What Are Mandelic Acid Skincare Treatments?

An Up-and-Coming Product for Healthy Skin

Woman's hand holding dropper of serum. Mandelic acid is derived from bitter almonds.

Photo: Milena Boniek / Getty Images
 

Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is used to exfoliate the skin. It's used to treat acne, hyperpigmentation, and aging skin. Mandelic acid is used in over-the-counter skin care products and in professional chemical peels. It is the most gentle of all the alpha hydroxy acids, so it can be safely used by a wide range of skin types.

Background

You've probably heard of glycolic acid, lactic acid, and you may even be familiar with hyaluronic acid for skincare. Mandelic acid is not as well known of a skin care ingredient, even in the beauty industry.

But that's starting to change as more skincare brands are adding it to their lines. Mandelic acid is a beneficial skin care ingredient in its own right.

Mandelic acid is naturally derived from bitter almonds, and it works by gently exfoliating the skin.

It loosens the bonds that hold dead cells on the surface of the skin allowing, them to shed more effectively. What sets mandelic acid apart from its AHA cousins is the size of its molecules. Its molecules are larger than any of the other alpha hydroxy acids used in skincare. Its molecules are twice the size compared to glycolic acid.

Why does this matter? Mandelic acid's larger molecules penetrate the skin much more slowly than smaller molecule counterparts. This slow absorption means it's much more gentle and much less likely to cause skin irritation.

Just because mandelic acid is slow-absorbing doesn't mean that you'll feel it "sitting" on your skin. It just means the acid will penetrate the skin's layers at a much slower pace than glycolic acid will, for instance. The slow absorption is all happening at the molecular level.

Benefits

Using mandelic acid regularly can help improve many skin issues. The results you get from mandelic acid, like those of nearly all skin care ingredients, are cumulative. The longer you use it, the better results you will see.

Brightens Your Complexion

As an exfoliator, mandelic acid refines your complexion. Exfoliated skin feels softer and smoother, and looks brighter.

Fades Hyperpigmentation and Melasma

Mandelic acid can help fade hyperpigmentation of all types: sun spots or age spots, freckles, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and melasma.

Helps Improve Acne Blemishes and Marks

Although it's not used alone to treat acne, it can be incorporated into an acne treatment routine to help clear pores and reduce comedones. Mandelic acid has antibacterial effects, so it can be especially helpful in reducing inflammatory acne. It can also help fade dark marks left by pimples.

Softens Signs of Aging

Mandelic acid is also a gentle treatment for aging skin. It can help soften fine lines, and with long-term use may help with firmness and elasticity. It won't really reduce expression lines, though, such as the lines between your eyebrows (aptly called the "11s"). But if your skin is on the dry side, a few studies have shown that mandelic acid can help your dry skin produce more of its own sebum or natural oil.

Gentle Exfoliator for All Skin Types

Mandelic acid is the gentlest of all alpha hydroxy acids so it can be used by a wider array of skin types, including those with sensitive skin and rosacea. Even people who can't use other AHAs can often use mandelic acid without any irritation. It's especially good for skin that is prone to discoloration because it won't trigger inflammation and hyperpigmentation as other AHAs can.

Possible Side Effects

Mandelic acid products and peels are mild compared to other AHA treatments, and not as likely to cause side effects. Still, all alpha hydroxy acid products and treatments can cause side effects. The most common are:

  • Dry and flaky skin
  • Peeling
  • Irritation or redness
  • Skin that feels tender or sensitive

These side effects are more likely to happen if you start with a high percentage of the mandelic acid product.

Mandelic acid peels can trigger a cold sore outbreak if you're prone to them. (It's not just mandelic acid; many chemical peels can trigger a cold sore outbreak, as can microdermabrasion.)

If you're particularly susceptible to cold sores, consider having your peel done by a dermatologist instead of an esthetician or using an at-home peel. A dermatologist can prescribe antiviral medications to help keep a cold sore breakout at bay. This is something to consider especially if you're getting peels done in preparation for a big event, such as a wedding.

Don't combine mandelic acid with prescription topical medications unless your physician says that it is okay.

Choosing a Treatment

As mandelic acid becomes more popular, more products containing this AHA are being introduced to the market. It's great to have so many options, but how do you know which are right for you?

Over-the-Counter Products

For general exfoliation, a brighter complexion, and improvement of minor blemishes and discolorations, over-the-counter products or cosmeceuticals are perfect choices.

