We're taught to believe anything acidic is inherently bad for us—acidic foods wear away tooth enamel, acid reflux hints at a poor diet—but the same isn't true when it comes to skincare. "A common misconception is that something 'acidic' is going to peel your skin—but this isn’t always the case," says board-certified dermatologist Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD.
Instead, she says they're a crucial part of any skincare routine, and should be changed and updated as you age. "In general, acids exfoliate the skin, dissolving skin cells and increasing skin-cell turnover. When used in small doses, they can give you brighter, smoother skin with very little downtime," she explains. "As we age, the oil glands become less active [and] our skin cells don't turn over as quickly. So skincare products have to evolve to meet the unique needs of the skin with every decade."
Skincare acids aren't as intimidating as they sound. Use our expert-endorsed cheat sheet to find the right product in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.
In Your 20s
The Challenge: Acne
"The number one skin complaint of my 20-something patients is acne," says Imahiyerobo-Ip. "It's a myth that acne is something that only teenagers deal with." Apparently acne can actually worsen after your teen years, thanks to the inconsistent use of acne medication and harsh products that strip the skin of natural oils.
The Fix: Azelaic acid
Struggle with redness and acne? Imahiyerobo-Ip recommends grain-derived azelaic acid to soothe irritated skin. "Azelaic acid is also a power fighter of hyperpigmentation," she says, adding that it's perfectly safe to use during pregnancy. "It works like a charm to fight acne and melasma, aka the brown mask of pregnancy that many women get."
In your 30s
The Challenge: Fine lines and hyperpigmentation
"Even if you have taken good care of your skin, you may begin to notice subtle signs of aging in your 30s," she points out, including fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. So your skincare routine should focus on lightening spots and improving skin elasticity.
The Fix: Glycolic acid
"This is one of the best acids out there, going beyond the top layer of skin to help loosen up the bonds that hold dead skin together," she says. "Glycolic acid will shrink pores, lighten spots, even out scars, lessen wrinkles, and keep the texture of your skin smooth and bright." If you've never used skincare acids, this is a gentle option for beginners. "If you're new to acids, I would recommend starting with a 5% glycolic acid product," she tells us.
In Your 40s
The Challenge: Damage from environmental pollutants
"Those years of not wearing sunscreen can really begin to show up on your face by this time," says Imahiyerobo-Ip. "At this point in life, exposure to environmental pollutants starts to take a toll on the skin and antioxidants are very important." She also points out that as skin ages, some women become more sensitive to certain skincare products, so it's crucial to check the ingredients.
The Fix: Lactic acid
"Gentle and effective, those with sensitive skin will benefit from a product that includes lactic acid," she says. "It exfoliates and softens lines and wrinkles in a much less irritating way than other acids." Look for a product that contains lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids, an "effective blend that can be used for daily mild exfoliation."
In Your 50s and Beyond
The Challenge: Deep-set wrinkles
"Turning 50 does not mean that you can retire from your skincare game!" she stresses. "In your 50s expression lines may become etched into your skin, giving you a tired or angry appearance. You may also notice rough, scaly precancerous lesions developing." While sunscreen is an effective preventative measure, chances are your skin is already showing the signs of damage, so now's the time to take action with effective products.
The Fix: Hyaluronic acid
"Hyaluronic acid is an extremely important acid for more mature women," says Imahiyerobo-Ip. "[It's] synthetically made to replicate a natural structural component of skin [and] can add volume when injected. When used as a cream or serum, skin will feel softer and you will notice an improvement in the appearance of fine lines." To ensure the product penetrates your skin, she recommends using one that also includes vitamin C.
Up next: A dermatologist shares her exact nighttime skincare routine.