The 4 Best Korean Skincare Products With Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

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Regular exfoliation with chemical exfoliants such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) has significant benefits for every skin type and skin concern. AHAs are similar to beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and are much less abrasive than physical exfoliants (such as scrubs). These leave-on products will gently help to shed the build up of dead skin cells, leaving your skin hydrated, smooth and vibrant. Keep reading if you’d like to know about the benefits that AHAs have for your skin and of course, what the best Korean skincare products with AHA are.

In short, you’ll find that Korean skincare products containing AHAs are quite gentle when compared to Western products (you won’t find any harsh Korean chemical peels for example). I found that the 4 best Korean skincare products containing AHAs are:

  1. COSRX – AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid
  2. Isntree – Clear Skin 8% AHA Essence
  3. By Wishtrend – Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water
  4. MIZON – AHA 8% Peeling Serum
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What Is AHA And What Does It Do For The Skin?

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a group of chemical exfoliants that are used in skincare products to gently exfoliate the build up of dead skin (although, as you’ll see AHAs have MANY other benefits).

They are small water-soluble molecules that are good at getting in between skin cells on the outer layer of the skin (where they work to unglue the bonds between dead skin cells).

The different forms of AHA currently used in skincare products are:

  • Glycolic acid – The most common form of AHA used in skincare products (as well as the most researched form). It is mostly derived from sugar cane (although it can be derived from other plants high in sugar). It also has the smallest molecular size, meaning it penetrates the skin better than other forms of AHA.
  • Lactic acid – Probably the second-most common form of AHA used in skincare products. It can be naturally derived from milk, however most lactic acid found in skincare products is derived synthetically (since the synthetic form is easier to stabilise and formulate products with).
  • Mandelic acid – This form of AHA is also known as amygdalic acid. Mandelic acid isn’t quite as effective at exfoliating dead skin cells as glycolic or lactic acids since it has a much larger molecular size. However, it’s larger size means that it’s less irritating to the skin, making it very suitable even for people with sensitive skin.
  • Malic acid – A form of AHA derived from unripened fruit. It’s used in skincare and cosmetics to adjust a product’s pH. Our bodies also produce malic acid naturally when converting carbohydrates into energy. However, there isn’t enough research to confirm whether malic acid is as effective as glycolic acid when it comes to skin exfoliation.
  • Tartaric Acid – This alpha hydroxy acid is found in many fruits, most notably grapes (although it is also found in bananas, tamarinds and citrus fruits). Its benefits to the skin are not well researched, although it is known to have antioxidant properties.
  • Citric Acid – Citric acid is a form of AHA that is found in citrus fruits. It’s used in small amounts in skincare products to adjust the pH (to prevent them from being too alkaline). Research has shown that citric acid is an effective chemical exfoliatant and that it has the ability to increase collagen production (although skincare products contain no where near the concentration required for this AHA to be effective).

As you can see, the stand-out AHA is currently glycolic acid (although science may shed more light on the benefits of the other forms of AHA in the near future).

So what can glycolic acid do for your skin?

If formulated correctly (meaning that the product has the correct pH range for glycolic acid to be effective), glycolic acid can:

  • Exfoliate the top layer of the skin (by gently breaking up the chemical bonds between dead skin cells and thereby increasing the cell turnover rate, revealing healthy and smooth new skin). This makes glycolic acid an excellent ingredient for fading hyperpigmentation.
  • Reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Improve photo-aging of the skin (AKA sun damage)
  • Increase the production of collagen and increase collagen thickness in the dermis of the skin
  • Increase the hyaluronic acid content in both the dermis and epidermis
  • Treat acne, especially whiteheads, inflamed lesions (see my article on how AHAs and BHAs can help treat acne). Glycolic acid has also been found to be an effective ingredient for fading acne scarring (both PIH and atrophic scarring)
  • Help boost hydration levels of the skin

How Does AHA Differ From BHA?