OTC mandelic acid products come in strengths up to 25 percent. While you can find mandelic acid face washes and toners, it's most often incorporated into facial serums and at-home peels.

Facial serums are daily-use products. You apply them after cleansing (and toning, if you use a toner) and before moisturizing. Facial serums are leave-on products, so don't wash them off. Most mandelic acid facial serums are applied at night only.

At-home mandelic acid peels are stronger than serums. You'll use these no more than a couple of times a week at maximum. Because they generally contain a higher percentage of mandelic acid, at-home peels give more immediate results but can also be more irritating. Follow the usage directions on your particular peel product.

Note that adding a mandelic acid product along with another exfoliant or acne treatment, even over-the-counter ones, can cause excessive dryness and irritation.

If your skin becomes irritated, don't use mandelic acid on days you're using another exfoliator and vice versa.

Professional Peels

Stronger professional mandelic acid peels can be used to treat melasma and more serious cases of hyperpigmentation, as well as active cases of acne. Professional strength peels start at 30 percent and increase from there.

Superficial mandelic acid peels can be done at the salon or medical spa by an esthetician. Deeper peels are done by a dermatologist. For treating acne, mandelic acid is typically combined with salicylic acid for the peel.

During a peel, a mandelic acid solution is applied to your face and left on for a very specific amount of time, according to your skin type. It's not painful, but you may feel some tingling or burning while the peel is on. With superficial peels, you may not notice any side effects at all. With deeper peels, your skin will flake over the course of several days, revealing brighter skin underneath.

Mandelic acid peels have less potential for causing side effects than glycolic acid peels and are preferred for people who are prone to hyperpigmentation. This is not a one-and-done treatment. Just like all chemical peels, you have to commit to a series of peels to see good results. Most often, pro peels are done once a week over a six to eight week period (but your exact treatment plan will depend on your skin and your desired results).

After the first peel, you will notice your skin is softer, brighter, and smoother. But don't expect discolorations and fine lines to improve noticeably after the initial peel. These slowly improve over the course of your treatment.

Tips for Using Mandelic Acid

Whether you're going with OTC products or pro peels, there are a few things you can do to get the most from your treatments.

Start off with a low concentration and increase over time. Jumping in with a high-percentage product or peel can cause irritation, even with generally gentle mandelic acid. Start with a lower percentage and work your way up slowly to allow your skin to get used to the AHA. You'll have fewer side effects this way.

Don't go with high-strength peels for at-home use. Through online retailers, you can now get high-percentage mandelic acid peels delivered to your door. But just because you can buy a high-strength peel doesn't mean you should. The higher the percentage of mandelic acid in your peel, the greater the risk of side effects.

When choosing a mandelic acid peel for at-home use, it's best to stick with around 20 percent. You can still get good results with lower-strength peels if used consistently. Leave the stronger peels for those who have been trained.

Wear sunscreen daily. Any AHA peel or product can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. When you're using any type of exfoliating product or having peels done, you should use SPF 30 or higher every day to protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun.

A Word From Verywell

The biggest benefit of mandelic acid is its gentle nature. Other AHAs and topical retinoids may work faster, and generally be more effective, but not all skin types can handle these products. For more sensitive skin types, mandelic acid is a very good option. If you're using any type of prescription skin care medication, be sure to get your physician's approval before you add anything to your current skincare routine.

Whichever type of mandelic acid treatment you choose, remember that slow and steady will yield results. Be consistent and give your product time to work.

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Article Sources

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  • Jacobs SW, Culbertson EJ. "Effects of Topical Mandelic Acid Treatment on Facial Skin Viscoelasticity." Facial Plastic Surgery. 2018 Dec;34(6):651-656. DOI: 10.1055/s-0038-1676048

  • Kontochristopoulos G, Platsidaki E. "Chemical Peels in Active Acne and Acne Scars." Clinics in Dermatology. 2017 Mar - Apr;35(2):179-182. DOI: 10.2147/CCID.S167081

  • Sarkar R, Garg V, Bansal S, Sethi S, Gupta C. "Comparative Evaluation of Efficacy and Tolerability of Glycolic Acid, Salicylic Mandelic Acid, and Phytic Acid Combination Peels in Melasma." Dermatologic Surgery. 2016 Mar;42(3):384-91. DOI: 10.1097/DSS.0000000000000642