Bible of Acids: Anti-Acneic/Aging

All good things must come to an end. This is the final installment of our "Bible of Acids" series. Part 3 focuses on acids that will both fight acne and the signs of aging. You will notice that some of these acids could also have been listed with antioxidants as many anti-aging ingredients achieve their aims by fighting free radicals that lead to the signs of aging. However, we chose to pull these out because their functions go beyond that of just an antioxidant and puts them in a category all on their own. We will especially  spend some time clearing up the confusion between retinoic acid and retinol. Let's get into it!

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Azelaic Acid

Dicarboxylic acid or Azelaic acid is derived from grains like barley, wheat, and rye. In its natural state, it’s a white powder. However, its lab-generated form is more commonly used in skincare products due to its superior stability and effectiveness. You will often see azelaic acid listed as a synthetic ingredient and there is no research nor anecdotal evidence indicating that there are any health risk. It has rating of 1 on EWG.


Azelaic acid acts as a bactericidal against Propionibacterium Acnes, the bacteria on the skin that causes acne but also has demonstrable antibacterial activity against a number of other microorganisms that live on the skin. It fights rosacea and inflammation caused by acne, clears pores, and is a gentle leave-on exfoliant that can lighten dark spots/hyperpigmentation. While azelaic acid can provide mild exfoliation that is similar to the AHAs and BHAs discussed in part 1, it does so in a very different way and to a much lesser degree. It would be a good idea to combine azealic acid with the AHAs and or BHAs in your skincare routine. It can be applied morning or night but please do apply sunscreen during the day.

Note: Higher concentrations of azelaic acid are mostly found in prescription formulations. research has shown that azelaic acid is most effective at prescription level concentrations. However, it can also be effective over time at lower commercially available concentrations.


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Kojic Acid 

You might not be familiar with this acid. It is a by-product of the fermentation process of malting rice for use in the manufacture of sake (Japanese rice wine). While it might make a great wine, it is an unstable ingredient in cosmetic formulations. When exposed to air or sunlight it turns brown and loses its efficacy (similar to vitamin C). Most companies use Kojic dipalmitate as an alternative because it is more stable. Kojic acid is a natural skin brightener. It evens out your complexion by decreasing melanin production. Inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme that helps produce melanin. Therefore, it is added to acne treatments to lighten acne scars. This acid is sometimes cross-classified as an antioxidant that fights free radicals to stave off the signs of aging. In Japan and other parts of East Asia you can find Kojic bar soap for lightening the skin. However, you will more commonly find it in cream or gel-based formulations. We have never knowingly tried kojic acid treatments, creams, serums, etc. so do let us know if you have a personal favorite.


Nicotinamide/Niacinamide/Vitamin B3 vs. Nicotinic acid/

Nicotinamide, also known as niacinamide, is a form of vitamin B3 found in food. Natural vitamin B3 - Niacinamide or Nicotinamide - is found in many foods including yeast, meat, fish, milk, eggs, green vegetables, beans, and cereal grains. Synthetic vitamin B3 – Nicotinic acid is created using coal tar, ammonia, acids, 3-cyanopyridine, and formaldehyde.


Niacinamide often works synergistically with other nutrients to enhance their effects. It pairs well with vitamin A or vitamin C. Topical application has a stabilizing effect on the external layer of the skin, reducing water loss and improving the moisture content. Niacinamide leads to an increase in protein synthesis (e.g. keratin). In ageing skin, topical application of niacinamide improves the surface structure, smoothes out wrinkles, and inhibits sun damage. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that make it a very effective for treatment for acne and rosacea.  Niacinamide visibly improves the appearance of enlarged pores, uneven skin tone, fine lines, dullness, and a weakened skin surface. Lastly, niacin and hair growth go hand in hand because the B vitamin boosts energy and improves blood flow to the scalp.

* Check out part 2 of the Bible of Acids series for more information on combining Vitamin C and Niacinamide in your skincare routine.

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Oleic and Linoleic acids are two different acids that are often paired together in most facial oils. Oleic acid is thick, rich, healing, and has anti-aging properties. It is used as a cleansing agent and texture enhancer. Oils and oil blends that are higher in oleic acid are good for very dry skin types. Oils high in oleic acid include olive oil, safflower
oil, almond oil, and avocado oil among many others. These oils can even be more moisturizing than some of your heaviest night creams. Oils high in oleic acid and antioxidants, such as rose hip oil, argan oil, and camellia oil, work well with consistent use if you are looking for anti-aging properties as well as moisture. Linoleic acid is more astringent, anti-inflammatory, and anti-acneic. It is an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid found in corn, safflower, and sunflower oils and used as an emollient and thickening agent in cosmetics. Linoleic acid is also a fatty acid in oils but it creates a much lighter consistency, so it's better for people with sensitive, oily, or acne prone skin. Oils high in linoleic acid include passion fruit (maracuja), grapeseed, and seabuckthorn oil.

