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Alpha-Hydroxy Acids


To break down acne-causing blockages in the skin

Side Effects

Burning sensation, redness and general skin irritation. See product packaging for full details


Causes skin sensitivity to sunlight. See product packaging for full details and other warnings

The information on this website is intended for general educational purposes. You should talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist before you start using any kind of treatment.


What is an alpha-hydroxy acid?

Alpha-hydroxy acids are acne treatments that are available over the counter, without having to see a doctor or nurse.

Alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic and lactobionic acid, are chemical exfoliators. Exfoliating is a way of removing acne blockages that have already formed within your hair follicles, such as whiteheads and blackheads. It is also a way of removing trapped skin cells, oil, cosmetics and other follicle-blocking substances from your skin, reducing your risk of developing acne in the future.

Examples of alpha-hydroxy acids include glycolic, mandelic, citric, lactic, lactobionic and tartaric.  They are commonly found in 2% to 10% concentrations in products that you leave on the skin and in higher concentrations in products that you wash off the skin.

Lactobionic acid is a gentler chemical exfoliator and is not as likely to cause skin irritation as other alpha-hydroxy acids and salicylic acid. However, it tends to be less effective and does not perform as well in reducing acne-associated skin discolouration.

How do alpha-hydroxy acids work?

Alpha-hydroxy acids work by penetrating the skin and breaking-up acne-causing blockages. They do not penetrate as deeply as salicylic acid, although they can be more effective at reducing pigmentation (skin colouring) and therefore are sometimes better at removing the red, purple and brown colouring on the skin that comes with acne.

What are some of the side effects of using alpha-hydroxy acids?

Side effects of alpha-hydroxy acids include burning, redness and general skin irritation. To help reduce the risk of side effects, apply products for just a few days a week. Alpha-hydroxy acids can also cause your skin to become more sensitive to the sun and it is advisable to use a non-oily sunscreen every day while treatment is ongoing. Please see your product’s details for full instructions and warnings.

General guidance on using alpha-hydroxy acids

Most acne treatments take time to work so you will most likely be told to continue the treatment for at least twelve weeks before deciding whether or not it has worked for you. It is also advised that you continue to exfoliate even after your acne symptoms have improved whilst your skin is still acne prone. The skin sheds its top layer every twenty-eight days and acne problems may reoccur if the treatment has been stopped.

As you may have read in the section on salicylic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids are often recommended for use in conjunction with salicylic acid, applying one in the morning and the other at night. However, with all acne treatments, you should speak to a doctor or pharmacist before trying more than one at a time.

Example of an acne treatment regime

Treatments that contain alpha-hydroxy acids are often used as part of a wider acne treatment regime. These regimes involve using acne treatments and sometimes other products in an organised way with the aim of maximising the treatment’s effectiveness. It is important to remember that not all acne treatments can be used safely together and that you should seek the advice of your pharmacist or healthcare provider before starting or combining any treatments. Click here for an example of an acne treatment regime.

Please note that over-the-counter treatments are unlikely to be effective against severe acne. That is acne that consists of many lesions covering an area, with cysts and nodules being present, and is often scarring. If you have acne that has lasted for several weeks and is getting worse, is leaving scars or is affecting your mental health then you should arrange to visit your GP.