Most people who get acne as teenagers and young adults combat their pimples with over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide products, along with a good skin care routine. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) considers these two approaches to be the "mainstay" of acne treatment. However, some acne sufferers, particular those with severe cases, need more help than that. Alpha hydroxy acids, which are used in chemical peels, may assist those with severe acne in preventing new lesions from forming.
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Acne results when the skin's sebaceous glands produce too much oil, leading to clogged pores, according to the AAD. Oily skin also provides a fertile environment for acne-causing bacteria to take hold and proliferate. Alpha hydroxy acids do not prevent the sebaceous glands from producing oil; instead, they work to regenerate, or peel off, the top layer of skin, removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores in the process. Once the skin's top layer is gone, new, clear skin forms.
The most common alpha hydroxy acids used in acne care are glycolic acids. Drug stores and other retailers sell alpha hydroxy acids directly over the counter in concentrations of up to 10 percent for do-it-yourself chemical peeling, although the AAD warns these products can irritate the skin. Dermatologists themselves can use alpha hydroxy in much higher concentrations for in-office chemical peel procedures.
Users of over-the-counter alpha hydroxy acid products say they work best in combination with benzoyl peroxide to prevent pimples from forming. If you apply the alpha hydroxy acid product immediately when you first notice skin irritation in a particular spot, it can work to regenerate the skin there and prevent the pimple from maturing, according to the acne site Acne.org. As a bonus, alpha hydroxy acid also helps combat flaky skin, and can reduce the appearance of aging and fine lines.
Meanwhile, the AAD says light chemical peels performed in a dermatologist's office using alpha hydroxy acids can help to reduce the number of pimples and loosen blackheads. Medical research backs this up: a 2008 study published in the journal "Dermatologic Surgery" looked at 20 patients who were treated with a 30 percent alpha hydroxy acid peel on one side of their faces. The patients had six peels over the course of three months, and two months after the treatments ended still had significant clearing of their acne.
Both at-home and dermatologist-applied alpha hydroxy acid treatments can cause facial irritation, according to the AAD. If redness or dryness result from use of an over-the-counter product, the AAD recommends suspending its use while the skin heals. In addition, consumers should follow package directions to avoid overuse of these alpha hydroxy acid products. Finally, alpha hydroxy acid use can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to use a sunscreen on any treated areas.