Types Of Acids Used in Hyperpigmentation Treatment And How To Pick The Right One

Types Of Acids Used in Hyperpigmentation Treatment And How To Pick The Right One

The thought of acids used in hyperpigmentation treatment might conjure up images of lab equipment boiling over with harsh chemicals. Although skincare acids are strong and can be quite corrosive, at lower strengths, they are effective treatments that can make your skin look younger, more even, and more vibrant.

Since there are so many acids on the market today, it can be hard to know which one will work for you. This article outlines all the leading skincare acids available today and highlights each acid’s main characteristics.

Let’s dig in!

I. Tranexamic acid

What is tranexamic acid?

Tranexamic acid is a synthetic byproduct of lysine used as an anti-clotting drug at higher doses and an effective hyperpigmentation treatment at lower dosages.

What does tranexamic acid treat?

Tranexamic acid treats melasma and other hyperpigmentation conditions like sunspots, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and sun damage.

How does tranexamic acid work?

Tranexamic acid inhibits melanin production in the dermis (inner layer of the skin), reducing the amount of pigmentation that appears on the skin’s surface (epidermis).

How is tranexamic acid sold?

Tranexamic acid is available in two forms: over-the-counter topical formulations and prescription-only oral tranexamic acid medication.

II. Azelaic acid

What is azelaic acid?

Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in barley, rye, and wheat with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.

What does azelaic acid treat?

Azelaic acid treats acne, acne scars, rosacea, melasma and other hyperpigmentation conditions.

How does azelaic acid work?

When treating acne, azelaic acid cleans out the pores and keeps the skin free of bacteria, allowing it to heal and rejuvenate. When used as a skin-lightening therapy, it prevents discolored cells from multiplying.

How is azelaic acid sold?

Azelaic acid topical formulations are sold over-the-counter (<10% concentration) and through a prescription (>10% concentration).

III. Glycolic acid

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (or AHA) found in sugarcane. Of all acids used in hyperpigmentation treatment, it has the lowest molecular weight, which allows it to penetrate deep into the skin.

What does glycolic acid treat?

Glycolic acid treats acne, acne scars, hyperpigmentation, photodamage, dryness, melasma and age-related fine lines.

How does glycolic acid work?

Glycolic acid works in two ways: as an exfoliant, it loosens the bonds between dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, causing them to slough off easily; as a humectant, it promotes collagen production deep within the skin.

How is glycolic acid sold?

Glycolic acid is available in various low-concentration (<12%) over-the-counter topical formulations. It is also available at higher concentrations as prescription-only formulations.

IV. Salicylic acid

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) derived from willow bark. As a fat-soluble acid, it penetrates deep into the skin, past the lipid layers to target deeper skin blemishes.

What does salicylic acid treat?

Low-concentration salicylic acid treats mild blackhead and whitehead acne. High-strength formulas are used as a peeling agent to treat acne, acne scars, age spots, hyperpigmentation, and melasma.

How does salicylic acid work?

As one of the more popular acids used in hyperpigmentation treatment, it exfoliates the skin by penetrating the skin and weakening the bonds between dead surface skin cells, causing them to slough off. As a peeling agent, it rapidly dissolves cellular bonds so the top layer of skin can exfoliate faster.

How is salicylic acid sold?

Salicylic acid is sold as low-strength over-the-counter topical formulas and prescription-only high-strength topical formulations.

Hyperpigmentation Quiz

Our Dermatologist worked closely with experts to create a skin quiz that guides you to the best hyperpigmentation treatments on the market 👇

V. Kojic acid

What is kojic acid?

Kojic acid is a byproduct of various fungi that influences pigment production in the skin. Unlike other skincare acids that exfoliate, it is primarily used as a lightening agent for hyperpigmentation.

What does kojic acid treat?

Kojic acid treats dark spots and skin discolorations in conditions like melasma, sun damage (photoaging), and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

How does kojic acid work?

Kojic acid stops the formation of tyrosine, an amino acid crucial to the production of melanin. Halting the pigmentation process fades dark spots and discolored skin areas.

How is kojic acid sold?

Kojic acid is used in many over-the-counter topical cosmetic products in strengths of 1% or less. It is also available as high-strength prescription-only topical formulas.

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VI. Ascorbic acid

What is ascorbic acid?

Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C/L-ascorbic acid) is a vital nutrient compound found in citrus foods with a wide range of uses inside the body and on the skin.

What does ascorbic acid treat?

