By Alex Orfila

‘Acid’ is not a word you would typically associate with skincare. Nor is it an ingredient you would ever dream of slathering on your face. This is true of the traditionally harsh and corrosive chemicals of the acid family – stay well away from those!

When you break it down, acid is just a word to describe a type of chemical substance; this month we’re focusing on  the safe water-based acids which are found in our skincare products, as well as other active ingredients which you may not have heard of since your Year 10 science class, but which are making serious waves in the beauty world. Each have a different purpose and can target a variety of skin concerns from acne, open pores, dryness, dullness and wrinkles. Basically everything.

Perhaps I would have displayed more interest in chemistry class if I had known it would teach me which ingredients would help plump and smoothen my skin, but alas my dalliance with skincare begun well after my school days!

When incorporating any – or a selection – of these active ingredients into your skincare routine, research is key, and some caution is advised. It is important to know how to layer products; some of these ingredients complement each other wonderfully, whilst others don’t get along at all and combining them could be counterproductive or even damaging to your skin.

A company which has revolutionised skincare particularly in recent years is Deciem (which most will know as The Ordinary). This brand has stripped back their products to the bare bones, they do not focus on advertising, branding, fancy names or any of the other factors which contribute to making beauty products all the more expensive. In fact, their products are very inexpensive, with prices starting from as little as £5. Their serums and creams are quite literally labeled with the chemical component contained in the bottle along with a percentage relating to the strength. For example, The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid serum is quite literally called Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5, so you get the idea.

I saw results pretty much from the first time I used it.

These chemical components can seem quite daunting to the untrained eye, for this reason The Ordinary’s website offer detailed guidance as to how to layer these products – which is absolutely key to ensuring their effectiveness.

The Ordinary’s success has been so groundbreaking that even beauty giants Boots have recently released their own range of stripped back products which also focus on these key ingredients. They have quite literally – and some would say rather cleverly – named their range ‘Ingredients’.

So, what exactly are these key ingredients?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids 

These ingredients are great for maintaining youthful skin as they smoothen and resurface. In effect they act as a ‘peel’, exfoliating away excess skin cells which sit on the surface layer of our skin to reveal fresher, healthier looking skin. For this reason, it is absolutely crucial for anyone incorporating any of these ingredients into their routine to use sunscreen every day (yes even when its cloudy) as the newer skin cells underneath will be more vulnerable to sun exposure. With these types of substances, the key is always to introduce them to your routine gradually, i.e. using them perhaps once a week to begin with and then upping it to every other night as your skin builds up tolerance to them.

Both these types of acids work pretty much in the same way, so what are the main differences?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids or AHAs as they are known, are water soluble whilst Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are oil soluble. AHA’s are derived from various natural substances such as sour milk, fruits and sugar cane. The most widely used AHA is Glycolic Acid because of its ability to slough away excess or dead skin cells.

The moral of the story? Don’t skip your vitamins!

BHA’s are found in willow bark and birch trees. Because it is oil soluble this substance is particularly effective in cleaning out pours. Salicylic acid is probably the most commonly used BHA as it is great at targeting oil excess and is therefore a preferred ingredient for those with acne prone skin.

Gycolic Acid picks:

Pixi Glow Tonic, £18

This toner has acquired cult status and is revered as a ‘holy grail’ product for many because of its ability to deliver glowing skin. It is perfect for those who are starting to incorporate glycolic acid into their routine. Although it is a toner and therefore gentler than other glycolic acid products it is recommended that this not be used more than once a day, whilst those with more sensitive skin are urged to use it once every other day.


Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, £76

There is a lot of hype around the Drunk Elephant Brand so I approached this product with some skepticism. However, this has now become my go-to Glycolic product and one which has revolutionised my skincare routine as I saw results pretty much from the first time I used it. I only have to use it about twice a week, which is enough for me… because when it comes to glycolic acid there is such a thing as having too much of a good thing!

Salicylic Acid pick:

Salicylic Acid Cleanser The Inkey List, £10.99

The Inkey list is another new brand which is taking skincare back to basics. This cleanser is great for troubled skin as it reduces oil excess.

Hyaluronic Acid

This acid is renowned for its hydrating properties as it attracts one thousand times its own weight in water. It is a substance which is naturally present in skin, although its primary function is not actually to provide hydration because naturally its molecules are too large to be absorbed into the skin and instead tend to sit on the surface. However Hyaluronic Acid products have been formulated to penetrate the skin and offer maximum hydration.

Hyaluronic Acid picks:

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5, £5.90

This is hydration in a bottle. The Ordinary’s formula is also packed with Vitamin B5 which plumps skin beautifully. This will be the best £5.90 you will ever spend!

Origins Drink Up Intensive, £22

An intense overnight mask packed with hyaluronic acid, avocado and Swiss glacier water. Perfect for when dry skin needs a little pick me up. It will quite literally quench your skins thirst.

Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid)

Sure, we’ve all heard about the benefits of ingesting vitamin C, but incorporating it into your skincare is somewhat lesser-known. This ingredient is great at repairing damaged skin cells and promoting the production of collagen, thus making it a potent antiaging option. Possibly the only downside of vitamin C is that it has to be used quickly as it doesn’t stay ‘fresh’ for long and products can become less effective if not sealed properly or left unused for weeks (although the same is true of the vitamin C supplements we ingest.) Also, as with all active ingredients, those with more sensitive skin should tread with caution and try gentler formulations.

Vitamin C is also renowned for its antioxidant qualities; just as taking vitamin c supplements and foods can help your body combat free radicals, using vitamin c products on your skin helps to shield it from various pollutants. It also brightens skin and evens skin tone, so it seems the benefits are endless – the moral of the story? Don’t skip your vitamins!

Sunday Riley C.E.O Rapid Flash Brightening Serum, £70

This potent vitamin C serum does exactly what it says on the bottle, brighter looking skin anyone?


Granted this word may sound like a type of poison, but it is anything but! Niacinamide is actually vitamin B3 and helps build keratin, which is a type of protein that helps keep skin firm. Niacinamide is praised for its ability to reduce enlarged pores and skin blemishes, thus improving uneven skin tone. This ingredient is a bit of a hybrid as it can target troubled skin whilst also containing antiaging properties.

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, £5

This offering by The Ordinary also contains a small percentage of zinc to balance oil control, making it a great option for congested skin.


Retinol is a buzzword in the beauty community at the moment and is dubbed as one of the most powerful ingredients out there with many referring to it as the only proven anti-aging ingredient. So what makes it so effective?

It works by boosting collagen production and exfoliating skin, meaning that skin appears more plumped and fine lines are reduced. Although highly effective at combating signs of aging, retinol is very potent and can be quite drying on the skin and perhaps too harsh for those with more sensitive skin types. For this reason, it is recommended that it only be used at night and that a high factor SPF be incorporated into your daytime routine.

As is the case whenever trying out a new ingredient start gradually and use a gentler formula.

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream, £70

This award-winning product is a great option for retinol beginners, it brings you the antiaging powers of retinol in the form of a rich and hydrating cream.