Video: Why pH matters for AHAs and acids in skincare

Video: Why pH matters for AHAs and acids in skincare

I’ve been a little frustrated with what scientific concepts I can get through in words and crudely drawn illustrations on this here blog. When I teach at my day job, I do a lot of hand-waving, emphatic underlining, symbolic gesturing and smashing together of whiteboard markers, and not having the ability to show movement sometimes feels a bit like I …

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My Ultraceuticals RVR90 Skin Brightening Experience

My Ultraceuticals RVR90 Skin Brightening Experience

Ultraceuticals is an Australian cosmeceutical skincare brand with a strong focus on scientifically-backed, effective products. I was invited to take part in their RVR90 program where I had to commit to using their products and treatments for 3 months (fellow beauty bloggers will know how crazy this is). I’m excited to share my results with you today!

Ultraceuticals was founded in 1998 by Dr Geoffrey Heber, a cosmetic physician was the first to bring alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) to Australia. As well as take-home products, they offer in-clinic treatments at a variety of spas and salons around Australia.

RVR90, which stands for Real Visible Results in 90 Days, involves 3 steps. First, you discuss your skin concerns with a skin technician and decide what you want to work on. Next, you receive an RVR90 starter pack for your skin type, containing cleanser, lotion and sunscreen, plus an appropriate serum ($199). Finally, you’re prescribed a treatment and homecare plan to address your specific concerns. Ultraceuticals believes that 70% of results are achieved through homecare while 30% is from in-clinic treatments, so if you don’t like in-clinic treatments you can still get most of the benefits.

I decided to target my hyperpigmentation, since I have some pigmentation happening on my cheeks (yay Asian genes), and the treatment would also help with congestion and acne as well. I was prescribed the Oily/Normal pack (surprise!), and was given the Ultra Brightening Serum to start with, then the Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum a bit later on.

My Ultraceuticals RVR90 Skin Brightening Experience

I was given three 30 minute Radiance Plus+ in-clinic treatments over the 90 days by Tracey Beeby, the Head of Global Training at Ultraceuticals. This consisted of:

  • Double cleansing with the Ultra Balancing Gel Cleanser and Pre Peel Skin Preparation, using the UltraSonophoresis machine
  • 15 min mask using the Ultra A Skin Perfecting Concentrate and Ultra Brightening Accelerator Mask, which contain 8 skin brightening agents that act on hyperpigmentation, dark spots and blotchiness
  • After removal of the mask, application of Ultra Protective Antioxidant Complex and sunscreen

I was initially a bit skeptical that I’d see much of a difference in 90 days since my skin was already pretty good and the treatments were pretty painless (slight prickling and heat but nothing close to burning), but when I saw my before-and-after photos and skin analysis I was very impressed.

Here are the photos, with Day 0 on the left and Day 86 on the right (I couldn’t make it in on Day 90). I look a bit like I’m going into surgery with the hair net…

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AHA Exfoliant Pad Review: Nip+Fab, philosophy, Arcona and Pixi

AHA Exfoliant Pad Review: Nip + Fab, philosophy, Arcona and Pixi

Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) exfoliants are fantastic for giving you glowing smooth skin, fading hyperpigmentation and smoothing away fine lines (you can read more about chemical exfoliation here). AHA exfoliants usually come in gel or serum form, but if you’re lazy, you can also get them as presoaked pads in a jar. Here are some AHA pads that I’ve tested out recently, from Pixi, Nip+Fab, Arcona and philosophy.

AHA Exfoliant Pad Review: Nip+Fab, philosophy, Arcona and Pixi

Pixi Glow Tonic To-Go


Aqua, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Leaf Extract, Aesculus Hippocastanum (Horse Chestnut) Seed Extract, Glycolic Acid, Ammonium Glycolate, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Hexylene Glycol (and) Fructose (and) Glucose (and) Sucrose (and) Urea (and) Dextrin (and) Alanine (and) Glutamic Acid (and) Aspartic Acid (and) Hexyl Nicotinate, Panax Ginseng Root Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Biotin, Polysorbate 20, Fragrance.

