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What is mandelic acid? Experts weigh in on this gentle ingredient for sensitive skin

If your skin gets easily irritated, consider this light AHA your new go-to.
Image of two Women putting on skin lotion
TODAY Illustration / TODAY / Kara Birnbaum / Youth To The People

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Skin care issues like acne and hyperpigmentation can feel overwhelming, especially when the UVB rays cause some aversive reaction. But if your go-to products aren't cutting it, mandelic acid is a solid active ingredient to elevate your complexion while controlling the invasion of unwanted oily bumps.

To learn how to combine mandelic acid with the rest of your skin care regimen, Shop TODAY asked a few dermatologists to weigh in on the benefits of this ingredient — along with a few products that'll save the day.

What is mandelic acid?

"Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that’s a common exfoliating ingredient in over-the-counter skin care products," said board-certified dermatologist Mara Weinstein Velez, M.D. This acid is derived from bitter almonds and is often used to "address skin care issues such as dark spots, wrinkles, dullness, aging skin and acne."

While other AHAs also serve as exfoliants, mandelic acid also works "to increase cell turnover by dissolving the bonds holding skin cells together. Given its larger molecular weight, it tends to be less irritating than other types of smaller AHAs such as glycolic acid," mentioned New York-based board-certified dermatologist Tatyana Nektalova, M.D.

What are the benefits of mandelic acid?

According to Nektalova, one of the great things about this non-irritating ingredient is its ability to "improve various skin concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation and wrinkles, especially for those with sensitive skin."

Also, this gentle ingredient can accelerate cell turnover, promote collagen production and exfoliate your skin while removing dead skin cells. "As a result of that, it improves the skin’s appearance [while reducing] the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, dark marks and sun damage," added Velez.

How to use mandelic acid

Mandelic acid can be paired with other popular skin care ingredients like hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid, vitamin C, glycerin, squalane, ceramides and other hydarators.

"Oftentimes, it's found in chemical peeling agents that have multiple ingredients. [However], always seek out a board-certified dermatologist for professional-grade chemical peels if you are looking to try one!" added Velez.

Velez recommends implementing a small amount of mandelic acid to your evening skin care routine once a week after cleansing and before moisturizing to ensure skin tolerability. After, you can increase it from once to twice or three times a week in small concentrations.

"How often you use it depends on how your skin reacts," mentioned Velez. "If you have reactions to it like redness, stinging or breakouts, cut back to every other day. Be aware that since it exfoliates the skin, it can increase sun sensitivity."

If you're going to be out in the sun, Nektalova advised pairing mandelic acid with at least a SPF 30 sunscreen.

"It works well with hydrating products like hyaluronic acid and should not be used together with retinoids," she mentioned.

Mandelic acid products to shop

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

This lightweight serum from The Ordinary is formulated with 10 percent of mandelic acid to deliver a gentle exfoliation on your skin. With strong ratings across several retailers, the formula works well on acne scars, according to several reviewers.

Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%

The combination of natural fruit AHAs and niacinamide is what makes this formula super gentle on sensitive skin. According to the brand, this formula is highly efficacious in achieving radiant skin while balancing your skin's pH.

"I’ve been suffering from hormonal acne and flakiness and somehow this product cured both issues. My skin looks even, clear, and smooth," said one verified buyer.

Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant

When AHAs and antioxidants work together, it brings your skin to a level of perfect harmony. The formula helps battle clogged pores and lingering oil with its salicylic acid, mandelic acid and gluconolactone mix, resulting in a more even tone to your skin.

Neostrata Mandelic Acid Cleanser

Clarify your pores with a blend of alpha and polyhydrox acids in this gel cleanser. The formula is soap-free, which helps to control oil secretion while improving the skin's texture.

"It is a go-to cleanser for me in the evening after a day of sunscreen and/or makeup. It has helped to even out my acne-prone complexion that is in spots oily, flaky, and dry," said one buyer.

HoliFrog Shasta AHA Acid Wash

This popular face wash is ideal for dry, combination and oily skin that feels congested and dull. The acid wash formula offers key ingredients such as glycolic acid, mandelic acid, Australian caviar lime extract, tamanu and rosehip oil that exfoliate your skin while achieving small-looking pores. One verified customer said this cleanser "works really well with my acne-prone skin by limiting the amount of breakouts."

Almond Clear Body Clearing Serum

This cleansing serum has become a favorite among customers for its anti-folliculitis, anti-aging and anti-ingrown hair features. The cleanser is meant to be used all over your body while targeting acne-prone areas. Many customers also rave about how this cleanser helped their folliculitis journey.

Glo Skin Beauty Hydra-Bright Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant

This power exfoliant combines five alpha-hydroxy acids to smooth skin and minimize your fine lines. Plus, according to the brand's clinical study, 94 percent of people who used this formula experienced clearer skin after one month.

PCA Skin Pore Refining Treatment

Absorb all the stuck oil from your skin with this three-in-one treatment. The formula delivers physical, enzymatic and cellular exfoliation to minimize pores while smoothing your skin. According to customers, their pores have reduced in size after using this treatment.

Vivant Skin Care 8 Percent Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Serum

The mandelic and lactic acid in this formula work together to pause wrinkle formation while targeting acne, age spots, discoloration and wrinkles. If you need to brighten your skin, this serum is here to slow down aging and return your even-toned complexion.

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