Acids in a Skincare Routine: What They Are, How to Use Them and How They're Used With Other Skincare Products

Skincare acids have gained a lot of attention in recent times for their effectiveness in improving the appearance of skin. Before you jump into using these products, it's essential to understand what they are, how to use them correctly, and how they work alongside other skincare ingredients. Let’s take a look at the most commonly used acids in skincare.

What are acids in skincare?

When it comes to skincare, acids are far from the caustic substances we often associate with the term. Instead, they can be gentle, yet powerful ingredients that can be used to help enhance skin appearance. For those with sensitive skin, it's essential to use any skincare product carefully and be aware of 5 Signs of Skin Sensitivity.

Common acids in skincare include Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHAs), and Hyaluronic acid (HA). Each of these has different properties so they serve different purposes - from exfoliating to hydrating.1

What is AHA in skincare?

AHAs, such as citric acid, lactic acid, and glycolic acid, work mainly as exfoliants, helping to shed dead skin cells and promote a brighter complexion.1

What is BHA in skincare?

BHAs, such as salicylic acid, penetrate the skin, helping to unclog pores. BHAs offer similar exfoliating benefits, but are considered to be more gentle than both AHAs. BHAs are also often used to help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.1

What is PHA in skincare?

PHAs, like gluconic acid and gluconolactone, also have exfoliating properties and have also been found to help reduce the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and photoaged skin. They have been found to be gentle on sensitive skin.2

Let’s examine the advantages of specific acids in skincare in more depth:

What is citric acid in a skincare routine?

Citric acid is a naturally occurring AHA found in citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges. This acid can help promote surface cell turnover,3 leading to a brighter and more even skin tone, making it a valuable ally in addressing hyperpigmentation, acne scars, and a dull complexion. It can also help rejuvenate the appearance of photo-aged skin.3

You can incorporate citric acid into your skincare routine through various products, such as cleansers or serums.

When to use lactic acid in your skincare routine?

Lactic acid, another member of the AHA family, is derived from sources like milk and fermented products. Used in skincare products, lactic acid is known for its excellent moisturizing properties,1,3 making it an excellent choice for gently cleansing or helping to hydrate your skin. In addition, by encouraging surface cell turnover, lactic acid can help the appearance of dark spots and improve overall skin texture.3

To integrate lactic acid into your skincare routine, you can choose from a range of products, including exfoliants, serums, or moisturizers. For those dealing with rough and bumpy skin on the face and body, try Cetaphil Smoothing Relief Body Wash - it contains lactic acid, which can help transform your skin's texture, providing a smoother and more comfortable feel.

What does hyaluronic acid do for your skin?

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance in our bodies. In skincare, it helps keep your skin moist, as it attracts and retains moisture.3 That’s why the benefits of hyaluronic acid make it great for your skin in many ways: It helps plump up the skin, making it look firmer and more youthful. This can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Additionally, the improved moisture balance enhances overall skin texture, making it appear more radiant and healthy-looking.4,5

If you wonder how to incorporate hyaluronic acid into a skincare routine, try products like Cetaphil Rich Hydrating Cream and the Deep Hydration range. All products are formulated to provide your skin with the hydration it needs, ensuring it remains soft-feeling, smooth, and comfortable.

For more information on the use of hyaluronic acid and tips to incorporate it into your skincare routine, explore our articles How to Use Hyaluronic Acid For The Skin and Skincare Tips For Dryness.

How can salicylic acid help your skin?

Salicylic acid, derived from willow bark, is a BHA known for its effectiveness in skincare. Functioning as a mild exfoliator, it promotes surface skin cell turnover and a smoother complexion. It also helps to keep pores clear by preventing the accumulation of debris that often leads to blackheads and whiteheads and it can help to manage breakouts.6,7

You can easily integrate salicylic acid into your skincare through various products, for instance Cetaphil Acne Relief Body Wash, contains salicylic acid and provides a practical solution for tackling body acne. Consistent and thoughtful application of salicylic acid contributes to a visibly clearer and healthier-looking complexion. For more details on managing body acne, refer to our article What is Body Acne, and How Can You Help Manage It?

