Have you heard about Mandelic Acid, but you’re hesitant to try it because every other exfoliating acid under the sun has messed up your skin?
Glycolic acid turns your skin red and flaky.
Salicylic acid is a little too drying.
Heck, even lactic acid is a little too harsh.
Scrubs are not even an option. They’re more irritating than all of the above combined. *sighs*
How do you exfoliate skin that doesn’t want to be exfoliated?!
That’s where Mandelic Acid comes in. The newest exfoliating acid on the block, Mandelic Acid is just what the doctor ordered for sensitive skin. Why? Here’s the complete guide to Mandelic Acid: find out what it is, how it benefits skin, and how to use it:
- What Is Mandelic Acid?
- Mandelic Acid Benefits: What Does It Do For Skin?
- How To Use It
- How Long Does It Take Mandelic Acid To Work?
- How Does Mandelic Acid Compare To Other Acids?
- Mandelic Acid Side Effects
- What Are The Best Mandelic Acid Products?
- The Bottom Line
What Is Mandelic Acid?
Mandelic Acid is an exfoliating acid derived from bitter almonds. It takes its name from “mandel,” the German word for almond. It’s also called Amygdalic Acid, but for some reason that name didn’t stuck. The skincare world knows it as Mandelic Acid – much easier to remember, right?
Mandelic Acid belongs to the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family. Yep, the same family as Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid. AHAs work by dissolving the “glue” that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter and smoother skin underneath. Mandelic Acid is the largest member of the family. In skincare, the bigger the molecule is, the hardest it is for it to penetrate skin. That makes it less effective, but also less irritating than all its siblings.
Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Is Right For You?
Mandelic Acid Benefits: What Does It Do For Skin?
I’m sure you’ve figured this out by now. As all members of the AHAs family, Mandelic Acid exfoliates skin… But that’s not all it does. This exfoliating acid has several functions that make it a versatile skincare ingredients: Here are all the Mandelic Acid benefits for skin:
1. It Exfoliates Skin
Did you know your skin exfoliates on its own? When you’re young, that is. As it gets older, damaged dead skin cells stubbornly stick to the surface of your skin, roughening up your complexion and robbing it of its glow.
Enter Mandelic Acid. The biggest member of the AHAs family, Mandelic Acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can finally get off your skin. Once that happens, and the newer cells underneath can finally come to the surface, your skin looks smoother. Softer. Brighter.
FYI, this is something ALL exfoliants do. So what’s so special about Mandelic Acid? Its big size. It penetrates skin more slowly than other acids (think Glycolic), making it a gentler alternative for sensitive skin. It also means it works more slowly, so don’t expect results overnight.
Related: 10 Reasons Why You Should Start Exfoliating Now
2. It Treats Acne
Mandelic Acid is good for acne because it treats all 4 of the main factors that cause it:
- It exfoliates skin, so dead cells can’t fall into your pores and clog them up.
- It keeps oil production under control, so excess sebum can’t get stuck in the pores and clog them up.
- It has anti-bacterial properties that inhibit the growth of P.Acnes (the bacteria responsible for acne).
- It reduces inflammation (acne is an inflammatory disease).
According to a 2015 study, found that using 5% and 10% mandelic acid for 60 days is “safe and effective for the treatment of acne“. It works best to reduce the number of pustules (-60%), but can also decrease inflammatory nodules (-30%) and comedones (-20%). The catch? This study isn’t double-blind or placebo-controlled. The results are promising, but take them with a pinch of salt.
Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Spot-Free Skin
3. It Reduces Hyperpigmentation
Hyperpigmentation is a fancy way of saying brown spots. Any dark patch of skin, be it the result of pimples, sun exposure, or natural aging, falls under this umbrella. As you already know, exfoliation helps fade away dark spots. The uppermost layer of skin is the darkest and most damaged. Exfoliation removes it, exposing the lighter, more even-toned layer underneath, so the discolouration starts to slowly fade away.