Pixi Glow Tonic is a gentle glycolic acid exfoliant with 5% glycolic acid at a relatively high but still effective pH (4-5), which means it penetrates into the skin slower. I’ve reviewed the liquid version of Glow Tonic before, and this is the convenient, pre-dispensed version. The ingredients also include aloe vera juice (emollient moisturiser that softens skin), witch hazel extract (astringent), horse chestnut and ginseng extracts (antioxidants to prevent free radical damage), and a whole host of humectant moisturisers (glycerin, glucose, fructose etc.)

Other notes

I found the floral/cucumber scent a bit stronger when I used the pads than when I applied it from the bottle using my fingers, but it fades quickly. The pads are softly textured and come in a white plastic jar.


Pixi isn’t available in Australia yet. The pads are $38.99 USD on Amazon for a jar of 60 pads ($0.65 USD per pad). As a comparison, liquid Glow Tonic is $28.88 for 100 mL or $52.99 for 250 mL.

Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme


Aqua (Water/Eau), Glycolic Acid, Triethanolamine, Glycerin, Polysorbate 20, Niacinamide, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Hydroxide, Benzyl Alcohol, Disodium EDTA, Mandelic Acid, Panthenol, Salicylic Acid, Lactic Acid, Limonene, Parfum (Fragrance), Benzyl Benzoate, Dehydroacetic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate, Geraniol, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Citral, Linalool.

Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme aren’t actually very extreme – they contain 5% glycolic acid, with small amounts of two other AHAs (lactic and mandelic acids) and salicylic acid as well, to increase exfoliation, at a pH of 4-5. It’s comparable to Glow Tonic in strength, if we’re looking at glycolic acid alone. There’s also hyaluronic acid (humectant moisturiser) and niacinamide (does a whole bunch of things, including quenching free radicals, reducing irritation, building up the skin barrier, and reducing hyperpigmentation).

Other notes

The pads have a light citrus scent, and are softly textured on one side. They come in a translucent plastic jar.

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Free Acid Calculator for Exfoliants at Specific pH Levels

Free Acid Calculator for pH and Exfoliants

Since writing this post on the influence of pH on exfoliating acid skincare ingredients, I’ve had a lot of questions on how much active free acid there is in specific formulations. The calculation is a bit fiddly to do every time, so I’ve developed an easy spreadsheet to help you predict the free acid content for a product, if you know the amount of the acid ingredient in it, and its pH. This might also be useful if you’re into making your own acid products, or messing around with the strengths of pre-made products.

Free Acid Calculator for pH and Exfoliants

Refresher on Acids and pH

pH is a measure of how acidic or basic something is – a lower pH is more acidic, which means there’s a higher concentration of H+ ions.

AHAs and BHAs (alpha and beta hydroxy acids) are common exfoliating ingredients. They’re acids, which means they can exist in two forms:

  • as the free acid, which means it has no charge
  • as the ionised or dissociated form, which means it’s lost a H+ and it has a negative charge (this is also called its conjugate base)

The two forms can interconvert. Here’s what they look like for glycolic acid:

The ionised form has a difficult time getting through skin’s oily lipid layer and into the skin where it can act. The free acid form is a lot more oil-soluble, so it penetrates a lot more easily. (In some circumstances, if the ionised acid is non-polar enough, it can still penetrate through skin.)

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Alpha Hydroxy Acid Exfoliant Reviews: Alpha-H and Elucent

Alpha Hydroxy Acid Exfoliant Reviews: Alpha-H and Elucent

I’ve recently tried out two skincare ranges with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) as their star ingredients: Alpha-H’s A-List Kit and Elucent’s Anti-Ageing range. Today I’m concentrating on the leave-on liquid exfoliants in the ranges. A refresher: alpha hydroxy acids are fantastic exfoliants, which means they help the layers of your skin detach and shed. This makes your skin look brighter …

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How Does Baby Foot Exfoliating Peel Work?

