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Are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) harmful as an exfoliant?

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Are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) harmful as an exfoliant on the skin and what are the alternatives?

There are many methods of achieving skin renewal (exfoliation) in order to get back that youthful glow to the skin’s surface. Some skincare products use chemicals, some are physical and some are enzymatic (proteolitic enzymes that consume dead skin) exfoliants.

The simplest exfoliant is physical. The physical method uses abrasives. They can be quite aggressive and may leave some scarring from using these abrasive materials (such as crushed walnut or almond shell) to scrub off the dead outer layer. Admittedly this is a relatively cheap and effective way of bringing back a shinier skin but in some cases there are repercussions from using abrasives, namely soreness and redness of the skin (acne skin should never use this method). These may take several days to settle down and heal before the full effects can be seen.

The chemical method is the most aggressive type. The worst type use phenolics and resorcinol which are known carcinogens. Have you ever noticed that when some people are exposed to sun, they appear to blush? This blushing does not disappear until they leave the warm environment. The reason for this is that they may have used a chemical exfoliant which are known in the cosmetic and skincare field as Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA). These chemicals are organic acids and are used as high concentration acids. These include examples such as glycolic acid, Kojic acid, retinoic acid (vitamin A), etc.

Molecules of AHA examples
These chemicals act like any acid does except that they are more destructive than mineral acids (sulphuric, or hydrochloric acids for instance which can cause severe burns but can be neutralised before any great damage is done). The AHAs have a strong liking for the proteins in the skin such as the amino end groups and begin to burn from those points by dissolving cell bonds and so undermine the integrity of the skin. This can result in the exposure of the melano sites in the skin. When these are exposed unsightly brown colour stains or blotches can appear on the skin.
Once these acids have bonded to these groups there is no way to “neutralise” or dilute them. So they are unstoppable. What then happens is that they begin to react indiscriminately with all of the skin, be it dead or live. Unfortunately the reaction continues until the acid is all “used up”.
The role of the acid is to “burn” off the outer layer of the skin (regardless whether it is old dead skin or live fresh skin) and force the skin to repair itself by producing a fresh layer. The method is to create enough of a burn that the skin blisters. Eventually the blisters “fall” off (much like a sunburn).
If this process is performed often enough then eventually there is no more skin able to properly cover the capillaries in the outer layer of skin. Asian skin is much finer than European type and so are more significantly affected by these acids (brown stains). The capillaries help in the maintenance of body temperature. When the body gets hot, blood flows through these fine blood vessels and are able to cool the blood by natural radiation and dispersion of heat. Very much like what the radiator does for the car in order to maintain a certain motor temperature.

When these capillaries are exposed to the elements then the blood is clearly seen to course through them, giving the appearance that the person is blushing or getting a hot flush and cannot retreat easily to normal until the person returns to a cool environment and their body temperature cools down.
It is yet to be formally acknowledged whether AHAs are harmful to the skin but there seems to be evidence that it cannot be good for it. Eventually someone will be seriously affected by it if there haven’t been cases registered already.

Alternatives to AHAs
There are alternatives to the physical and chemical exfoliants. These alternatives are specialty ingredients called “proteolitic enzymes”. These enzymes are more selective with what is being consumed. They are more interested in consuming the dead skin cells only and leave the healthy skin cells alone. They act a bit slower than other methods of exfoliation but their lasting effects are much more profound. Ortron has carefully researched which types of enzymes can be used. Ortron needed to be very careful which enzyme to use as some enzymes can be rather aggressive, such as the pineapple enzymes, which are very acidic.


Image of the left hand treated with papaya enzyme over 5 weeks. The right hand has not been treated. (Image courtesy of Ortron Corporation Pty Ltd)

 Ortron has developed a patented papaya enzyme skincare range in cream and gel forms. In these creams the enzymes work symbiotically with several herbal extracts which achieve cell turnover. These give lasting and more desirable effects on the skin with very little, if no side effects at all. The enzymes take a little longer to achieve the desired results than the chemical and physical methods but with no harmful side effects of the others.

Papain is a non-irritating stabilised acid-free exfoliant which operate in the pH range of 6 to 7. Papain is a natural enzyme derived from the unripe papaya. The enzyme only digests the dead cell layer of the skin causing no damage to the underlying living cell layer (Proteolitic enzyme). People with sensitive skin can easily tolerate papain enzyme therapy whereas they may not handle the irritation often associated with AHAs , Retinoids and to a lesser extent BHAs in water based creams and gels.



  • Guest
    Laura Friday, 29 August 2014

    I have myself suffered from the acid reign of the 90s, resulting in Hyper- pigmentation to my Olive skin. NOT A FAN !
    The other issue I have with homecare aha ranges is that they just dont do what I want for the skin! Clients would use them & not get the results we were trained to expect. So over the hype that this industry feeds us time for us Beauty Therapists to demand better. Praise God that there is 2 very smart gentlemen formulating awesome products.
    I have always loved enzymatic peeling, so much safer & for all skin types. A favorite is Dr Vromens Papaya peel. My clients love it too.

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