said Barankin. “The addition of it in our home skincare routine is very beneficial to every skin type.”


Retinol is great at combating the bad stuff. The vitamin A is anti-aging, anti-acne and anti-pigmentation.

“Retinol is amazing for most skin types, except for those with sensitive skin or rosacea,” said Barankin. “It is sun-sensitive and needs to be used with caution if it’s medical grade. Store-bought retinol is very mild and has very little effect on the skin.”

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is “very good for anti-aging and reducing blocked pores,” according to Barankin. “It’s also the least likely to cause excessive peeling” after use.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is great for eliminating dead skin cells and breaking up excessive oil.

“It can also be used to reduce pigmentation when used in conjunction with other products,” said Barankin.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid reduces pigmentation, and it’s usually tolerated well by most skin types.

Arbutin acid

Arbutin acid is good for “minimizing irritation and inflammation, as well as reducing pigmentation.” It’s good for most skin types.

Trichloroacetic acid

Trichloroacetic acid is a synthetic acid that is more aggressive than most acids.

“It’s great for textural concerns including scars and wrinkles,” said Barankin. “Visible peeling is expected and should only be used while at a clinic with your skincare specialist or doctor.”

Lactic acid

Lactic acid absorbs slowly into the skin, which helps it maintain your skin’s balance. It’s also great for hydration.

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