How Does Baby Foot Exfoliating Peel Work?

Baby Foot is an exfoliating foot peel – you put your feet into two gel-soaked plastic socks for an hour, wash it off, then over the next week or so, flakes of skin come off and you’re left with… “baby feet”. There are dozens of imitations on the market now from brands like Soft Touch, Etude House, Treat My Feet, The Face Shop, Grace & Stella and Vena Beauty. The Shara Shara one is what I’ve used the most recently. They all have the same active ingredient and work the same way, though depending on the amount of active ingredient and the formula, some work better than others.  How Does Baby Foot Exfoliating Peel Work?

Baby Foot Ingredients

Here are the ingredients for Baby Foot:

Water, Alcohol, Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Arginine, Butylene Glycol, PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Glucose, O-Cymen-5-ol, Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Oil, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Peel Oil, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Cymbopogon Schoenanthus Oil, Nasturtium Officinale Extract, Arctium Lappa Root Extract, Saponaria Officinalis Leaf Extract, Hedera Helix (Ivy) Extract, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Fruit Extract, Clematis Vitalba Leaf Extract, Spiraea Ulmaria Flower Extract, Equisetum Arvense Extract, Fucus Vesiculosus Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Houttuynia Cordata Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Salicylic Acid

And the ingredients for Shara Shara Smooth Bebe Foot:

How Does Baby Foot Exfoliating Peel Work?

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How to Exfoliate 3: Choosing the Right Exfoliants


Here’s the final part of this series on exfoliation. We’ve looked at all of the physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants, now we’re turning to the most important question: Which exfoliant should you use? And how often?

Or which exfoliants, rather. Because once you start seeing the results from exfoliating – the glowy skin, the smooth texture, the pigmentation fading – you’ll want to try more. It’s a slippery slope into pretty skin. Unfortunately though, this process can be painstaking and slow, since it takes a while to see the results of any changes in your skincare routine, so have patience!


Guiding Rules

Let’s lay out some guiding principles before we get too excited…

1. Add one new product at a time, a couple of weeks apart

Introducing a whole bunch of skincare products at once is tempting, but a bit of self-control is a good idea. The key reason is that if your skin has a reaction (allergy, irritation, breakouts or just clogged pores), you won’t be able to work out what the culprit is for a while. You’ll have to take everything out, then reintroduce them one by one a couple of weeks apart to check.

Best case scenario? Your skin doesn’t react, it looks amazing, but now you don’t know which of the 5 new products worked. Your skincare routine now takes 3 hours and costs $200 a month.

2. Go slow

This applies to all dimensions of exfoliation. For everything, you need to patch test first if you have sensitive skin. If you have robust skin, you should still patch test first, but I’m the first to admit that I’m too impatient for this most of the time.

In terms of frequency, this means start off with once a week, and if your skin can handle it, then work up gradually.

In terms of harshness for physical exfoliation, start gentle – this means starting with the softest brush, or the finest grains, or pressing gently and scrubbing for only a few seconds.

For chemical exfoliation, this means starting on a lower percentage and working upwards, or starting for a few minutes if it’s a wash-off product, before working up to 10 minutes or whatever the maximum recommended time is.

3. Watch out for overexfoliation

Sensitive, red, tight, weirdly shiny (not in a good way) skin is a hallmark of exfoliating too much, too fast. Your skin needs its protective outer layer, and scrubbing too much off will lead to inflamed, dehydrated skin. If this happens to you, put a hold on all exfoliation until your skin gets back to normal – then let it rest for a few days before going back to exfoliating.

4. Your mileage may vary

This applies to skincare in general. Human skin is all the same to some extent, but it’s still different enough that no product will ever work for everyone the same way. So don’t blindly follow someone on social media who has great skin and scrubs with diamond dust for 5 hours a day – but at the same time, if there’s someone with similar skin concerns as you, and a particular product worked fantastically for them, then it could be a good starting point.