You may have already heard about beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which is also known as salicylic acid. This popular skincare ingredient is also a chemical exfoliant, with the main point of difference being that BHA is oil-soluble (remember that AHA is water-soluble).

This main difference means that while AHA unglues the bonds between dead skin cells, BHA can actually penetrate the pores to clear out the gunk that collects there.

How To Use AHA

Using an AHA (or BHA) in your skincare routine is actually really simple. It’s also not as scary as it sounds (we tend to associate burning and other nasty skin effects with the word acid). Remember that chemical exfoliants are actually much gentler on your skin than physical exfoliants (which create micro-tears in your skin).

Can You Use AHA Everyday?

How often you decide to use AHA to exfoliate your skin depends on how well your skin tolerates skincare acids as well as the concentration of AHA in the product you’re using.

If your skin is tolerating AHA well (without any burning, itching or flaking of the skin), then you could use it every day. Some people even use AHA twice daily. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to use AHA this often and your skin will see some great benefits if you’re using it every second day or even twice a week.

The best way to find out how often you need to use AHA is to start using it once a week and slowly increase the frequency of use (if you’re skin is tolerating the product well).

When In Your Skincare Routine Should You Apply AHA?

Chemical exfoliants (whether it’s an AHA or BHA product) should be applied after the cleansing steps of your skincare routine.

You should also apply any pH-adjusting toners BEFORE proceeding to exfoliate your skin, however hydrating toners should be applied AFTER exfoliating your skin.

If you’re using other actives in your routine (such as vitamin C, retinoids or BHA), the consensus is to apply them in an order of lowest pH to highest pH (with a 20-30 minute absorption period between each one). For example, if your skincare routine consists of vitamin C (in the form of L-ascorbic acid), AHA and BHA, you should apply the vitamin C serum first, followed by the BHA and then AHA.

Of course, using three actives like this in one routine may be too harsh for your skin. What I like to do is apply my vitamin C serum in the morning (daily) and either AHA or BHA in the evening.

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Why You Absolutely Shouldn’t Forget SPF If Exfoliating With AHA

AHA (especially glycolic acid) is a very small molecule that does a fantastic job getting in between the layers of skin cells – exfoliating away the dead ones. This process however can temporarily thin the top layer of your skin, meaning that it’s so important to protect your skin from sun damage by using SPF every day.

Also, exfoliation with AHA helps to fade hyperpigmentation by revealing new skin which hasn’t been pigmented with melanin. Not wearing SPF will just waste all the hard work you’ve done to fade hyperpigmentation (whether it’s PIH, sunspots or melasma). Trust me when I say, that two days in the sun without SPF is enough to make the melasma on your forehead magically re-appear.

What Are The Best Korean AHA Products?

Clearly, AHA is a very beneficial skincare ingredient and incorporating it into your skincare routine can result in massive improvements to your skin. But what are the best Korean skincare products with AHA? Which one should you try? As with all my other articles,

I’ve spent hours finding the answer for you (by reading many reviews, forums, and analyzing ingredient lists). Below are what I’ve chosen to be the 4 best Korean AHA skincare products:

1. COSRX – AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid

best korean aha skincare products cosrx aha 7 whitehead power liquid

Available at:

Yesstyle, Jolse, and Amazon

Full ingredients list:

Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Water, Butylene Glycol, Glycolic Acid (7%), Niacinamide, Sodium Hydroxide, 1,2-Hexanediol, Panthenol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Xanthan Gum, Ethyl Hexanediol

What I like about this product:

I really love the simplicity of COSRX product formulations, and the AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid is no exception. Just look at that short ingredients list! As the name suggests, this AHA liquid contains 7% glycolic acid, which makes it an affordable alternative to Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel (available at Amazon).

I also like that this product uses apple water (which contains natural AHAs) instead of just water as its main ingredient. It also contains niacinamide, which has many benefits for the skin, including that it fades hyperpigmentation, strengthens the skin’s barrier, reduces fine lines and wrinkles AND controls sebum production (read about the benefits of this powerful ingredient in another article I wrote here).

