Chemical Attraction

The word “acid” can be intimidating to many spa-goers, especially when it is paired with terms like “chemical peel.” But spa-goers need not be afraid of acid-based treatments and products, because most are not only safe but also highly effective in helping to reverse or slow down the aging process. As people age and they’re unable to quickly rid themselves of old skin cells, the epidermis begins to thicken, and skin experiences a loss in elasticity. Acids help shed old skin cells and make way for new ones. “Acids dissolve the glue between cells, so thousands of damaged, old, and dead cells may come off during treatment, but it will be invisible to the naked eye,” says Sam Dhatt, lead chemist, CEO, and president of DermaQuest. “This process triggers repair and kick-starts the skin’s renewal process.”

Acids treat a wide range of skin issues, including acne, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles. According to Teresa Stenzel, director of education at Bioelements, results are based on the type of acid that is chosen. Some acids exfoliate, which can produce softer and smoother skin, while other acids help hydrate the skin and provide a healing, antibacterial action. Acids used in skincare and spa treatments typically fall into two categories: alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA). Charlene DeHaven, M.D., clinical director at Innovative Skincare, explains that the chemical structure of the individual molecules determines which group it falls into, and the treatment varies considerably based on the type of acid chosen, its concentration, whether it is of botanical or chemical origin, time of application, and additional ingredients included in the treatment product.

The main difference between AHAs and BHAs is that AHAs are water soluble, while BHAs are lipid soluble. In addition, AHAs are more commonly found in skincare products and treatments, because they are often considered safer and gentler on the skin and produce results with little to no downtime. According to Lydia Sarfati, founder and CEO of Repêchage, AHAs help remove dead skin cells, even skintone, reduce wrinkles, and increase the amount of collagen in the skin to help prevent cutaneous aging. Meanwhile, BHAs are keratolytic, which means they help exfoliate the upper layer of the skin and work by penetrating deep into the pores to exfoliate dead skin cells and excess oil. These acids are most effective at treating pimples and blackheads and helping to prevent future breakouts. Acids have the ability to treat many skincare concerns, including lightening and tightening skin, improving skintone and evening skin color, exfoliating skin, diminishing fine lines and wrinkles, improving the appearance of photo-damaged skin, and increasing skin hydration. Take a look at the most common acids used in skincare:


Citric Acid

Benefits: Derived from citrus fruits like lemons, citric acid is an AHA that provides mild lightening and is commonly combined with enzymes to gently remove superficial skin layers, says Tiffany McLauchlin, licensed master esthetician, instructor, and director of education for Lira Clinical. “It’s a great universal acid that can be used on diabetic or sensitive skin clients where other acids can be too harsh,” she says.

Sample Treatment: Citrus Spa Manicure ($65, 50 minutes) at the Spa at Rock Barn at Rock Barn Golf & Spa (Conover, NC) includes a two-step citric acid exfoliation and massage using citrus essential oils that rejuvenate, deeply hydrate, and help restore skin to a more youthful appearance.


Lactic Acid

Benefits: Derived from sour milk, lactic acid is a very gentle, yet effective, AHA that helps to rebalance skin, increase hydration, and combat the first signs of aging. Ideal for clients with pigmentation disorders and hormonally imbalanced skin, lactic acid can be used on all skin types and conditions. “Lactic acid is also popular for body treatments, brightening and tightening skin on the legs, arms, and abdominal areas,” says McLauchlin.

Sample Treatment: The Skin Refining Facial Treatment ($90, 50 minutes; $160, 80 minutes) at Rainforest Spa at Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort (St. Lucia) is designed for men and includes a lactic acid mask that adds moisture to the skin as it gently exfoliates, leaving skin looking younger and feeling revitalized, healthy, and hydrated.


Glycolic Acid

Benefits: Glycolic acid, an AHA derived from
sugarcane, helps to resurface the skin on a deeper level and remove discolorations on the epidermis. “It is stronger than other acids and penetrates deeper,” says Sarfati. “Thus, it has the ability to show immediate results of skin brightening and renewal of the skin, making it excellent for anti-aging and skin-lightening products.” She does warn that glycolic acid should not be used on clients who are using retinol or other vitamin A derivatives or taking prescription acne medications like Accutane, which thins out the skin, as it can cause irritation.

Sample Treatment: Transformation Glycolic Peel ($175, 60 minutes; $900 for a series of six treatments) at The Spa at Camelback Inn at JW Marriott Camelback Inn (Scottsdale, AZ) is ideal for the treatment of acne, dryness, uneven pigmentation, and wrinkles, and to improve the texture of sun-damaged skin. The treatment focuses on resurfacing and renewing the epidermis of the face, neck, chest, forearms, and hands.