But all exfoliants can do this. Mandelic Acid is a little different. On top of exfoliating skin, it also inhibits tyrosinase, the enzyme that triggers the production of melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives its beautiful colour to your skin. When the cells that make it get damaged, and tyrosinase gets out of control, your skin gets dark patches here and there. By inhibiting tyrosinase, you stop the overproduction of melanin in its tracks, allowing your skin to go back to its natural colour.
While we’re on the subject, studies show that a peel with 10% Mandelic Acid and 20% Salicylic Acid works better to reduce acne and discolourations on darker skintones than a peel with 35% Glycolic acid. It also had fewer side effects. In other words, Mandelic Acid peels (especially when they include Salicylic Acid) are a safer alternatives to hydroquinone for dark skin (unlike hydroquinone, it won’t turn your skin blue!).
Related: What’s The Best Treatment For Hyperpigmentation?
4. It Helps Dry Skin Produce More Oil (Sebum)
The reason dry skin is so… well, dry? Its sebaceous glands slack on the job, never producing as much oil as your skin needs to stay naturally moisturised. Yep, this oil – sebum, in sciencey terms – is your skin’s natural moisturiser. When you have enough, all’s well. When you don’t, your skin feels tighter than Spanx and shrivels like an old prune.
Studies show that mandelic acid skincare helps dry areas of skin produce more sebum. More sebum = healthy, moisturised skin. The best part? Oilier areas (like the t-zone) aren’t affected. If you have oily skin, you don’t have to worry about this turning your face into a greasy pan.
Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin
How To Use It
Like all exfoliants, I recommend you use Mandelic Acid at night, right after cleansing so that it’s really close to clear skin and can do its job better. Even though Mandelic Acid is the gentlest of the exfoliating acids, I still don’t recommend you use it daily (especially if you have sensitive skin). Start with a couple of nights a week and see how your skin tolerates it. If all’s well, slowly increase frequency. If you experience any kind of irritation or dryness, cut back.
Can You Use Mandelic Acid With Retinol?
Retinol is a retinoid, the family name for all forms of Vitamin A. Other forms include retinaldehyde, granactive retinoid, and Tretinoin (available by prescription only). Like all other forms of Vitamin A, retinol fights wrinkles, boosts collagen production, treats acne, fades away dark spots, and speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process) to give the complexion a smoother, brighter, younger-looking appearance.
Retinol (and all other forms of Vitamin A, for that matter) can cause dryness, irritation, redness, and peeling. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to use them together with mandelic acid. This combination can be too irritating for your skin. Instead, use them on alternate nights.
Can You Use Mandelic Acid With Niacinamide?
Yes, you can use Mandelic Acid with niacinamide. Niacinamide is a form of Vitamin B3 that hydrates skin, fights acne, fades away dark spots, and helps minimise wrinkles. But its main superpower is soothing skin. Mandelic acid may be the gentlest of the exfoliating acids, but exfoliation always has the potential to irritate skin (especially if it’s sensitive). Niacinamide counteracts the potential irritation, making this a match made in skincare heaven.
Can You Use Mandelic Acid With Vitamin C?
Vitamin C is an antioxidant on steroids. It fights free radicals (the nasty molecules that give you wrinkles), boosts the production of skin-firming collagen, and brightens the complexion. When used under sunscreen, it boosts sun protection, too. Mandelic acid, on the other, makes skin more prone to sun damage (anything that exfoliates skin and removes upper layers of dead cells does). For this reason, I recommend you use Vitamin C in the morning under sunscreen and Mandelic acid three nights a week.
Who Should Use Mandelic Acid?
All skin types can use Mandelic Acid, but I recommend it only to acne-prone skin that’s too sensitive for salicylic acid and for darker skin tones who want to lighten their dark spots. “In darker skin tones, overuse of AHAs can cause the skin to react, leading to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, so you end up exacerbating the very problem you’re trying to correct,” explains Dija Ayodele, facial aesthetician and founder of the Black Skin Directory.
Related: How Often Should You Use AHAs/BHA?
How Should I Use A Mandelic Acid Peel At Home?