Although this product contains butylene glycol, I recently wrote an article about this skincare ingredient, which tends to get a lot of bad rap. What I found out is that a.) it’s almost impossible to avoid this skincare ingredient if you want to use Korean skincare products (it’s probably the most commonly used ingredient), and b.) lots of research conducted over many years has led to the understanding and approval that butylene glycol is a safe ingredient when used in skincare and cosmetic products.

pH of this product:

The pH of the COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid is around 4, which is near the upper end of the effectiveness range of glycolic acid. This means that the AHA in this product is still effective while being gentle on the skin too.

Texture and fragrance:

Let’s talk about the smell first, because you’re definitely gonna notice it – and you might think there’s something wrong with the product you received. But there’s nothing wrong with it. It just smells, ummm…bad (the smell is similar to burnt rubber and it does disappear after a few minutes). This is because some skincare ingredients naturally have unpleasant odours which are often covered up using essential oils or fragrances.

The off-putting smell is the trade-off to the benefits of the minimal ingredients list of this product, meaning your skin will be less prone to breaking out or becoming irritated (and who doesn’t love that?).

I’d describe the texture of this AHA liquid as slightly thicker than water. It slides easily onto the skin, isn’t sticky and is absorbed quickly.

2. Isntree – Clear Skin 8% AHA Essence

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Available at:

Yesstyle, Jolse, and SokoGlam

Full ingredients list:

Water, Glycolic Acid (4%), Lactic Acid (4%), Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Potassium Hydroxide, Morus Alba (White Mulberry) Bark Extract, Asiaticoside, Portulaca Oleracea (Green Purslane) Extract, Sodium Hyaluronate, Ginkgo Biloba (Maidenhair Tree) Nut Extract, Acorus Calamus (Sweet Flag) Root Extract, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Extract, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice Powder, Allantoin, Panthenol, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Zanthoxylum Piperitum Fruit Extract, Pulsatilla Koreana Extract, Usnea Barbata (Lichen) Extract

About Isntree:

Isntree is an affordable cruelty-free Korean skincare brand that focuses on using natural and safe ingredients in their products. This brand might have only popped into your radar this year, however it’s actually been around for a while. It was established in 2010 and a lot of their products are best-sellers in Korea (such as their Hyaluronic Acid Toner – available at Jolse).

What I like about this product:

Although this ingredients list is a little longer than the COSRX one above, most of the ingredients are plant extracts that are gentle and beneficial for the skin. It really doesn’t contain much else!

Unlike the COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid (which contains 7% glycolic acid), this essence contains 4% glycolic acid and 4% lactic acid. This means that it contains 8% AHA overall, however the formulation is a little gentler than the COSRX one (as lactic acid is gentler on the skin due to its slightly larger molecular size AND it’s also more hydrating than glycolic acid).

I also like that this essence contains asiaticoside (a compound derived from Centella asiatica) and mulberry bark extract (which both have soothing effects on the skin), as well as sodium hyaluronate and panthenol (which both have skin hydrating properties).

pH of this product:

The pH of this AHA essence is stated by the brand to be 3.5 to 4, which falls within the range of effectiveness for glycolic acid and lactic acid.

Texture and fragrance:

For those that don’t like the smell of the COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid, I’ve got good news for you because this AHA essence has no scent.

This essence is a clear liquid too, however it’s a little thicker than the COSRX one and feels more like a serum. It’s not sticky or oily and absorbs into the skin really fast.

