Chemical Reaction

As people age, their skin loses its ability to quickly rid itself of old skin cells, which results in a thickening of the epidermis and a loss of elasticity. While there are many treatments and products available that claim to help reverse or at least slow down the aging process, there are few ingredients that have garnered as much attention as of late for their remarkable results than acids. "Acids work," says Jan Marini, president and CEO of Jan Marini Skin Research. "For 20 years, there has been research and medical data that give acids validation for treating many skin issues." From reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines to hydrating skin and treating acne, acids are the key to a more youthful appearance.

Acids used in skincare and spa treatments typically fall into two categories: alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA). The main difference between AHAs and BHAs is their lipid (oil) solubility. AHAs are water soluble, while BHAs are lipid soluble.

The most common acids found in skincare products are AHAs, which are a group of chemical compounds derived from fruit, milk, and sugar. AHAs have been used for thousands of years to rejuvenate the skin (Cleopatra is said to have bathed in milk to improve her complexion). AHAs work by breaking down the sugars in the skin, and cause the cells of the epidermis to loosen, allowing dead skin cells to slough off and make room for the growth of new ones. "The most popular acids by far are AHAs because of their extensive safety record and the outstanding results they provide," says Joe Lewis, founder of Priori Skincare. "AHAs are very popular for being known as the 'lunchtime peel.' Clients are in and out in 30 minutes or less with none of the downtime generally associated with stronger chemical peels."

AHAs most commonly used in skincare are glycolic acid, which is extracted from sugar cane, and lactic acid, which is found in milk, because they have a special ability to penetrate the skin. "Glycolic acid and lactic acid are both wounding agents and help to break down the keratolytic structure of the skin and influence what is in the dermis to help produce other constituents, such as hyaluronic acid and collagen," says Christine Heathman, founder of GlyMed Plus. Other common AHAs in skincare are citric acid found in oranges and lemons, malic acid found in apples, and tartaric acid from aged wine. "Acids are designed to perfect the surface of the skin and address issues such as fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and rosacea," she adds.

Glycolic acid is not only the cheapest and most popular of all acids but it also has the smallest molecular size, which allows it to penetrate the skin and stimulate collagen better than others. Known for its ability to exfoliate and hydrate the skin, glycolic acid is also beneficial for treating sun-damaged skin. "If glycolic acid is applied to skin that has been fried by the sun, you can see up to a 20 percent reduction of skin tumor incidence," says Heathman. At LakeHouse Spa at Lake Austin Spa Resort (TX), clients can experience the Glycolic Facial ($135, 25 minutes), which combines glycolic acid with vitamins, minerals, and essential oils to gently exfoliate and moisturize skin while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Recommended for sun-damaged skin, this facial leaves clients with a younger looking, healthier appearance. Therapists advise clients to avoid sun exposure before and after this treatment because while glycolic acid helps reverse sun damage, it can also make skin more sensitive. "If you take away some layers of skin, it naturally becomes more sensitive to ultraviolet rays," says Heathman.

While glycolic acid gets the most attention, lactic acid is also worth noting. Lactic acid has shown to have several long-term benefits on the skin, such as an increase in firmness, collagen level, and hydration, and a decrease in wrinkles. "Lactic acid is a primary component in the skin's natural moisturizing factor," says Heathman. "This acid itself is extremely influential because it increases hyaluronic acid, which is great for anti-aging. If you compare a baby's skin with that of an elderly person, the baby has much higher concentrations of hyaluronic acid."

It has been shown that combining acids can also result in effective anti-aging treatment. At The Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota (FL), for example, guests can receive the Glycolic/Lactic Acid Peel ($175, 30 minutes), which combines glycolic and lactic acids to exfoliate the skin while reducing irritation and dryness, increasing moisture levels, and improving elastin fibers. It is ideal for photodamaged, dry, and aging skin types. Guests can also opt for the Salicylic/Mandelic Acid Peel ($175, 30 minutes), which combines the most common BHA in skincare, salicylic acid, with a less common AHA, mandelic acid, which is derived from almond extract. The treatment exfoliates skin while it decongests pores and reduces irritation. During this treatment, salicylic acid penetrates the pores to dissolve sebum and debris, resulting in an improved appearance of problematic skin.

Salicylic acid is often a key ingredient in spa treatments and products targeting problematic and acne-prone skin because it is able to penetrate into the pores, which contain sebum, and exfoliate the dead skin cells that build up there. Stillwater Spa at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa & Casino (Incline Village, NV) offers guests the Alpine Pure ($140, 50 minutes; $195, 80 minutes) treatment, which is a purifying facial formulated for congested or acne-prone skin. It combines salicylic acid, willow, and sage to exfoliate skin and a lavender clay mask to remove impurities and reduce pores for a clearer complexion.