You shouldn’t. A good concentration to use at home – and the one most skincare products with Mandelic Acid have – is 10%. Higher concentrations will give you faster results, but also a higher risk of irritation. Yep, Mandelic Acid may be the gentlest of all the exfoliating acids, but it can still cause irritations – especially in high concentrations. Everything 25% or higher should only be administered by a professional. Break this rule at your own risk.
How Long Does It Take Mandelic Acid To Work?
“You can expect to see initial results such as a smoother skin within a few days, once cell turnover kicks and the acid starts to resurface your skin,” says Allies of Skin founder Nicolas Travis.
If you’re using Mandelic Acid to fade away hyperpigmentation and dark spots, you’ll see results after 4-8 weeks (it works more slowly than other acids). If you’re using it to fight acne and reduce blemishes, give it 1-2 weeks before you start to see a significant improvement.
How Does Mandelic Acid Compare To Other Acids?
So far, I’ve been telling you that Mandelic Acid is the gentlest of all the exfoliating acids and all the ways it benefits your skin. But is it the best exfoliating acid out there? Should you throw away your glycolic or salicylic acid exfoliants and switch to mandelic acid? That depends. Here’s how Mandelic Acid compares to other exfoliating acids.
Mandelic Acid VS Glycolic Acid: Which One Is Better?
Mandelic Acid and Glycolic Acid may both be members of the same exfoliating family, BUT they’re not the same. Here’s the difference: Mandelic Acid is twice as large as Glycolic Acid. Its big size means it can’t penetrate deep into the skin, so it works more on the surface.
In the skincare world, this means that Mandelic Acid is gentler on the skin that Glycolic Acid and less likely to cause irritations, even on sensitive skin. On the other hand, its gentleness means it’s not as effective. It can exfoliate your skin indeed, but you’ll see results more slowly.
The verdict: Mandelic Acid is a good exfoliating alternative to Glycolic Acid for sensitive skin. If your skin can take Glycolic, stay with that.
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It
Mandelic Acid Vs Lactic Acid: Which One Is Better?
Lactic Acid is another member of the AHAs family. Like Mandelic, it’s bigger and gentler than Glycolic Acid, making it a safer choice for sensitive skin. But how does it hold up against Mandelic?
Mandelic is even bigger than Lactic Acid. You know what this means by now. It’s even gentler but less effective. If you can’t tolerate Glycolic Acid, try Lactic Acid first. If even that is too harsh for you, go with Mandelic.
P.S. Lactic Acid is very hydrating. Another reason why I recommend you try that first, especially if you have dry skin that could do with the extra moisture.
Related: Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which One Is Right For You?
Mandelic Acid VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Is Better?
Salicylic acid is the only member of the Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) used in skincare. Unlike AHAs, Salicylic Acid is oil-soluble. In plain English, this means it can penetrate inside your pores, unclogging them from it and removing blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. While it’s at it, it also exfoliates the surface of your skin, so dead cells can’t fall into your pores and clogs them up. Finally, it has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness and inflammation.
Salicylic Acid has been my go-to treatment for acne for years. It’s also what dermatologists tend to recommend for acne. How does Mandelic acid compare to it? The jury is still out there. A 2020 study comparing a 45% Mandelic Acid peel with a 30% Salicylic Acid peel found that
“Both agents showed almost equal efficacy in improving mild-to-moderate AV. Salicylic acid was found better in treating noninflammatory lesions, while MA had an upper hand in treating inflammatory lesions. Overall, there was no significant difference between the two peels in improving MAS and percentage decrease in MAS. However, adverse effects were lesser with MA peels.”
On the other hand, a 2017 study has a different opinion. This time, researchers treated some patients with 20% salicylic acid and others with 30% mandelic acid every 15 days for six sessions. At the end of the study, acne improved in all patients.
The researchers found that: “In both groups, the improvement in both inflammatory and noninflammatory lesions was found to be statistically significant. Salicylic acid peel was found to be more efficacious than mandelic acid peel. However, the side effects were less common with no postinflammatory hyperpigmentation with mandelic acid peel.”