Hyaluronic Acid

Benefits: Often used in conjunction with vitamin C products, hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring substance in the body’s tissues, helps to slow down the aging process by hydrating and plumping the skin and treating fine lines and wrinkles.

Sample Treatment: The Hyaluronic Time Erase Anti-Aging Facial ($135, 50 minutes) at Taiga Spa at Jay Peak (Jay, VT) helps provide surface and deep-layer hydration, as well as plumps the skin and smoothes fine lines and wrinkles.


Kojic Acid

Benefits: According to Sarfati, kojic acid, which is an AHA derived from fungi, helps to diminish discoloration and hyperpigmentation on the surface of the skin due to its ability to inhibit the tyrosinase activity that yields the production of melanin.

Sample Treatment: Age Erase ($160, 80 minutes) at Top of the Palms Spa at Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort (Orlando, FL) contains a combination of powerful peptides with an antioxidant boost of concentrated kojic acid to strengthen collagen and brighten and firm skin.


Malic Acid

Benefits: Malic acid is a gentle AHA derived from apples that helps reduce the signs of aging, as well as tightens pores, moisturizes skin, and improves skin’s texture.

Sample Treatment: Pumpkin Spice Body Peel ($195, 75 minutes) at Vista Blue Spa at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa (CA) combines pumpkin extract and malic acid in a peel to smooth away rough areas on the skin and is followed by a cinnamon vanilla brown sugar scrub and a revitalizing scalp massage.


Mandelic Acid

Benefits: An AHA derived from almonds, mandelic acid is often used to treat acne, age spots, hyperpigmentation, melasma, and photoaging. “Mandelic acid is increasingly sought-after as its antibacterial action and clearing effect on acneic and pigmented or blemished skin becomes more widely known,” says Dhatt.

Sample Treatment: Mandelic Peel (starting at $120, 50 minutes) at East Hill Laser & Aesthetics (Pensacola, FL) helps treat acne, sun damage, and rosacea.


Salicylic Acid

Benefits: Ideal for managing and treating acne, salicylic acid, a BHA derived from willowbark, helps penetrate through the oils in the pores to break down impactions and minimize breakouts, according to Ivana Veljkovic, Ph.D, research and development manager at PCA Skin. Anti-inflammatory by nature, salicylic acid also helps target hormonal pigmentation and can be used for at-home skincare management as a leave-on spot treatment for breakouts.

Sample Treatment: Pore Clarifying Silk Peel ($225, 50 minutes) at The Spa at Pebble Beach at Pebble Beach Resorts (CA) is a noninvasive treatment for acne-prone skin. Pores are flushed of impurities and infused with salicylic acid to help speed the healing process and prevent breakouts.


Tartaric Acid

Benefits: Derived from grapes and used as a skin rejuvenator, tartaric acid is an AHA found in many homecare acid products that helps manage and treat rosacea and anti-aging concerns.

Sample Treatment: Vitamin C Brightening Facial ($115, 75 minutes) at Sanctuary Day Spa (Long Beach, CA) aims to address combination-to-oily skin. This treatment contains citric, glycolic, malic, and tartaric acids to exfoliate, resurface, and moisturize the skin.


Mix it Up

While each acid provides its own benefits, when several acids are combined, an even more effective formula is created, and multiple skin concerns can be targeted at once. For example, for sun-damaged or combination skin, pairing lactic and salicylic acids can be a winning duo. “Salicylic, unlike glycolic and lactic, helps manage oil on the skin and reduce breakouts,” says Tina Zillmann, founder and vice president of Advanced Rejuvenating Concepts. “However, it’s also very beneficial for hyperpigmentation skin concerns. Performing a salicylic peel then a lactic peel in a treatment may deliver beneficial results for hyperpigmentation skin concerns that standalone glycolic or lactic peels cannot.”


Caution Signs

Acids provide many benefits to the skin, but as with any ingredient, it’s important for spa professionals to use caution when applying any acid-based product to a client’s skin. “Working safely with chemical agents means always checking for any contraindications before prescribing a particular exfoliating product or treatment,” says Whitney Johnson, global education developer for Dermalogica and the International Dermal Institute. “Check for any medically prescribed exfoliants, such as acne medications like isotretinoin or any derivatives of vitamin A or antibiotics; ask about any allergies to medications, food, or even items like latex; find out what the client’s current homecare routine is, as some products may already contain hydroxy acids or exfoliating ingredients; and inquire about their sun habits, because performing chemical peels or using hydroxy acids can make the skin more sensitive to sun exposure.”