5. Don’t just exfoliate

You should be cleansing before you exfoliate, and moisturising afterwards. Your skincare needs might also change a bit as you exfoliate more regularly.

How to Get Started

Depending on your skincare routine and how well you know your skin, you may be able to skip some of these steps.

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How to Exfoliate 2: All About Chemical Exfoliants


Here’s Part 2 of this skincare series on exfoliation. Part 1 was on physical exfoliating tools and scrubs, this time we’re tackling the more complex chemical exfoliants, before moving onto picking the right exfoliation routine for your skin in Part 3. For a simpler overview, you can head to this exfoliation basics post, and for a more user-friendly version check out my free exfoliation guide.

What’s exfoliation again?

Your skin is covered in a thin protective layer of dead cells (the stratum corneum) which naturally shed over time in a process called desquamation. Sometimes this layer gets too thick, resulting in dull, rough skin. Exfoliants help the shedding along, resulting in more even, “glowier” skin.

What’s chemical exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliants help cells shed in a more indirect way than physical exfoliation, which works using friction between the tool or scrub and the skin. The mechanism of how chemical exfoliants work aren’t always obvious, but the most common theories and methods of how they work are:

  • by normalising cell turnover – that is, how quickly cells in the epidermis die and migrate to the stratum corneum, pushing old cells out. Exfoliants do this by travelling to living cells under the dead layer and telling them to change how they behave – in more technical terms, they act on receptors to upregulate cell division. (Technically, any ingredient that does this is a drug, but regulations around these “cosmeceuticals” is pretty iffy.)
  • by unsticking the cellular glue (desmosomes) holding dead cells together in the stratum corneum.

Chemical exfoliation is touted to be gentler than physical exfoliation, mostly because it’s less prone to user error. However, how well it works depends largely on the formulation of the product. A poorly formulated product might not work, or it might work so well that it irritates your skin and causes uneven pigmentation and chemical burns.

Product categories

Click on each heading to jump to that section.

Leave-on Hydroxy Acid Products

Hydroxy acids are the most common ingredients in chemical exfoliants. There are two main types:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which includes ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid and mandelic acid. Glycolic and lactic acids are most common in skincare, and the vast majority of scientific studies on AHAs are based on the action of glycolic acid.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), of which salicylic acid is the only one commonly used in skincare (I’ll be using the terms “BHA” and “salicylic acid” interchangeably).

A few ingredients are technically both alpha and beta hydroxy acids such as citric acid, which acts more like an AHA.

It’s not 100% clear how AHAs and BHAs work to exfoliate the skin – it’s likely to be a combination of the two actions described at the beginning: increasing cell turnover at the epidermis and unsticking stratum corneum cells. As well as just removing build-up of skin, they can also improve hyperpigmentation and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

There are a few key differences between AHAs and BHA/salicylic acid:

  • Solubility: The commonly used AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid) are water soluble, while salicylic acid is oil soluble. Theoretically this means salicylic acid is better for treating oily skin and clogged pores because they can penetrate through sebum and sebum plugs, but there’s a lot of variation between people’s experiences. You’ll generally find AHAs in products for dry, ageing skin, and BHA in products for oily, acne-prone skin.
  • Sun sensitivity: Glycolic acid is documented to cause sun sensitivity for a while even after you finish using it, while salicylic acid isn’t. Salicylic acid has a UV protective effect while on the skin, due to the benzene ring in its structure which lets it act as a chemical sunscreen. You need to wear sunscreen while you use alpha hydroxy acids, and for at least a week after you finish – otherwise, you can actually cause more wrinkles and uneven pigmentation and sagginess than you started off with! And you should use sunscreen with salicylic acid anyway.
  • Other effects: Salicylic acid can have some anti-inflammatory action, depending on whether enough gets through the skin – it’s actually one of the active forms of aspirin. Glycolic and lactic acids are humectants that act to slow down the evaporation of water from the skin.

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