Estheticians approve of malic acid as an ultra-gentle way to exfoliate skin


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Photo: Getty/Lee O'Connor

When it comes to chemical exfoliants, malic acid is kind of like the odd step-sister to glycolic and lactic acids. All of these are in the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) family, which means that they break down the “glue” that holds skin cells together to reveal brighter, happier skin underneath. However, while glycolic and lactic acid make star appearances on skin-care packages left and right, you don’t often hear much about malic acid.

Derived from apples, malic acid is a gentler and less likely to irritate the skin, even for those with sensitive complexions. In my 12 years of experience being an esthetician, 90 percent of my clients that come in for peels or resurfacing products believe that acids are supposed to burn to be effective, but that is 100 percent false. Just because something isn’t irritating, doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, and that rings especially true for malic acid.

The reason that it’s gentler for most complexions is because it has a much larger molecule that glycolic and lactic acids. This limits the penetration into the skin, which can help benefit those who typically can’t tolerate harsher acids. In addition to brightening the skin, smoothing its texture, and helping lift away superficial discoloration, malic acid also helps ease unclogged pores, so that folks with mild acne can see a tremendous difference as well. “Malic acid is considered a more gentle alpha hydroxy acid  and is good for mild acne, freckles, melasma, fine lines, and a dull complexion,” says board-certified dermatologist Dina Strachan, MD, of Aglow Dermatology.

Although malic acid is gentler than any other AHA, it’s still very much acid and needs to be used with caution and care. As a professional, I have the experience and knowledge to use this amazing ingredient at higher doses but am fully aware most cannot, so here are a few products on the market that are great and safe for home use.

Shop malic acid-infused products

Mad Hippie Apple Exfoliating Serum, $35

Photo: Ulta

With all three AHA combined, this serum is your triple threat against, fine lines, discoloration, and lackluster skin. I recommend it for all skin types, especially for those looking to even skin tone.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $88

Photo: Dr. Dennis Gross

This two-step anti-aging AHA and BHA peel pad is pre-dosed with five acids, malic being one of them to visibly reduce dullness, uneven texture, pores, and dark spots. While this peel is great for all skin types, those with normal, oily, or combination skin can use it daily, while I recommend twice-a-week use for my clients with sensitive and mature skin.

Juice Beauty Green Apple Age Defy Serum, $58

Photo: Credo

This apple-based serum is clinically proven to reduce free radical damage by over 60 percent. The malic acid in this apple-rich serum will smooth fine lines and help firm for radiant, even skin while the vegetable hyaluronic acid creates a plumping effect.

Skinceuticals Renew Overnight Dry, $62

Photo: Dermstore

A double dose of exfoliation and hydration. This product gives a powerful exfoliation without sensitivity, thanks to aloe which soothes any irritation. Perfect for all skin types, those with mature or dry skin will get an added benefit from the moisturizer delivery method.

Elemis Dynamic Resurfacing Night Cream, $155

Photo: Elemis

This night cream resurfaces, restores, and hydrates all in one. The malic acid resurfaces and hydrates, while samphire has soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, whilst helping to nourish and support the skin’s moisture barrier. This product is a great option for those with mature, sensitive skin.

If you want to know more about other alpha-hydroxy acids, check up on mandelic acid and then read while all of our editors co-sign the Dr. Dennis Gross peel pads.

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