How to incorporate acids into your skincare routine

Using acids in skincare requires a thoughtful approach, where you need to consider your skin type and specific concerns. Firstly, identify your skin type—whether it's oily, dry, combination, or sensitive. You can do this with the help of our AI Skin Analyzer tool. Then choose the acids that align with your needs.

When introducing acids into your skincare routine, start slowly to allow your skin to get used to a new ingredient. It's generally advisable to incorporate acids into your nighttime routine, providing enough time for your skin to recover and benefit from their effects.

Sunscreen is paramount when using acids. Although adverse reactions to AHAs mainly occur with so-called skin peelers, while using AHAs your skin might be more sensitive to UV.3,7,8 Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day, even if you're not directly exposed to sunlight. Check the full Cetaphil sunscreens porfolio.

Before incorporating acids, patch testing is essential to gauge potential reactions. Some side effects like redness, tingling, or irritation can be normal initially, but persistent discomfort warrants attention. If side effects persist or worsen, seeking professional advice is advisable. If you don’t know how to patch test skincare products, simply apply the product you want to test behind your ear or where you’re most sensitive and wait for a day or so to see if it gives you problems.

Additionally, for those unfamiliar with skincare routines guides on our routines page, help you find your daily skincare routine.

How to use acids with other skincare products?

When using acids in conjunction with other skincare products, the order of application is important for optimal results. Start with a gentle cleanser to prepare the skin. Next, apply your acid product, whether it's salicylic acid for exfoliation or another acid targeting specific concerns. Follow this with any serums, allowing the key ingredients to penetrate. Moisturizers and sunscreen should come next to lock in hydration and help reinforce the skin barrier.

Layering acids with other active ingredients could help with how effective the ingredients are, for example layering products with vitamins and hyaluronic acid.2,9 However, it’s always important to consider potential interactions. So if you don’t know what skincare products not to mix, it's advisable to use only one acid at a time and speak to your dermatologist about using more than one together.

For more in-depth guidance on the science behind dermatologist-recommended skincare, explore our dermatologist based science page.

The bottom line

Whether opting for citric acid's brightening effects, lactic acid's moisturizing benefits, or salicylic acid's pore-clearing prowess, selecting acids tailored to your skin type and understanding their unique properties is key. When incorporating acids into your skincare, follow the correct application order, be cautious of potential interactions, and prioritize sunscreen for skin protection.


  1. Medical News Today, Understanding the difference between AHA and BHA for skin care. Available at:, Accessed November 7, 2023
  2. Yu RJ, Van Scott EJ. Alpha-hydroxyacids and carboxylic acids. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2004 Apr;3(2):76-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2130.2004.00059.x. PMID: 17147560.
  3. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi: 10.3390/molecules23040863.
  4. Papakonstantinou E, Roth M, Karakiulakis G. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):253-8. doi: 10.4161/derm.21923.
  5. Bukhari SNA, Roswandi NL, Waqas M, Habib H, Hussain F, Khan S, Sohail M, Ramli NA, Thu HE, Hussain Z. Hyaluronic acid, a promising skin rejuvenating biomedicine: A review of recent updates and pre-clinical and clinical investigations on cosmetic and nutricosmetic effects. Int J Biol Macromol. 2018;120(Pt B):1682-1695. doi: 10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2018.09.188.
  6. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:455-61. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S84765.
  7. US Food & Drug Administration. Beta Hydroxy Acids. Available at: Accessed November 7, 2023
  8. US Food & Drug Administration. Alpha Hydroxy Acids. Available at: Accessed November 7, 2023
  9. Juncan AM,et al. Advantages of Hyaluronic Acid and Its Combination with Other Bioactive Ingredients in Cosmeceuticals. Molecules. 2021; 22;26(15):4429. doi: 10.3390/molecules26154429.