Given my lifelong obsession with skin care (both personally and professionally), I consider myself generally familiar with a wide array of active ingredients, both common and obscure. So when I find out there’s a previously unbeknownst to me ingredient on the rise, I jump at the chance to learn more. I’ve been a lactic acid devotee for years, so I was shocked when my facialist recommended switching to mandelic acid as my chemical exfoliant instead.
Because I tend to have acne-prone skin, I have to admit that I was reluctant to make changes to my rigid skin care regimen, but I am so glad I took the leap. I’m still reaping all the benefits of regular alpha hydroxy acid usage that I was getting from lactic acid, like brightness and exfoliation, but now with the added benefit of reduced breakouts. I am especially thrilled by this, as this is the exact time of year when my skin is at its most sensitive and prone to congestion.
To get to the bottom of exactly why mandelic acid is so effective among AHAs, I spoke to dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar. She was quick to say that mandelic acid is one of her favorite acids for a range of reasons, one of them being that it’s a gentle, yet effective, AHA. That means that most people with sensitive, discolored or acneic skin can use and benefit from it, and it is safe for all skin tones. (Those with more persistent inflammatory issues like rosacea and dermatitis should consult their dermatologists before using.)
Aguilar explained that lactic acid, which is derived from milk, and mandelic acid, which is derived from bitter almonds, have many similarities. “They are two of the most gentle alpha hydroxy acids because they have a larger molecule structure than other acids, such as glycolic acid. This allows the molecule to stay on the outer surface of the skin, which creates a gentle subsurface exfoliation.”
Like lactic acid, mandelic acid is great for use in tandem with retinoids, as it help to slough off the dead skin cells that retinol quickly turns over. Just be sure to be diligent about sunscreen usage, as both AHAs and retinol make your skin more sensitive to sun damage.
Mandelic acid has the added benefit of having anti-bacterial properties. That means that in addition to bringing all the possible benefits of lactic acid, such as reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles, hydrating, brightening, smoothing and evening out skin tone, it also helps to prevent and treat acne without stripping the skin of its natural moisture barrier.
Is mandelic acid right for you? Aguilar told HuffPost that “anyone with sensitive, discolored, acneic or dull skin can use mandelic acid.” It’s a relatively low-risk ingredient and comes in a variety of strengths, so you can start on the lower end, around 5%-8%, and work your way up to 10%.
Keep reading for Aguilar’s picks for the best products with mandelic acid. We’ve got you covered with serums, toners and cleansers at a range of price points, so you can find the one that best fits your needs.
The Inkey List mandelic acid treatment
Best used as a spot treatment, The Inkey List’s fast-acting, targeted formula not only helps to exfoliate and treat breakouts, but it also reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation and discoloration that can be left behind by blemishes. It pairs mandelic acid with hydrating glycerin and encapsulated retinol for powerful results at a low price point.
PCA Skin pore refining treatment
This powerful treatment uses mandelic acid alongside papaya fruit enzyme, rice powder, pumice and kaolin clay to draw out impurities and clean skin. It’s perfect for oily, breakout-prone skin and won’t damage the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It works similarly to a mask; you apply it on clean skin and then rinse it off. Start off using it just once a week and work your way up to three times if needed.
Vivant 3-in-1 8% mandelic acid serum
If you are hoping to target acne, aging and irregular pigmentation, then take a look at Vivant’s serum. It’s an anti-aging treatment that was specifically formulated for sensitve and acne-prone skin. Mandelic and lactic acids help resurface skin while regulating pH and gently exfoliating. It’s a great starting point if you’re an AHA newbie.
The Ordinary mandelic acid 10% + HA
If you’re interested in stronger formulations, then check out The Ordinary’s 10% mandelic acid serum. It gently exfoliates to help erase dullness and uneven texture, address lines, treat blemishes and more while hyaluronic acid keeps skin supple, hydrated and healthy.
Osmosis+ clarify blemish retinal serum
Specially formulated for oily and acne-prone skin, this Osmosis+ serum uses the power of both mandelic and lactic acid to remove dead skin cells and clear clogged pores that can cause breakouts. It hydrates, conditions and balances irritated skin, leaving you with a smoother, brighter complexion.
Vivant mandelic acid 3-in-1 wash
This exfoliating cleanser from Vivant fights acne, signs of aging and uneven pigmentation thanks to mandelic acid and powerful antioxidants. It can help brighten tone without causing irritation, so you emerge from your shower with your face feeling clean, not stripped. It sells out quickly and often — a testament to its popularity — so bookmark this page and jump on it as soon as it’s available.
Lifeline Skin Care Brightening Toner
If you prefer a toner to a serum, check out LifeLine Skin Care’s brightening toner. It uses phytic and mandelic acids to smooth, soothe and exfoliate while leaving skin ultra-moisturized. It’s gentle enough to use morning and night, and is an easy way to incorporate mandelic acid into your routine without adding another serum or cream.