Topical ascorbic acid treats hyperpigmentation, dryness, sunburn, photoaging, skin sagging, wrinkles, under-eye circles, and inflammation.

How does ascorbic acid work?

Ascorbic acid’s primary mechanism is collagen production. Although the skin already gets vitamin C from your diet, topical formulas increase these levels, supporting elevated collagen production.

How is ascorbic acid sold?

Topical ascorbic acid formulations from 5-15% are available OTC. Higher-strength topical formulations are available with a prescription.

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VII. Lactic acid

What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from fermenting lactose, a sugar found in milk products.

What does lactic acid treat?

Lactic acid treats acne, acne scarring, dark spots, hyperpigmentation, photoaging, and other skin blemishes.

How does lactic acid work?

Acting primarily as an exfoliant, lactic acid dissolves the bond between dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, loosening them so they can easily wash off. It also has microbial and humectant properties.

How is lactic acid sold?

Low-strength topical OTC products are available in most pharmacies. You can also get a prescription for a high-strength topical lactic acid formulation from a dermatologist.

VIII. Malic acid

What is malic acid?

Malic acid is a fruit acid derived from apples used in a wide range of beauty products as a pH adjuster (e.g., in shampoo), exfoliant, and humectant.

What does malic acid treat?

Malic acid treats acne, dry skin, photodamage, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and hyperpigmentation conditions like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma.

How does malic acid work?

Malic acid breaks down the bonds between dead surface skin cells, improving exfoliation and skin rejuvenation. It also has humectant properties that help the skin to retain more moisture.

How is malic acid sold?

Malic acid is sold as low-concentration topical over-the-counter products and high-concentration prescription-only topical formulations.

IX. Tartaric acid

What is tartaric acid?

As the name suggests, tartaric acid comes from ‘tart’ fruits like tamarinds and grapes. It is part of the AHA family of acids used in hyperpigmentation treatment alongside glycolic acid and lactic acid.

What does tartaric acid treat?

Tartaric acid treats dark spots, acne scars, acne, melasma, hyperpigmentation, dry skin, sun-damaged skin, and fine lines.

How does tartaric acid work?

Tartaric acid dissolves the bonds between dead skin cells, exfoliating them to reveal newer and more vibrant skin. It also has humectant, pH balancing, and antioxidant properties.

How is tartaric acid sold?

Tartaric acid is found in many topical OTC skincare products due to its pH-balancing qualities. It is also available in higher-strength prescription-only topical formulations.

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X. Citric acid

What is citric acid?

Citric acid is a potent alpha hydroxy acid derived from citrus fruits whose multifaceted properties treat a wide range of skin conditions, from alkaline skin to acne.

What does citric acid treat?

Citric acid clears free radicals from the skin, lightens dark spots, balances uneven skin tones, prevents wrinkles, repairs photoaging, balances skin pH, and unclogs pores.

How does citric acid work?

Like other AHA’s, citric acid acts as an exfoliant that helps shed dead skin cells, as a humectant that promotes collagen production, and as an antioxidant that reduces free radicals in the skin and shields it from UV rays.

How is citric acid sold?

Citric acid is sold as topical OTC products with up to 15% concentration. Higher concentrations are also available as prescription-only custom topical formulations.

OTC versus prescription strength formulations

Acids used in hyperpigmentation treatment are generally available as OTC products that you can buy at the pharmacy or online. However, although such formulations are a great place to start using acids to treat hyperpigmentation, they tend to use low acid concentrations to make them available to a broader market. As such, they may not be as effective at treating hyperpigmentation as their prescription-strength cousins.

Brandon Kirsch

Brandon Kirsch, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in clinical drug development and medical innovation. He is the founder of Kirsch Dermatology in Naples, Florida and is also the Chief of Dermatology at the Naples Community Hospital. Kirsch Dermatology Website Dr. Kirsch started his career as a lawyer and holds law degrees from the University of Western Ontario (LL.B.) and Georgetown (LL.M. Securities and Financial Regulation). Dr. Kirsch completed his pre-medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, medical school at Brown University, internship at the Mayo Clinic (Florida) and dermatology residency at the University of North Carolina. In partnership with the Mayo Clinic, he filed to patent a novel topical composition for the treatment of skin hyperpigmentation that he co-developed and also oversaw a successful pilot study of the formulation. Dr. Kirsch has experience with therapeutic drug development programs from pre-clinical to Phase 3 studies. He is licensed to practice medicine in California, Colorado, Florida, and North Carolina and law in New York and Ontario.

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