Citric acid is in just about everything from skincare products, to food, to floor cleaner. While lemons aren’t really something you want to be rubbing all over your face, citric acid is something very different and is actually quite beneficial!
Here is what you need to know about citric acid and how to incorporate it into your routine.
What is Citric Acid?
Citric acid is found in, you guessed it, citrus fruits, and is what gives them their acidic flavor. Citric acid was first isolated in 1784 by a chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who was able to crystallize it from lemon juice.
And not long after, it started to appear in just about everything but particularly in cosmetics and skincare products. In 2016 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program (VCRP) stated that citric acid was used in almost every category of cosmetic products and had over 10,000 reported uses.
It is also used as a popular flavor and preservative agent in foods, soft drinks, and candies.
What Are AHAs?
Citric acid is what’s known as an alpha hydroxy acid (or AHA) in the skincare world. The most basic definition of an HA is a carboxylic acid, which is an organic acid that has at least one carboxyl (carbon double-bonded to oxygen) group. However, that general definition includes unrelated compounds like retinoic acid, L-ascorbic acid, and azelaic acid. Therefore, further qualifications (like alpha, beta, etc) need to be identified.
AHAs are non-abrasive, leave-on exfoliators that are traditionally more effective and gentle than traditional scrubs. Sun damage and overly dry or oily skin can hinder your body’s ability to properly shed dead skin cells. These obstructions can cause skin concerns like dullness, clogged pores, milia, texture, and breakouts. Using an exfoliant can help your skin clear out the dead cells to make room for the new, healthy ones. Chemical exfoliants help to prevent breakouts and premature aging and reduce the appearance of pores.
How Can Citric Acid Benefit Your Skin?
AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid can be incredibly potent, and sometimes a little too much for those with sensitive skin. That is where citric acid can be helpful! It is like the training bra of AHAs: It doesn’t really do as much as its fellow acids, but it’s made for people who don’t need the support older girls do.
But what exactly are the benefits of citric acid for the skin? Citric acid (like most all AHAs) can help to brighten skin, shrink pores, treat acne, and correct dark spots and fine lines.
Before it started being added to formulas for its exfoliating abilities, citric acid used to be used to keep the pH range of skincare products in check. The pH of cosmetics and skincare products is important because the skin’s normal pH is slightly acidic. A low acidic pH can cause ingredients to be more irritating for those with sensitive skin.
Is It Safe?
The terms “citric” and “acid” are intimidating on their own but can be downright scary when used together. Especially when it comes to something that you’re putting on your face! But according to The Derm Review, it is perfectly safe to use on the skin! “The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel reviewed scientific literature and data on the safety of citric acid and its salts and ester in 2014. This data revealed that at concentrations used in cosmetics and personal care products, citric acid and its salts and esters were not eye irritants, nor did they cause skin irritation or allergic skin reactions. Thus, CIR concluded that the available scientific data showed that citric acid, its salts, and esters were safe under current conditions of use in cosmetics and personal care products.”
Some people get freaked out by citric acid because they know that lemons are highly irritating for the skin. And while, yes, you can absolutely go overboard with citric acid, it’s safe to use.
Just be cautious, especially if you have sensitive skin. The thing with citric acid is that it can be intense. Let’s put it this way: How will you know if you’re using too much? Side effects of overuse include stinging, burning, and irritation.
If you’re still unsure, always do a patch test first to see how your skin reacts. If you don’t see any irritation or redness, start to slowly introduce it into your routine. Don’t use AHAs the same night you use retinoids or physical exfoliants because that can lead to serious damage to your skin’s barrier!
Citric acid can be an effective chemical exfoliant for those with sensitive skin. I don’t find it as effective as glycolic or lactic acid, however, but if you have tried those and found them to be too irritating, citric acid could be a great alternative!