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Beauty Buzzwords: AHAs

Parabens, AHAs, peptides. These are beauty words that we so often hear but do we really know what they mean?’s resident beauty expert, Basma Faramawy, unravels the mysteries behind these beauty buzzwords to better guide you through the ins and outs of your beauty cupboard.

What are they? Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are acids derived from the sugar of fruit and milk. They have been used for thousands of years to beautify and rejuvenate the skin—legend has it that Cleopatra bathed in sour milk, a lactic acid, to improve her complexion. These days, AHAs are a common addition to many skincare products from cleansers to moisturizers to intensive masks.

Although there are numerous AHAs, the five main types and their sources are:

Lactic acid—milk

Citric acid—oranges and lemons

Glycolic acid—sugar cane

Malic acid—apples and pears

Tartaric acid—grapes

What do they do? AHAs work to exfoliate the surface of the skin by encouraging the cells of the epidermis to become “unglued” allowing for the growth of new, smooth skin. They are more effective and less abrasive than a standard facial scrub, and can significantly improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as stimulate collagen production. AHAs are also used to treat hyper pigmentation and brown spots and help to even out the overall complexion.

Good or Bad? Generally, AHAs are extremely beneficial as part of a skincare regime. However, major side effects of their usage can be sensitivity to the sun and skin irritation—for example, burning, itching, or possibly even scarring when used in high concentration. Because of the risk factors involved in the application of AHAs, in 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set guidelines for consumer safety: they must be used in a concentration of 10% or less, the final product must have a pH of 3.5 or higher, and the product must recommend the use of a high SPF sunscreen.

Where are they found? Other than in their original sources, AHAs can be found in a number of anti-aging products and treatments. If a product has the phrases “re-surfacing”, “skin renewal”, “refinishing”, or “re-texturizing”, more often than not, one of the main active ingredients will be an AHA.

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