Mandelic Acid Is the Secret Star In Your Fave Skin-Care Products
It seems as though the skin-care world collectively woke up one day and decided that physical exfoliants were out and chemical exfoliants were in. While physical exfoliants aren't all bad, beauty pros and skincare enthusiasts alike have taken a liking to chemical exfoliants, which, unlike their gritty, often abrasive counterparts, don't create problematic microtears in your skin.
The near-unanimous cancellation of facial scrubs brought with it a new interest in alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and their exfoliating abilities. Though you may be most familiar with AHAs such as lactic and glycolic acids, there's another skin-renewing AHA that doesn't get as much praise as it deserves: mandelic acid.
What is Mandelic Acid?
Simply put, mandelic acid is an AHA extracted from bitter almonds. Though bitter almonds aren't safe for human consumption due to their high levels of cyanide, the mandelic acid extracted from the nut can work wonders for your skin, according to dermatologist Kesenia Sobchak, M.D. As a refresher, an AHA is a water-soluble acid that sloughs away dead skin cells on the outermost layer of skin (or deeper in the case of some in-office chemical peels that use AHAs). Promoting cell turnover in this way can result in brighter, healthy-looking skin. (Related: Why You Should Add Lactic, Citric, and Other Acids to Your Skin-Care Regimen)
Mandelic acid has a large molecular structure compared to other AHAs, making it ideal for folks with sensitive skin, says Laura Cline, senior director of product development and education at Youth To The People. The larger molecule isn't able to penetrate skin as deeply, which translates to less risk of irritation.
The Benefits of Mandelic Acid for Skin
Mandelic acid is known for its ability to prevent breakouts and fight pigmentation, lines, wrinkles, and dullness. As the skin ages, cell turnover slows down. The middle layer of the skin (the dermis), which is made of supportive fibers, starts to thin, allowing lines and wrinkles to appear, according to the Cleveland Clinic. As a chemical exfoliant, mandelic acid can help boost that cell turnover, giving your skin a smoother texture and brighter look by revealing healthier skin cells that lie underneath, says Dr. Sobchak.
Mandelic acid also offers similar perks to fan-favorite hyaluronic acid. "Both hyaluronic and mandelic acid have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that help with cell regeneration.," says Dr. Sobchak. "Both easily absorb in the skin and create optimal conditions for absorption of other serums in the skin." (Related: PHA Acids Might Be the Best Exfoliating Ingredient for Sensitive Skin)
Additionally, mandelic acid has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that make it ideal for acne and breakout-prone skin types, says Cline. It may help reduce breakouts and resultant post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
How to Apply Mandelic Acid
Mandelic acid exists in skin-care products ranging from facial cleansers to scalp treatments. The most important thing to note when incorporating mandelic acid into your skincare routine is to avoid using it alongside other products with AHAs or BHA, says Dr. Sobchak. This can over-exfoliate the skin and lead to irritation and sensitivity. As with other acids, it's also essential to apply sunscreen (of at least SPF 30) when using mandelic acid, as AHAs are known to increase sun sensitivity.
That said, mandelic acid can appear alongside other acids in skin-care products. In this case, you can assume that they're formulated in a way in which the acids "play nicely" with one another, says Cline.
"You will typically see mandelic acid at a level of 1-10 percent," she says "The usage level of mandelic acid, or any other AHA, varies depending on the formula, function, application frequency, and other key ingredients within the product. Generally speaking: the higher [the concentration], the less often you should use it, and the more likely you are to experience irritation, sensitivity, or dryness." (Related: How to Find the Best Face Exfoliator for Your Skin-Care Routine)
Even though mandelic acid is relatively gentle, it's best to start slow if you're new to the world of chemical exfoliation, says Cline. She suggests using a mandelic acid product once or twice a week and working up to daily use. If you experience any sensitivity while using mandelic acid, it's a sign that you may be moving too fast.
The Best Mandelic Acid Products
Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant
Congested pores and dark spots are no match for this liquid exfoliant featuring three percent mandelic acid. Cline recommends using the Youth to the People Mandelic Superfood Unity Exfoliant before makeup application followed by a lightweight moisturizer. Remember to finish off with an SPF product for maximum protection against the sun's rays.
Drunk Elephant Sweet Pitti Deodorant Cream
Your underarm skin deserves TLC, too, and this deo cream is here to give it just that. In this aluminum-free formula, mandelic acid works to kill odor-causing bacteria, while ingredients such as marula oil and shea butter keep your underarms smooth.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Extra Strength Daily Peel
With over 5,000 5-star reviews on Sephora, this at-home chemical peel is praised for its ability to transform your skin (particularly if your skin concerns include fine lines, wrinkles, dullness, texture, acne breakouts, and blemishes). Step one of the treatment includes powerful exfoliants such as mandelic and lactic acid that gently exfoliates the skin to reveal smoother, younger-looking skin underneath. Step two leans on the power of retinol and resveratrol, two anti-aging all-stars.
Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%
Even if your skin is sensitive, a high potency mandelic acid treatment like this one from the budget-friendly skincare brand Naturium may be right up your alley. This topical has mandelic acid at the top of the ingredient list and pairs it with natural AHAs such as orange, lemon, and sugar maple extract for gentle exfoliation.
BREAD BEAUTY SUPPLY Scalp-Serum: Cooling Greens Exfoliating Scalp Treatment
Your scalp can benefit from mandelic acid just as your face can. The best thing about this exfoliating scalp treatment (aside from being recommended for all hair types and textures) is that you can use it as an overnight treatment or as a targeted scalp refresher. FYI, you can use it when your hair is in protective styles such as braids and weaves.
The Ordinary The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA
The Ordinary has created quite the buzz over the years for offering skincare with potent actives at affordable prices. Case in point: this The Ordinary mandelic acid peeling solution is under 10 bucks. In addition to the exfoliating benefits of 10 percent mandelic acid, this product also includes hyaluronic acid to boost moisture.
Vivant Skin Care Mandelic Acid 3-in1 Wash
You can also use this face wash on your scalp and body if you need some head-to-toe exfoliation. Use once every other day to start and work your way up to 2-3 times daily.
Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum
Eliminate dark spots and hyperpigmentation with this multitasking night serum. It's formulated to make skin appear brighter over time. Though this is intended for nighttime use, keep in mind that it's still essential to wear sunscreen during the day.