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What is Mandelic Acid? Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Ingredient

Photo: Joaquin Burgueño

If all the exfoliating acids in skin-care products were the cast of Euphoria, mandelic acid would be Lexie. It may not be the most popular choice and often can be overlooked, but it’s well-rounded, gentle but intense, and gets the job done — sounds familiar, right? (Maddie is glycolic acid, in case you were wondering.) And just as Lexie had her moment in season two with her school play, the spotlight on mandelic acid is getting brighter, too. After years of being a common ingredient added to in-office peels, mandelic acid is making its way into the latest and greatest serums and gentle liquid exfoliants on the market for at-home use.

We asked skincare experts to share how mandelic acid stands apart from other acids and why it’s a great choice for all skin types and the full spectrum of skin tones, as well as what their favorite products formulated with the non-irritating acid are.

What is mandelic acid?

Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from bitter almonds. The well-studied acid is even aptly named after the German word for almond, mandel, board-certified dermatologist Adeline Kikam, DO, tells Allure.

Among its fellow AHAs, like glycolic and lactic acids, mandelic acid has one of the largest particle sizes, allowing it to absorb into skin more “slowly, uniformly, and superficially,” Dr. Kikam says. It also stays on the surface of skin longer, adds Ellen Marmur, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. As a result, mandelic acid is less likely to cause irritation — even for those with sensitive skin and deeper skin tones. (Just be sure to do a patch test before committing to a full face of it.)

Mandelic acid is also one of the best acid selections for those with darker complexions because it isn’t melanotoxic, Dr. Marmur notes. In other words, it doesn’t kill melanocytes and won’t exacerbate discoloration. Instead, it will decrease the appearance of dark spots due to acne, sun exposure, or otherwise in all the right ways. Dr. Kikam agrees, adding, “Mandelic acid peels are considered well-tolerated in patients of color with less risk of hyperpigmentation, photosensitivity, and scarring compared to other AHAs, like glycolic acid.”

Despite its larger particle size, mandelic acid also delves deeper into skin than other AHAs because it’s oil-soluble, as Sejal Shah, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, previously told Allure. Glycolic and lactic acids, on the other hand, are water-soluble, so they only work on the top layers of skin.

What are the benefits of using mandelic acid on skin?

Mandelic acid’s powerful antibacterial properties team up with its gentle exfoliating, cell-turnover-activating abilities team up to defeat acne, dull skin, uneven texture, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines and wrinkles. It does the latter by boosting collagen production, too, Dr. Marmur says. After about one to three weeks of use, you’ll notice mandelic acid is making your skin smoother, brighter, plumper, and clearer, she adds. With all this in mind, mandelic acid is suitable for basically all skin types, even sensitive skin. (Of course, patch testing is always advised.)

I like to think of mandelic acid as an electricity-free Dyson vacuum for your skin. Why, you ask? Well, it’s known to suck up acne-causing bacteria and oil clogging up your pores, as well as dead, discolored skin cells on the surface of your skin — leaving your floors, I mean, complexion, cleaner and sparklier than ever.

What are the risks of using mandelic acid? 

A major downside of mandelic acid is you can’t layer it onto your face at the same time as your go-to retinol. “Both of these ingredients disrupt the skin barrier,” Aegean Chan, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Barbara, California, previously shared with Allure.

So when both retinol and mandelic acid are on your skin, redness, sensitivity, and excessive dryness can occur. Avoid these issues by alternating the days you implement them into your nighttime skin-care routine. Also, if you’re allergic to almonds, it’s best to avoid mandelic acid, Dr. Kikam says.

Before you dive into mandelic acid — or any of its acidic relatives — Dr. Marmur also suggests investing time into basic skin protection first in the form of moisturizer and SPF. You’re less likely to experience irritation and flakiness when using mandelic acid if your skin’s basic needs are met.

Other than those drawbacks, you can consider mandelic acid to be one of the best acids for those just beginning to dabble into the world of AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs. It does just about everything for everyone.

How to use mandelic acid? 

Thanks to the wide variety of mandelic acid-infused products on the market these days, you can safely incorporate the ingredient in just about any step of your skin-care routine, including toner, serum. You can even try mandelic acid in the form of deodorant thanks to Megababe’s The Cream Deo.

Best products with mandelic acid

Kick off your skin-care routine with a hit of mandelic acid thanks to the Hero Cosmetics Clear Collective Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser. This face wash ensures that not only the surface of your skin but also your pores are as clean as possible before moving onto the next step of your complexion regimen.

By Wishtrend’s Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water brings a one-two punch of skin-smoothing mandelic acid and rehydrating panthenol to this post-cleansing toner step.

Beloved New York City-based aesthetician Sofie Pavitt swears by the acne-fighting powers of mandelic acid, so much so that she made it the star of the Mandelic Clearing Serum from her namesake line Sofie Pavitt Face.

This exfoliating serum features mandelic acid alongside its AHA sisters citric acid and glycolic acid to gently slough away dead skin cells. “It’s gentle and not irritating to the skin so people with sensitive skin should be able to tolerate this well,” says David Kim, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

Dr. Kikam’s pick is the Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum. It’s a “great anti-hyperpigmentation serum with mandelic acid combined with salicylic acid and lactic acid, [which are also] effective at pigment correction,” she says. (It’s also a staple in Allureassociate beauty director Sarah Kinonen’s skin-care routine for fading her dark spots and acne scars.)

This Best of Beauty winner is about as close as you can get to a facial in a tube. The creamsicle-tinted mask gets rid of congestion, hyperpigmentation, and flakiness just like your favorite aesthetician would.

This tiny-but-mighty bottle only needs four ingredients in addition to mandelic acid to keep your skin looking luminous and feeling hydrated. Add a couple of drops to Protéger’s popular Dermal Serum (or your favorite non-retinol serum) before slathering it onto your face or body, and your skin will be bump-free from head to toe.

Dr. Kim also favors The Ordinary’s Mandelic Acid 10% + HA for addressing hyperpigmentation while keeping skin plump and hydrated with hyaluronic acid.

TikTok can’t get enough of Bubble’s Over Night Hydrating Sleep Mask. Why? Mandelic acid is joined by replenishing maple sap and anti-inflammatory arnica to effortlessly keep skin soft and supple while you snooze. Use it as the last step of your nighttime skin-care routine.

The Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12% packs two percent more of the AHA alongside the ever-so-versatile niacinamide for incredible complexion clearing and illuminating results without any redness. Despite its high percentage, New York City board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, previously told Allure this serum is still a great option for sensitive skin.
The InnBeauty Project Bright & Smooth Body Serum brings together some of my favorite actives, including tranexamic acid, niacinamide, and vitamin C, to help mandelic acid level away KP, razor bumps, and discoloration on your body without making it feel sticky.

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