AHAs and BHAs, while effective in reversing skin aging, are not without side effects. From skin irritation to sun sensitivity, clients should expect to experience some discomfort post-treatment. "Educated spa professionals know that irritation and redness are common characteristics of acids and are temporary," Heathman says. "They should always walk clients through the entire process, from pre-treatment to post-treatment." Spa professionals are also expected to apply sunscreen to post-treatment skin and recommend pre- and post-treatment products to help clients maintain and prolong the treatment's results at home.

Proper education and training are the keys to ensuring client safety during acid treatments and to satisfy the desire for younger looking skin. Marini also believes that good marketing of these treatments and products is crucial to attracting clients. She suggests that when marketing acid products, spa professionals educate clients on their benefits and present data to them that shows that they really work. "Today's clients are very savvy consumers," she says. "If they are going to spend money on homecare products, they want to be sure they really work. There are few other products that have quite the same results as acids."

Ben Kaminsky, co-founder of B. Kamins Chemist also believes that offering acid treatments and products makes good business sense, because in today's society, clients are more aware of ingredients and progressive treatments and have an expectation for more dramatic and visible results. "Products containing more specialized acids have been used for years with great success," he says. "These offerings in the spa environment will help satisfy consumer demand, generate repeat business, and increase profitability." —Nicole Palmieri

Acid Relief

When choosing an acid treatment, it is important to understand which acid will have the greatest efficacy in treating your client's skin issue. Here's a look at what these common acids can do for your clients:

Citric Acid: This fruit-derived acid helps stimulate collagen fiber production in the dermis. It also helps with skin discoloration.

Glycolic Acid: Derived from sugar cane, this acid is best known for its ability to exfoliate, hydrate, and rejuvenate skin. It also helps smooth fine lines.

Lactic Acid: Derived from milk, this acid exfoliates skin and keeps it hydrated. It also aids in diminishing fine lines and wrinkles.

Malic Acid: This fruit-derived alpha hydroxy acid helps increase oxygen supply to the muscles.

Salicylic Acid: This beta hydroxy acid is most widely used to treat acne and problematic skin.

Tartaric Acid: Derived from wine, this acid helps treat skin's texture and tone. —N.P.

Acid Appeal

Clients will give glowing reviews of these acid-based products.

Bioelements Lactic-Plus Peel: This professional-only exfoliator contains 30 percent organic lactic acid; pomegranate extract, which stimulates cell turnover; and pumpkin fruit enzymes, which provide an even surface peel. (800) 433-6650;

Dermalogica MultiVitamin Thermafoliant: This self-heating skin polisher helps soften, smooth, and refine skin texture with ingredients including lactic acid, salicylic acid, and vitamins A, C, and E. (800) 345-2761;

GlyMed Plus AHA Accelerator: This oil-free, water-based serum contains glycolic and lactic acids and helps prepare skin for chemical and surgical procedures, as well as treats acneic, photo-aged, and hyperpigmented skin. (800) 676-9667;

Ilike Organic Skin Care AHA Fruit Peel: This professional-use-only deep exfoliator contains 20 percent alpha hydroxy acids, including lactic acid and malic acid, which help reduce inflammation and improve blood circulation. (888) 290-6238;

Jan Marini Skin Research Bioglycolic Facial Cleanser: This gentle cleanser contains glycolic acid to smooth and refine skin's texture and sorbitol to leave skin soft and hydrated. (800) 347-2223;

Murad Acne Treatment Concealer: This concealer contains polyphenols to regulate sebum production, 2 percent salicylic acid to clear breakouts and prevent new ones, and sesame seed extract to calm and soothe the skin. (800) 33-MURAD;

Pevonia Botanica Blemish B-Gone: Part of the SpaTeen range, this acne spot treatment helps unclog pores, prevent new breakouts, and destroy acne-causing bacteria with ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. (800) PEVONIA;

Priori Barrier Repair Complex: This formula contains lactic acid and a fortifying epidermal complex composed of ceramides, cholesterol, and essential fatty acids to enhance skin moisturization and help repair skin barrier function. (800) 419-8783;

San쳡s Skincare Salicylic Herbal Cleanser: This cleanser is formulated with arnica oil, lavender, sage oil, salicylic acid, and tea tree oil to help exfoliate the skin, and remove dead skin cells and bacteria. (888) 855-8425;

Sonya Dakar Açai Clarifying Wash: Lactic and salicylic acids penetrate deep into pores to clear away buildup, allowing the blend of aça몠andiroba, and copaiba to eliminate bacteria and balance oil production. (877) 72-SONYA;—N.P.