Everything You Need to Know About Using Citric Acid for Skin

A powerhouse ingredient for smoother skin.

<p>Iryna Veklich/Getty Images</p>

Iryna Veklich/Getty Images

Citric acid gets nowhere near the accolades it deserves. This versatile acid is actually found in a lot of skincare products you might already use, and works wonders to exfoliate the skin and make your skin look brighter and more even, too.

Below, we’ve asked the experts for all things citric acid, including what it’s derived from, what are its benefits, how to use it, and what might be its side effects for the skin, too. Read on to find out.

What Is Citric Acid?

Citric acid is naturally found in citric fruits such as lemons, grapefruits, limes, and oranges. According to Alex Hernandez, an esthetician and Education Development Manager at Face Reality Skincare, citric acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) used in skincare primarily to add antioxidant benefits, adjust the product’s acidity, or to promote skin renewal.

Citric Acid Benefits for Skin

“You'll frequently find citric acid in skincare formulations, but not necessarily as an active—it's often used to stabilize or adjust the pH of a product,” explains Geeta Yadav, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology. “In higher concentrations, however, it is used as an exfoliant.”

Citric acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), which means it helps break the bonds securing dead cells to the surface of your skin, sloughing them off to reveal healthier-looking and more radiant skin. According to Dr. Yadav, this helps our skin's natural cellular turnover processes, which slows as we age, contributing to the appearance of more mature skin, including fine lines, wrinkles, rough texture, and hyperpigmentation.

Considering citric acid is a natural acid, it’s gentle but can still exfoliate the skin, support hydration, and give the skin a brighter, youthful appearance. “Someone interested in evening out their skin or refreshing dull skin would benefit from using citric acid,” says Jeannette Graf, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

How to Use Citric Acid for Skin

If citric acid is being used as an AHA, it’s best used in a chemical peel formula. “I'd recommend using it at night because AHAs can make your skin sensitive to sun exposure,” explains Dr. Yadav. “It's worth noting that citric acid has been found to be more sensitizing to the skin than other AHAs; look for it blended with other products to reduce your risk of irritation.”

Citric acid is found in a variety of skincare products and will likely never be the main or key ingredient. “It is very important to ensure you’re using a balanced routine—meaning it has plenty of hydrating and moisturizing ingredients, too,” explains Hernandez. “When using AHAs such as citric acid, you must keep the skin’s protective barrier healthy in order to avoid any adverse reactions (stemming from dryness and dehydration).” Look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, bisabolol, and allantoin.

As with all new-to-you ingredients, it’s best to perform a patch test to ensure your skin doesn’t react poorly to the citric acid. Dr. Graf advises applying sunscreen when using citric acid, since your skin can become more susceptible to sun damage.

Citric Acid Side Effects

Citric acid, although considered gentle, is still an acid. That means that it has the potential to cause or worsen skin irritation. According to Dr. Graf, other factors include the concentration used and the pH of the product. “It should never be applied to skin which is broken or irritated,” warns Dr. Graf. “If someone has a skin condition such as rosacea, dermatitis, or sensitive skin, you should check with your dermatologist before using.”

What to Use Citric Acid With

Citric acid works well paired with other active acids, according to Dr. Graf. “For example, you’ll commonly see serums and toners that are formulated with a combination of citric acid with acids like salicylic, glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids,” she says. “You’ll also sometimes see citric acid combined with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin to combat the drying effects.” Dr. Graf recommends avoiding mixing citric acid with retinol, as this can be very irritating and harsh on the skin.

Dr. Yadav agrees but doesn’t love the idea of using a product that has a high level of citric acid. “I prefer citric acid blended into formulas with other AHAs at lower concentrations, like the Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, but if you're using citric acid as a star ingredient, I'd suggest avoiding the use of other formulas with high levels of AHAs, BHAs, or retinol, as this could cause irritation,” she says. When using any chemical exfoliant, you'll want to support your skin by adding in hydration and nourishment — look for humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid to boost hydration levels, then seal that hydration in with emollients like ceramides and squalane.

How Often to Use Citric Acid

Both dermatologists advised using a chemical exfoliant no more than twice per week—you want to ensure your skin isn't overly sensitized. “Twice a week is plenty to reap the benefits of a chemical peel,” says Dr. Yadav. “If you are using a formula that is designed to be used more frequently and your skin can tolerate it, you can gradually increase your use to multiple times a week.” It’s also a good idea to speak to a dermatologist to ensure that citric acid will actually meet your skin’s needs.

Best Skin Care Products With Citric Acid

1. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Universal Daily Peel Pads

In this chemical peel, citric acid is combined with multiple other AHAs, including lactic, glycolic, and malic acids, as well as beta-hydroxy acid salicylic acid, to help resurface the skin, create a more even texture and tone, and clarify pores. “I like that it also features soothing ingredients like chamomile, green tea, and soy to help counteract any potentially irritating effects of the peel,” explains Dr. Yadav.

2. Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster

This pick contains citric acid and helps in regulating the moisture barrier of skin. Dr. Graf recommends this to her patients because it also works to brighten and reduce fine lines, giving skin a hydrated, youthful appearance.

3. IMAGE Skincare VITAL C Hydrating Enzyme Masque

Another great product with citric acid that can be added to your decompressing skincare routine is the IMAGE Skincare’s VITAL C Hydrating Enzyme Masque. “This face mask does the heavy lifting for you, breaking down dead skin cells and evening out dark spots,” says Dr. Graf. “The citric acid paired with the antioxidants leaves the skin bouncy with a healthy-looking glow.”

4. Face Reality Skincare Antioxidant Scrub

Hernandez recommends the Antioxidant Scrub from Face Reality to her clients. It’s a daily, sulfate-free gel cleanser that has been formulated to include several ingredients found to be beneficial to acne-prone skin, including citric acid, witch hazel, green tea, and panthenol.

5. SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense

You might have already known about SkinCeuticals’ best-selling product, C E Ferulic, but have you tried the Blemish + Age Defense formula? This pick contains glycolic acid, citric acid, and salicylic acid to treat acne while also targeting signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, too.

6. Skinbetter Science Even Tone Correcting Serum

This is a powerful serum that contains citric acid, along with many other acids including linoleic acid, gallic acid, benzoic acid, and sorbic acid. It works really well for folks who have skin discoloration, brown spots, hyperpigmentation, and sun damage, too. Because this has a bunch of acids in it, you definitely will want to apply sunscreen after use.

7. Murad Essential-C Toner

You should expect brightened, glowing skin after using this pick from Murad regularly. It contains citric acid along with rice amino acids, coneflower extract, and vitamins C and E. While this pick contains multiple ingredients to exfoliate the skin, we also like that it has a bunch of hydrating ingredients like castor oil, sodium PCA, and witch hazel to minimize irritation.

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