This Under-the-Radar Skincare Ingredient Is the Best Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin

No need to stress over irritation.

Adapalene Gel with Derm Input
Photo: Getty Images

In the ABCs of chemical exfoliants, mandelic acid is the one letter that's commonly forgotten. However, that's changing as more sensitive skin types are discovering that the acid offers similar benefits as other AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid without the potential irritation.

"Because its molecular size is gentler on skin (glycolic acid's molecular size is two times smaller), mandelic acid is a great option for those with sensitive skin," says Dr. Geeta Yadav, a Canada-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of Facet Dermatology.

Ahead, top skincare experts share a full rundown on mandelic acid, including its benefits, who should use it, and how to incorporate the ingredient into your skincare routine.

What Is Mandelic Acid?

This AHA is derived from bitter almonds and is used in skincare as a chemical exfoliant. "It can gently exfoliate the skin by dissolving the bonds between dead dry skin on the surface and the healthier, fresh skin underneath," says Sofie Pavitt, an esthetician based in New York City. "It also has antibacterial properties that can reduce the bacterial levels of the skin."

Because of its dual function, mandelic acid has a laundry list of skincare benefits. Dr. Yadav says the AHA can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, unclog pores, keep acne at bay, and prevent hyperpigmentation. "With regular use, it creates a brighter, clearer, and more even complexion," she says.

Mandelic acid's larger molecular size means that it penetrates that skin at a slow burn, so it offers a gentler exfoliation.

Who Should Use Mandelic Acid?

The mild nature of mandelic acid makes it a good choice for sensitive skin types who find other chemical exfoliants like glycolic and salicylic acids too harsh.

"Mandelic acid can be used by most people," Pavitt says. "It's especially good for acne-prone skin, but it also can be used as a gentle exfoliant in anyone's routine. I often recommend clients with rosacea to use this as a gentle exfoliant in their routine too." The esthetician adds that the acid also has brightening properties, so if someone is dealing with hyperpigmentation, it's a great acid to treat discoloration, too.

What Are the Side Effects of Mandelic Acid?

Like with using other AHAs, the potential side effects of mandelic acid include swelling, redness, and itching. Because the ingredient does make the skin more sensitive to UV/UVA rays, it's important to wear SPF when using products with mandelic acid.

When it doubt, do a patch test on small area of skin to ensure your skin tolerates the ingredient well.

How to Use Mandelic Acid in Your Skincare Routine

Start off slow to prevent any chances of irritation. " I always recommend to incorporate mandelic gently into a routine by starting to use once or twice a week for a few weeks, then every other day for a few weeks, then every day," says Pavitt.

Because mandelic acid can cause sensitivity to light, Dr. Yadev recommends including it in your nighttime routine. "Mandelic acid is best incorporated into your routine in the form of a daily cleanser or facial serum," the dermatologist says. "You can also use it in a chemical peel format once or twice a week."

Finally, it's important to be aware of the other active ingredients currently in your routine before adding a new one like mandelic acid into the mix. "It's also best to avoid using it with other active ingredients and exfoliators like retinol, beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and other AHAs," Dr. Yadav says. "Overdoing it with these ingredients can result in over-exfoliation, triggering sensitivity, irritation, and redness."

Pavitt says hydration is key when using exfoliants to prevent any side effects. "I like to prep the skin with a gentle, non-stripping cleanser before applying a mandelic serum," she says. "I follow this with a hydrating serum and or moisturizer. SPF is also integral for protecting the skin when using a sun sensitizing acid."

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Youth To The People Manelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant

Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant

This leave-on liquid exfoliant is packed with a blend of AHA, BHA, and PHA acids to unclog pores and smooth texture. Superfood antioxidants round out the formula and cushion the skin to boost hydration and prevent irritation.

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The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary's no-frills mandelic acid serum is a good option for anyone who prefers simple yet effective skincare products. Plumping and hydrating hyaluronic acid acts as a buffer in the formula.

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Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmnetation Corrector Night Serum

Allies of Skin Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum

If hyperpigmentation is one of your main skin concerns, Allies of Skin's serum is for mandelic acid product for you. It's formulated with AHAs, BHAs, and peptides to reduce dark spots, melasma, and sun damage, plus treats breakouts and acne scars, signs of aging, and dryness.

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Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta AHA/BHA Daily Cleansing Gel

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta AHA/BHA Daily Cleansing Gel

This gel-to-foam cleanser offers gentle exfoliation without stripping the skin. The blend of AHAs and BHAs unclogs pores, minimizes the look of fine lines, and evens out tone.

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Neostrata Mandelic Mattifying Serum

Neostrata Mandelic Mattifying Serum

Wear this serum under or over makeup to help control excess oil and reduce shine. The fragrance-free, non-comedogenic, and non-acnegenic formula is ideal for oily skin types and anyone who lives in hot and humid climates.

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Mandelic Acid vs. Glycolic Acid

While both AHAs offer similar benefits, the main difference is their molecular size and how quickly they're able to penetrate the skin. The acids also have different origins. While mandelic is derived from bitter almonds, glycolic comes from sugar cane and isn't oil soluble.

"Because it has a larger molecular structure than other AHAs, this allows mandelic acid to penetrate the skin more slowly, resulting in a more gentle exfoliating effect," Dr. Yadev says. Because glycolic acid is smaller, it can penetrate the skin more deeply, creating a more dramatic effect.

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