3. By Wishtrend – Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water

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Available at:

Yesstyle and Amazon

Full ingredients list:

Water, Mandelic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Beta-Glucan, Panthenol, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Fruit Extract, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sorbitan Sesquioleate, Centella Asiatica Extract, Houttuynia Cordata Extract, Sorbitol, Dimethyl Sulfone, Chlorphenesin, Sodium Citrate, Arginine, PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Ethylhexylglycerin, Natto Gum, Carbomer

What I like about this product:

I’ve mentioned mandelic acid in a few articles on this website now because it’s a fantastic ingredient for fading hyperpigmentation AND it has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties which make it effective at treating acne.

This exfoliating liquid contains 5% mandelic acid. It’s a great option for people that want to include an AHA in their skincare routine, but have sensitive skin or like to avoid harsh AHA products in the summer months (due to the increase in photo-sensitivity associated with AHAs).

I like that this product some big skin-soothing ingredients, including beta-glucan (which is extracted from oats and has strong antioxidant properties), Centella asiatica extract (which also has acne-fighting properties), and licorice root extract (which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, control sebum production, help prevent acne AND fade hyperpigmentation).

This product also provides hydration to the skin as it contains both panthenol (vitamin B5) and and sodium hyaluronate.

pH of this product:

By Wishtrend state on their website that the pH of their Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water is 4.5 ± 1.0.

Texture and fragrance:

As the name of this exfoliator suggests, the texture is quite watery (although a little more viscous). The product has a slight natural fragrance, which is due to the almond-derived ingredients it contains.

4. MIZON – AHA 8% Peeling Serum

Available at:

Yesstyle and Amazon

Full ingredients list:

Water, Glycolic Acid, Potassium Hydroxide, Butylene Glycol, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lactate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Sodium Hyaluronate, PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Panthenol, Allantoin, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Extract, Portulaca Oleracea (Green Purslane) Extract, Carica Papaya (Papaya) Fruit Extract, Arnica Montana (Arnica) Flower Extract, Artemisia Absinthium (Mugwort) Extract, Achillea Millefolium (Common Yarrow) Extract, Gentiana Lutea (Yellow Gentian) Root Extract, Alcohol, Polyquaternium-10, Disodium EDTA, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Fragrance

What I like about this product:

This serum has been a cult-favorite among K-beauty enthusiasts for years and it’s a HG for many people who have tried it.

It contains a huge 8% glycolic acid and so many other beneficial ingredients, including:

  • panthenol and allantoin (which help keep the skin hydrated)
  • papaya fruit extract, yarrow extract and yellow gentian extract (which help to improve skin texture), AND
  • aloe vera, arnica flower extract and green purslane extract (which are anti-inflammatory ingredients that help to sooth the skin).

I really like how the dropper bottle has a pump installed in the lid, so you are sure to dispense just the right amount you need.

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pH of this product:

This AHA serum has a pH of 4.

Texture and fragrance:

This serum is a clear and viscous liquid with a slippery consistency. Although it does feel a little sticky to begin with, this feeling disappears quickly as it’s absorbed into the skin.

This product does have a fragrance, however it is mild and fresh and dissipates quickly after applying the product.

Conclusion

Exfoliating regularly with AHA can be a game changer for your skin, as this skincare ingredient can decrease fine lines and wrinkles, prevent acne, boost skin hydration and help fade hyperpigmentation.

Glycolic Acid is the most common form of AHA found in skincare products, followed by lactic acid and mandelic acid. Studies suggest that glycolic acid is the most effective form of AHA when it comes to exfoliating dead skin. This is because glycolic acid has the smallest molecular size and can therefore penetrate deeper between layers of skin cells. This property does tend to make glycolic acid more irritating to the skin than other forms of AHA – which have larger molecular sizes.

There are some excellent Korean skincare products containing glycolic acid, lactic acid or mandelic acid to choose from. I think that any of the four products I’ve listed in this article would be a great addition to a simple skincare routine. This is especially so if you have skin concerns such as acne, dry skin, fine lines and wrinkles, sun damage and hyperpigmentation (or you just want smoother, even-toned skin). Just remember to start slow when first introducing an AHA into your routine and ALWAYS wear SPF!