Use of Nonprescription Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

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


US Pharmacist. 2002;27(5) 

In This Article

AHA-Induced Exfoliation

The concept behind AHA use began with the use of acids such as phenol and trichloro-acetic acid by physicians to promote a chemical peel. The intent is to remove epidermal cells to expose the new skin beneath. This chemical exfoliation is carefully controlled in the physician's office to prevent acid burns.[6] However, cosmetics manufacturers realized around 1989 that lower concentrations of AHAs could also have an effect, and began marketing them aggressively, leading to widespread sales in the early 1990s.

High-concentration, low-pH AHAs produce epidermolysis, a physical separation of the epidermis from the dermis in sheet-like masses (also known as the peeling effect).[10] In nonprescription concentrations of lower pH, however, the effect of AHAs is not as dramatic. Nonprescription AHAs may reduce the strength of intercellular corneocyte bonds, disrupting the adhesion of corneocytes in the lower stratum corneum.[1] This results in accelerated cell loss and sloughing, which is the basis of exfoliation.


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