In addition, McLauchlin suggests that spa professionals follow certain guidelines before using an acid-based product on any client. She recommends avoiding acid products if the client spends a lot of time outdoors for work, has sunburned or compromised skin, is pregnant or lactating, has active cold sores or fever blisters, has received facial fillers or injections within the past 14 days, has been waxed within 72 hours prior to the service, received hair color or bleach within 72 hours, has received a permanent cosmetics application within seven days, has used Accutane within six months of the treatment, or has a serious medical condition. Acids should also not be used on skin that is inflamed or has any lesions, cuts, or sores, as they can increase sensitivity and inflammation. “Wounds help introduce the acid to deeper layers of skin, which may cause a burn, inflammation, or delayed healing,” says Zillmann. It’s imperative that clients fully understand and follow the pre- and post-treatment instructions provided to them. “If a client is not going to follow your instructions on avoiding increased circulation directly after treatment, applying an SPF product, avoiding direct sun exposure, or modifying their routine until the skin is no longer sensitive, they might not be the best fit for advanced exfoliation or acid-based products,” says Johnson.


Higher Learning

Proper education of the benefits and contraindications of acids to clients will not only help them feel comfortable trying an acid-based treatment but it will also produce the best results and prolong the results post-treatment. “Demystifying acids, highlighting the benefits, explaining who they benefit the most, and how to prep for peels and look after post-treatment skin are all a must,” says Dhatt. “Letting people know what to expect and what they can—and can’t—achieve for their skin is a great starting point. Identify the name, features, and benefits of your treatments; explain how the acids are applied; what they feel like; and what the results will be. Before-and-after photos, testimonials, or a readily available therapist or consultant to answer questions are also helpful.”

To properly educate clients, your staff must first be knowledgeable and trained to perform these treatments. It’s important to thoroughly research the company and what training it provides. “Choose a vendor who can support you with the necessary training and certification, including hands-on practice, and check to see what videos, training materials, and support they have for you,” says Johnson. “Knowledge is key. The more educated your team is on acids and peels, the better they will be at preventing adverse reactions and achieving results.” And visible results are sure to lead to satisfied clients who are likely to return and also recommend the spa to others, as acid-based treatments and products treat a wide range of skincare concerns and issues, thus making them an important addition to any spa menu. “Acids can be used from head to toe,” says Zillmann. “Facial treatments are the first thing we think of with acid peels, but they’re also wonderful on the body. Acne can sprout on the chest, back, and shoulders. Hyperpigmentation—age spots, freckles, melasma, and sun damage—can be found on parts of the body most exposed to the sun. Acids can benefit all these concerns. They are the key to skin rejuvenation.”

Give clients a clean slate when it comes to their skin with any of these acid-based products.—Heather Mikesell

1. Amber Products Acne Control Facial Serum: Lemongrass oil and salicylic acid help prevent clogged pores and reduce bacteria in this antibacterial and anti-inflammatory serum. Bark extract reduces sebum levels and oily shine.

2. Christina Cosmeceuticals Vino Peel 2A and Vino Forte Peel 2B: This two-step peel, one for use around the eyes and lips and the other for the rest of the face, relies on wine-based acids to smooth away impurities and refine the skin.

3. [ comfort zone ] Skin Regimen Face Renewer: This healthy cocktail combines citric, glycolic, and lactic acids with gluconolactone, a polyhydroxy acid, into
a powerful multi-level peel.

4. Guinot Paris Acnilogic Intelligent Sebum Control Serum: Containing salicylic acid, this formula penetrates deeply to help stop acne-causing
bacteria at the source.

5. HydroPeptide Anti-Wrinkle Polish and Plump Peel: This gentle yet effective two-step peel is formulated to leave skin smoother and youthfully plumped with six peptides, lactic acid, oxygenating crystals, and vitamin C.

6. Innovative Skincare Cleansing Complex: Combining botanical sources of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, this gentle but powerful formula with antioxidant protection encourages desquamation and deep cleaning of the pores.

7. Lira Clinical Vita Brite Refresher: Working to brighten and tighten the skin, this combination of powerful enzymes, citric and mandelic acids, and healing orange plant stem cells addresses acne, the signs of aging, and pigment issues.

8. PCA Skin Clarify Therapeutic Salicylic Acid Mask: Ideal for those with acne-prone skin, this mask relies on salicylic acid to calm inflamed lesions while also dissolving sebum-filled follicles.

9. Pevonia Renewing Glycocides Cream: Containing UV protection, this combination of glycolic and hyaluronic acid diminishes fine lines and improves
the skin’s texture.

10. Sanitas Glycolic Citrus Cleanser: Formulated with active levels of glycolic acid, this cleanser exfoliates the skin, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and decreases the signs of hyperpigmentation.

11. Sesha Skin Therapy Age Defying Resurfacing Pads: These easy-to-use presoaked pads contain 8 percent lactic acid and 2 percent salicylic acid to gently exfoliate and hydrate the skin.

12. Skinprint Sensitive Skin Peel: Available for use on all skin types, this combination of ascorbic, kojic, lactic, and trichloroacetic acids leaves the skin
looking brighter and improves texture and tone.