Alpha Hydroxy Acids for Wrinkles and Aging Skin

Can an alpha hydroxy acid skin peel reduce wrinkles?

With increasing research into what causes wrinkles and the effects of photoaging, alpha hydroxy acids have increased greatly in popularity.

Alpha hydroxy acids have been used for thousands of years as a skin rejuvenating product. Cleopatra is reported to have bathed in sour milk (lactic acid) to improve her complexion. Now hydroxy acids are a common additive to numerous skin care products, including moisturizers, cleansers, toners, and masks.

A woman applies moisturizer to her arm.
Oppenheim Bernhard / Getty Images

Overview and Types of Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Alpha hydroxy acids are derived from fruit and milk sugars. The most commonly used alpha hydroxy acid is glycolic acid and has much data on its effectiveness and side effects. Lactic acid is another commonly used alpha hydroxy acid. The following are the five major types of alpha hydroxy acids found in skincare products and their sources:

  • Glycolic acid: sugar cane
  • Lactic acid: milk
  • Malic acid: apples and pears
  • Citric acid: oranges and lemons
  • Tartaric acid: grapes

How Alpha Hydroxy Acids Work on the Skin

Alpha hydroxy acids work mainly as an exfoliant. They cause the cells of the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) to become "unglued" allowing the dead skin cells to slough off, making room for regrowth of new skin. Alpha hydroxy acids may even stimulate the production of collagen and elastin. Alpha hydroxy acids are reported to to improve wrinkling, roughness and mottled pigmentation of photodamaged skin after weeks of daily application.

Side Effects of Alpha Hydroxy Acids

The two major side effects of alpha hydroxy acids are irritation and sun sensitivity. Symptoms of irritation include redness, burning, itching, pain and possibly scarring. The use of alpha hydroxy acids can increase sun sensitivity by 50%, causing an interesting dilemma.

It appears that alpha hydroxy acids may be able to reverse some of the damage caused by photoaging, but at the same time, they make the skin more susceptible to photoaging. It is clear that anyone using alpha hydroxy acids must use a good sunscreen that contains UVA and UVB protection. Note that many sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays, the rays most implicated in skin aging.

FDA Guidelines

Because of concerns over the side effects of alpha hydroxy acids, the FDA in 1998 announced that glycolic and lactic acids and are safe for use as cosmetic products with the following guidelines:

  • The concentration is 10% or less
  • The final product has a pH of 3.5 or higher
  • The final product must have an effective sunscreen in the formulation or warn people to use sunscreen products

Chemical Peels

Alpha hydroxy acids in various concentrations are used in chemical peels. These chemical peels give results that are similar to microdermabrasion—erasing fine lines and giving the skin a smoother appearance with one to three applications.

These treatments must, however, be repeated every three to six months to maintain this skin appearance. Doctors can use alpha hydroxy acid products that have a concentration of 50 to 70%. Alpha hydroxy chemical peel treatments also erase fine wrinkles and remove surface scars, but the effects last longer—up to two to five years.

The higher the alpha hydroxy acid concentration used in a chemical peel, the more skin irritation occurs. At the 50 to 70% concentration, a person could expect to have severe redness, flaking and oozing skin that can last for 1 to 4 weeks.

Alpha vs. Beta Hydroxy Acids

The most commonly used beta hydroxy acid in skin cosmetics is salicylic acid. The main difference between alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acid is their lipid (oil) solubility. Alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble only, while beta hydroxy acid is lipid (oil) soluble. This means that beta hydroxy acid is able to penetrate into the pore, which contains sebum and exfoliate the dead skin cells that are built up inside the pore.

Because of this difference in properties, beta hydroxy acid is better used on oily skin with blackheads and whiteheads. Alpha hydroxy acids are better used on thickened, sun-damaged skin where breakouts are not a problem.

Choosing an Alpha Hydroxy Acid Product

Alpha hydroxy acids are found in a variety of skincare products, including moisturizers, cleansers, eye cream, sunscreen, and foundations. However, it is best to pick one product that contains the proper formulation of alpha hydroxy acid to use as your exfoliant, and then choose other skin care products or cosmetics that don't contain alpha hydroxy acids to reduce the likelihood of skin irritation.

Using an alpha hydroxy acid in a moisturizer base may be the best combination of products. Cleansers containing alpha hydroxy acids are not very effective because the alpha hydroxy acid must be absorbed into the skin to work. Cleansers are washed off before this absorption occurs.

Sunscreen must be applied liberally when using an alpha hydroxy acid product. The sunscreen should have an SPF of at least 15 for UVB protection and active ingredience such as contain avobenzone, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide for UVA protection.

Cosmetic manufacturers are not required to provide concentration information on the label. As a general rule of thumb, having the alpha hydroxy acid listed as the second or third ingredient on the list makes it more likely that it contains the proper concentration. The only way to know for sure the pH of a product is to test with a pH strip.

Bottom Line on Alpha Hydroxy Acids for Wrinkling

Alpha hydroxy acids as a component in moisturizers, creams, or other skin care products may reverse some of the damage caused by photoaging. n the form of a chemical peel, especially at higher concentrations in a doctors office, these acids may improve the appearance of fine wrinkles and scars for up to a few years. Alpha hydroxy acids tend to work better for people with thickened, sun damaged skin, whereas beta hydroxy acids may be a better choice for those with acne prone skin.

Despite their ability to improve the appearance of sun damaged skin, alpha hydroxy acids can also increase sun sensitivity and increase the risk of skin damage with sun exposure. Wearing a good sunscreen which includes coverage for both UVA and UVB rays is important if you choose to use these products.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Soleymani T, Lanoue J, Rahman Z. A practical approach to chemical peels: a review of fundamentals and step-by-step algorithmic protocol for treatment. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 11(8):21–28.

  2. O'connor AA, Lowe PM, Shumack S, Lim AC. Chemical peels: a review of current practice. Australas J Dermatol. 59(3):171-181. doi:10.1111/ajd.12715

  3. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 23(4). doi:10.3390/molecules23040863

  4. Tran D, Townley JP, Barnes TM, Greive KA. An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 8:9-17. doi:10.2147/CCID.S75439

  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Alpha hydroxy acids.

  6. Andersen F. Final report on the safety assessment of glycolic acid, ammonium, calcium, potassium, and sodium glycolates, methyl, ethyl, propyl, and butyl glycolates, and lactic acid, ammonium, calcium, potassium, sodium, and tea-lactates, methyl, ethyl, isopropyl, and butyl lactates, and lauryl, myristyl, and cetyl lactates. Int J Toxicol. 17(1_suppl):1-241. doi:10.1177/109158189801700101

  7. Babilas P, Knie U, Abels C. Cosmetic and dermatologic use of alpha hydroxy acids. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 10(7):488-491. doi:10.1111/j.1610-0387.2012.07939.x

  8. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Beta hydroxy acids.

  9. Moghimipour E. Hydroxy acids, the most widely used anti-aging agentsJundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 7(1):9–10.

  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sunscreen: how to help protect your skin from the sun.

Additional Reading
  • Weller, Richard P. J. B., Hamish J.A. Hunter, and Margaret W. Mann. Clinical Dermatology. Chichester (West Sussex): John Wiley & Sons Inc., Print.

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.