Facial oils high in oleic acid





The O.G. of anti-aging skincare: Retinoic Acid/Retin-A


Retinoic Acid is a Vitamin A derivative. Retinoids (products containing retinoic acid) exfoliate and dissolve dead skin, brighten skin, treat acne, increase collagen production, lighten dark spots, fight free radicals and photo-aging from sun exposure, and thicken the dermis to fill in fine lines and wrinkles. Retinoids are the most researched skin treatments. They first came to market in the early 1970s as an acne-fighting drug. Today they continue to be the number one treatment choice of dermatologists. Now, they have also been used to treat psoriasis, warts, wrinkles, and blotchiness caused by sun exposure, and aged skin. For aging skin, dermatologists like to prescribe tretinoin and retinoic acid (Retin-A, Renova, Refissa) because they are 100 times as potent as the retinol-containing products sold without prescription. Like several of the acids mentioned in our Bible of Acids, retinoic acid can cause irritation and make skin more sensitive to the sun. Retinoids can be used day or night but sunscreen is a must (SPF 30 or higher). If you have sensitive skin or are new to using retinoids it is a good idea to do a patch test first and begin using them every two to three days, gradual increasing usage. Using a retinol with an AHA or BHA increases it's benefits. Using a retinol with an antioxidant like vitamin C helps it to work better by stabilizing it and extending it's effectiveness.

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Retinoic acid vs. Retinol

There is some debate as to whether or not retinoic acid and retinol are one in the same. The short answer is no they are not, but they do belong to the same family. Retin-A is the acid form of vitamin A that can cause peeling, irritation, etc. Prescription retinoic acid is patented because it is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A. Retinol is the alcohol form of the vitamin A molecule and considered the purest form of vitamin A. Retinol is less irritating to the skin and great for its anti-aging properties, unclogging pores, fighting acne, and fading hyperpigmentation. Retinol slowly converts into retinoic acid.


Natural retinol alternatives

The current trend towards natural skincare has brought some criticism of retinoids because they are synthetically derived. There is something that is very important to note here: there isn't any evidence that all natural products are better than their synthetic counterparts. So before you jump on the green bandwagon make sure you understand the ingredients in your skincare products and what they do or don't do.  Just like there are synthetics that are harmful, there are natural ingredients that can do some serious damage as well.

Now back to natural retinol alternatives. One that is gaining a lot of attention right now is Bakuchiol. Bakuchiol is a plant extract that has actually been scientifically studied and proven to function the same way as retinol, stimulating the production of collagen in your skin to smooth the wrinkles you have and protect you from the ones you don’t. But unlike retinol, bakuchiol does it all without causing dryness, irritation, or flakes. It is in fact the only natural alternative, that we know of, that comes close to retinol. Then paired with other acids, like AHAs and BHAs, it can really do wonders for your skin. As always, do consult a dermatologist to determine what would be best for your skin. Especially if you have a more severe form of cystic acne.

Products with Bakuchiol:

  • Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

  • Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil

  • Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum

  • Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Creme

Other alternatives that green beauty enthusiast rave about include: 

  • Beta carotene, when ingested, converts vitamin A in your body. Topically it only acts as an antioxidant to prevent environmental damage. It will not help with acne, boost collagen, nor prevent fine lines and wrinkles.

  • Rosehip oil has high levels of vitamins C and A that will act as antioxidants and help even out your complexion but it lacks sufficient vitamin A to trigger the same collagen production as retinoids do.

There are actually several more acids that fall into this “other” category but we chose not include them for two reasons:

1. This series would  go on FOREVER!

2. Many of them work synergistically with other acids we have mentioned, are less effective than those previously mentioned, or aren’t used in sufficient concentrations to impart any noticeable change.

Whew! Now that was a lot to absorb. Fear not, we will post an easy to follow cheat sheet of all of the acids mentioned in the Bible of Acids series. It will tell you the primary function of each acid, what time of day to use them, and at what point in your routine they can be used (e.g. after toner but before moisturizer).





4.       Azelaic Acid: Evidence-based Update on Mechanism of Action and Clinical Application. Schulte BC et al. J Drugs Dermatol. (2015)


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13.   R. K. Chaudhuri and K. Bojanowski. Bakuchiol: a retinol-like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti-aging effects, International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2014, 36, 221–230.