how to layer acids in your skincare routine

Error: skincare overload! Skincare overload!

Remember when the mere thought of putting acids on your skin made you run in the opposite direction? Now you can’t get enough of them.

Glycolic acid. Lactic acid. L-Ascorbic Acid. You’re using all of them and then you’re wondering why your skin’s all dry and flaky all of a sudden… 🙄

Acids are powerful. They work. They give you results. Fast. It’s easy to get addicted.

But this is one case where more ISN’T better. Go overboard with acids and you’ll destroy your skin (literally).

Acids do have a place in your skincare routine. You just need to know how to mix and match them to get the best results without the irritating side effects.

I’m here to help. Here’s the complete guide on how to layer acids in your skincare routine:

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What Types Of Acids Are Used In Skincare?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

A family of water-soluble exfoliants that work by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together so they can slough off. With them out of the picture, your skin is softer, smoother and brighter. Plus, they hydrate skin, too. The catch? High concentrations can dry out and irritate skin. The most famous members of the family are glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid.

Best picks: 

Related: Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which One Should You Use?

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Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

Salicylic acid is the only BHA used in skincare. Unlike AHAs, it’s oil-soluble. This means it does double duty: it exfoliates the surface of the skin AND gets inside the pores, unclogging them from within. Plus, it has one more trick up its sleeve: it has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe redness and irritations.

Best picks:

Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is The Key To Spot-Free Skin

niod multi-molecular hyaluronic complex

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is technically a sugar. A super hydrating one. Hyaluronic acid acts like a moisture magnet that attracts water from the air into the skin. It’s so powerful, it binds up to 1000 times its weight in water! All that moisture makes skin softer, plumper and brighter.

Best picks: 

Related: Hyaluronic Acid Skincare Benefits: Do You Need It?

L-Ascorbic Acid

A weak acid, L-Ascorbic Acid is the pure form of vitamin C. It fights free radicals, brightens skin and boosts collagen. But it’s unstable AF. It goes bad super quickly when exposed to light, heat and air. High concentrations also sting and irritate skin. That’s why lots of people prefer to use Vitamin C derivates. They’re less effective but gentler on the skin and last way longer too.

Best Picks:

Related: 5 Anti-Aging Superstars You Should Add To Your Skincare Routine

medik8 ce tetra vitamin c antioxidant serum

Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs)

A family of exfoliants that’s as effective as Alpha Hydroxy Acids but with a larger molecular structure. Translation: they exfoliate skin just as well but are less irritating. The most famous members of the family are gluconolactone and lactobionic acid.

Best Picks:

Retinoid Acid

Retinoic acid is the only form of Vitamin A your body can recognise and use to treat wrinkles. It fights free radicals, speeds up the skin’s natural exfoliating process and boosts the production of collagen. But it’s super harsh on the skin. It can cause severe dryness, peeling and irritation. That’s why it’s prescription only. OTC forms of retinoids, like retinol and retinaldehyde, must be converted into retinoid acid to work their magic. They’re gentler but less effective.

Best Picks: 

Related: What Form Of Retinoids Is Right For You?

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How To Layer Acids In Your Skincare Routine

Can You Layer Exfoliating Acids?

This is the number one mistake I see people make in layering acids. Everyone wants to use Pixi Glow or The Ordinary Glycolic 7% Toning Solution but then you’ve heard that lactic acid is the new awesome kid on the skincare block and, wait, I have a few blackheads so why not throw salicylic acid into the mix too?

Because too much exfoliation is gonna strip your skin raw and irritate it as hell. Dead cells are there for a reason: to protect the newer cells that aren’t ready to come to the surface yet. Removing the most superficial layer makes your skin smoother and brighter. Removing all the layers leaves it red and sensitive.

For the love of your skin, stop adding all the “cult” exfoliating products into your skin. Just pick the one acid that works for you and stick to that:

  • Dry and sun-damaged skin: glycolic acid
  • Oily and acne-prone skin: salicylic acid
  • Sensitive skin: lactic acid or PHAs

But let’s say that your skin could really benefit from more than one type of acid. Maybe you have oily but sun-damaged skin that needs both glycolic and salicylic acids or it’s dry and sensitive and a combo of AHAs/PHAs suits it better than a high concentration of glycolic acid. What do you do in this case?

I recommend you pick a product that has both types of acids. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00), for example, has both glycolic, lactic and salicylic. These products are formulated so the overall ratio of acids does the exfoliating job without irritating skin.

Layering 3 acid products from The Ordinary may be cheaper but more risky. You may get an overall concentration of acids that’s too strong for your skin, destroy its protective barrier and be left with a red, flaky, painful mess.

When it comes to exfoliation, less is more.

Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Should You Use?

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Can You Layer AHAs, Vitamin C and Retinoids?

So many of you are worried that layering AHAs, vitamin C and retinoids can make them ineffective. This isn’t really an issue. Even when these ingredients work best at different pHs, they never deactivate one another completely to make them useless.

Nope, the real risk here is irritation. If you have sensitive skin, layering AHAs, vitamin C and retinoids is a sure way to get an irritation. But even if your skin is more resistant, it’s best to start slow and introduce these superstars into your skincare routine slowly.

I recommend using vitamin C in the morning under sunscreen (it boosts its effectiveness) and alternative AHAs and retinoids at night. 

Another trick is to use products that contain two or more of these superstars. Some reason as the acids. They’re formulated to give you the most benefits with the fewer side effects.

Related: Mix And Match: The Skincare Ingredients You Should Never Use Together

Can You Layer Salicylic Acid With Benzoyl Peroxide Or Retinoids?

Benzoyl peroxide is a powerful acne fighter. It kills P.Acnes, the bacteria that causes acne. But it’s harsh on the skin (it’s a killer, after all). It can cause redness, flakiness and peeling. That’s why it’s best to use it as a spot treatment only.

As it’s so harsh on its own, it’s not a good idea to use it together with salicylic acid or retinoids. But, that doesn’t mean these two can’t be part of your anti-acne routine, as well.

Just use them at different times. I recommend you put on benzoyl peroxide in the morning and use salicylic acid and retinoids at night. Or you can use salicylic acid every morning and alternate benzoyl peroxide and retinoids at night. Whatever works best for your skin.

Related: Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Should You Choose?

medik8 hydr8 B5

Can You Layer Hyaluronic Acid With Other Acids?

Yes! Yes! Yes! You can layer hyaluronic acid with everything. In fact, I recommend you do. Especially if you’re using anti aging superstars like retinol, glycolic acid and Vitamin C.

These antiaging superstars are harsh on the skin, leaving it dry and sensitive. Adding hyaluronic acid to your skincare routine helps counteract their drying effects.

Hyaluronic acid deeply hydrates skin, leaving it softer and smoother. If your retinol is leaving your skin feeling tight, reach for a hyaluronic acid serum pronto!