Although the results seem contradictory, in both cases you need to use a higher dose of Mandelic Acid to give you the same results as Salicylic Acid. Mandelic acid doesn’t work better. If it’s preferred, it’s simply because it’s gentler on the skin. For now, I’m sticking to Salicylic acid and recommend Mandelic Acid only to clients who can’t tolerate the former.
Another option is to use Mandelic Acid and Salicylic Acid together. A 2009 study compared the efficacy and tolerability of 35% Glycolic Acid peels and 20% Salicylic-10% Mandelic Acid peels in active acne and post-acne scarring and hyperpigmentation. The results? Both are effective at treating active acne lesions and hyperpigmentation in Indian patients. But Salicylic-Mandelic Acid peels work better and have lesser side effects. I’m not surprised by these results. Glycolic acid is a great exfoliant, but it can’t get inside your pores, so it’ll never beat Salicylic Acid when it comes to fighting acne.
Mandelic Acid Side Effects
Out of all the Alpha Hydroxy Acids, Mandelic Acid is the gentlest exfoliant. It can still cause redness, peeling, and irritation, but it’s unlikely to do so – unless you’re using it too often or your skin is very sensitive. If the latter, exfoliate with a washcloth instead.
Is Mandelic Acid Safe To Use During Pregnancy?
Topical application of Mandelic Acid is safe during pregnancy, too. Peels, especially when they include other acids, are NOT.
Related: Which Ingredients Should You Avoid During Pregnancy?
Will Mandelic Acid Cause Acne?
Mandelic Acid doesn’t cause acne. But it can cause purging. To the naked eye, they both look like red, angry pimples. But there’s a big difference between the two. Let me tell you all about it.
A breakout happens when your skin produces too much sebum. The excess gets stuck in your pores, where it mixes with dead cells and bacteria. Another common cause is using skincare products with comedogenic ingredients. They too get trapped in the pores and mix with the rest of the gunk in there. Next thing you know, your skin is getting pimples left, right, and centre. A breakout lasts until you get your oil production under control or stop using the offending product (or both).
A purge happens when you speed up cellular turnover (in plain English, when you start exfoliating more). As you shed dead layers of skin cells, the breakouts that were forming underneath come to the surface sooner. A purge lasts between 4 and 6 weeks. All the acne comes out at once but, after it’s healed, you get your clear skin back.
Related: Is It A Breakout Or A Purge? How To Tell The Difference
What Are The Best Mandelic Acid Products?
- Allies Of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum ($102.00): This mandelic acid exfoliant also features salicylic and lactic acid to brighten and smoothen the complexion, plus a big dose of antioxidants to prevent premature wrinkles. It may be called a serum, but it’s an exfoliant, so use it only 3 nights a week. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Revolve, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
- Dime TBT Serum ($38.00): An anti-aging exfoliant, it uses mandelic acid to remove dead cells and brighten skin; antioxidants to fight premature aging; niacinamide to soothe redness and irritations; and natural oils to deeply moisturise skin. Available at Dermstore and UIta.
- Facetheory Mandelibright Serum 7 (£19.99): A gentle mandelic acid exfoliant enriched with niacinamide and soothing agents to even out skin tone, reduce acne, and calm down irritations. Available at Facetheory.
- The Inkey List Mandelic Acid Treatment (£10.99): If your skin can take both Mandelic Acid and retinol, this is a wonderful formula. Mandelic Acid exfoliates skin while 0.1% fight wrinkles. Both fade away dark spots and acne. Available at Boots, Cult Beauty, Sephora, and The Inkey List.
- The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA ($6.80): A simple formula with exfoliating mandelic acid and hydrating Hyaluronic Acid to smoothen out imperfectios, reduce acne, and fade away dark spots without drying out skin. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, Sephora, SpaceNK, The Ordinary, and Ulta.
The Bottom Line
Mandelic Acid is the biggest member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids family. This makes it the gentlest, but also the least effective. It exfoliates skin, fades away dark spots, and fights acne – but it takes longer to work than other acids. Use it only if you can’t tolerate other acids.