Use of Nonprescription Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

W. Steven Pray, Ph.D., R.Ph.


US Pharmacist. 2002;27(5) 

In This Article

Conflicting Information

The Internet provides a great deal of conflicting information to the consumer who contemplates the use of AHAs. A search for alpha-hydroxy acids on a popular search engine yielded 18,400 results. If the patient is diligent, he or she can obtain the various FDA documents that provide a balanced overview of the benefits and dangers of AHA use. Two FDA reports are referenced in this column.[6,8] There is also a report from which reveals that the European Commission, the administrative arm of the European Union, has examined AHAs in depth.[11] The reports of skin damage were sufficiently troubling to the committee that it considered limiting the amount of AHAs allowed in products, as well as requiring warning labels.

A report on presented the following quote from the FDA: "AHAs are unlike anything else ever introduced into the consumer market on such a wide scale. They are not your traditional cosmetics."[12] The report provided several precautions for consumers.

However, this relatively small number of cautionary reports is buried amid a landslide of websites that promote AHA-containing products with little or no disclosure that they may damage skin, or any suggestions on how to prevent skin damage.

Sellers often include questionable statements in their attempts to lure consumers into purchasing AHA-containing products. For example, describes exfoliation as a process in which the unneeded cells of the epidermis are removed, exposing the fresh living cells underneath.[13] It fails to describe the stratum corneum as a vital protective barrier, leaving the consumer with the impression that he or she should only have living cells exposed to the environment.

Another site misleadingly states that products containing AHA concentrations over 15% should be supervised by a dermatologist.[14] (A more realistic figure is 10%, or possibly even less.)

A site selling Jason Natural Cosmetics New Cell Therapy products contains descriptions of each product's benefits, but fails to provide any warnings next to each product's monograph.[15] One product containing AHAs is marketed as an eye gel which "helps to relieve dark circles and puffiness" and "strengthens the thin tissues of the gentle eye area." Another contains 12.5% AHA, and allegedly sloughs away skin cell debris for patients with acne.

Customers can also purchase a product called Alpha Hydroxy Gold (35%). The website does not specifically explain what the 35% refers to, but if it actually contains 35% AHA, the product would be a potential risk to users.[16] If it does not, it may be an attempt to mislead consumers into the belief that Alpha Hydroxy Gold (35%) is more effective than other products.

Amid all of the hype and unproven statements regarding AHA, pharmacists can provide a cautionary note in regard to avoiding AHA use, or at least give guidance to a safer product that should be used in conjunction with a high SPF sunscreen.


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