Why This On-Trend Ingredient Could Spell Bad News For Dark Skin Tones

Photographed by Natalia Mantini
Renowned for its ability to exfoliate, plump and brighten the skin almost instantly, glycolic acid has been the toast of the skincare world for quite some time. Part of the family of AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids, the wonder ingredient works by dissolving the bonds between oil and dead cells on the skin’s surface and triggering the skin to speed up cell renewal at a deeper level. This makes AHAs such as glycolic acid a go-to treatment for the likes of fine lines, acne and acne scars, dark spots and pigmentation – the latter a particular concern if your skin has a high melanin content.
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As glycolic acid has the smallest molecular weight of all the AHAs, it's fast acting, hence its popularity among dermatologists and skincare obsessives. But its potency can sometimes prove problematic, especially on darker skin tones, something Nicolas Travis, founder of Allies of Skin, recently flagged. So should those with darker skin tones try to minimise the use of glycolic acid – and perhaps AHAs altogether? Dija Ayodele, facial aesthetician and founder of the Black Skin Directory doesn’t think so, but advises proceeding with caution. "Glycolic acid is suitable for dark skin, but the problem lies in overuse. People are buying professional grade treatments online, with a low pH and high acid content, but don’t know how to use them correctly." This, she explains, can exacerbate the problem they’re trying to deal with in the first place. "If you’re looking to clear up discolouration in darker skin tones, overuse of AHAs can cause the skin to react, leading to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation – so you end up going around in circles."
Instead of glycolic acid, both Ayodele and Travis recommended gentler AHAs, such as mandelic acid. "Mandelic acid has the largest molecular structure, so it is the most gentle AHA," Travis says. Try the Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Serum, £88. "Because of this, it works better on darker skin tones as it gives all the great benefits of AHAs without any irritation and with less chance of causing any post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation."
Less is definitely more when it comes to this type of skincare, be it glycolic, mandelic or any type of AHA. Due to their strength, daily use isn’t necessary, as Dr Ewoma Ukeleghe, founder of SKNDOCTOR explains. "Unless you have particularly oily or acne-prone skin, there is no need to use AHAs daily. A couple of times a week will suffice." And according to Dr Ewoma, using a face scrub after an AHA treatment is another big no-no. "It's super important not to chemically and physically exfoliate at the same time," she stresses. "Physical exfoliation to skin already treated with AHA could cause micro-tears to skin surface, which will cause irritation, breakouts and potentially result in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation."
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And both Dr Ewoma and Ayodele point out that AHAs and sun protection should go hand in hand. "Wearing sunscreen is also so important after AHA use (even if you’ve applied it the night before)," Ayodele advises. "This is because they make skin more vulnerable to sun damage, which makes pigmentation worse. The myth of black skin not needing sunscreen is still out there and the Black Skin Directory is working hard to discredit it. You should also definitely wear a separate sunscreen, especially if you’re trying to fight discolouration. It’s pointless buying AHAs otherwise."
Other popular alternatives to AHAs are PHAs, or poly hydroxy acids. They work in a similar way but have a larger molecular structure, which means they are less likely to irritate sensitive skin types. They are slightly slower to yield results, but can be used by those with sensitive skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea. Among the popular PHAs is gluconolactone, renowned for its pigmentation-clearing prowess, which stars in products such as Neostrata’s Skin Active Tri-Therapy Lifting Serum, £79, Medik8 Brightening Powder Cleanse, £35, and Super Facialist Retinol+ Serum, £16.99.
With this in mind, Ayodele says that black women don't have to swerve AHAs altogether. "I don’t believe certain ingredients such as glycolic acid should be demonised. I think there is a lot of scaremongering in black women's skincare. Women of colour are already very wary of products and ingredients due to the lack of information about how they 'work' with their skin, and I created the Black Skin Directory for this reason. We give people the factual information they need to make a proper choice about ingredients and whether they should use them."
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