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Why Mandelic Acid Is the Best AHA for Melanin-Rich Skin

By Kaitlyn McNab, she/her

Pigmentation is tricky. And for those with melanin-rich skin, skin concerns like irritation, inflammation, and acne or breakouts can manifest differently than on those with lighter complexions. A common byproduct of these concerns is hyperpigmentation, like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which people with darker skin are more prone to than other skin tones. An effective way to treat hyperpigmentation is using chemical exfoliation—specifically AHAs. But in the same way that some skin concerns affect darker skin tones differently, the overuse of some AHAs can actually trigger a reaction and more PIH in darker skin. Thankfully, mandelic acid exists—and it’s better for melanin-rich skin. 

The most gentle AHA, mandelic acid is an excellent choice for melanin-rich skin due to its ability to lift dull surface skin cells, even tone, and smooth texture—without irritation. Youth To The People tapped a roster of melanin-rich skin experts, dermatologists, and estheticians to share their experiences, advice, and insights on all things mandelic acid.

THE INTEL

“With darker skin tones, we tend to trauma easily,” says Samantha Mims, a New York-based skin therapist and founder of the holistic skincare service and brand Dermasaa. “Our skin traumatizes [sic] a little bit easier than others. So therefore, produces a lot more hyperpigmentation when we have inflammatory responses — that being sensitivity to a product [or] breakouts.”

Yuri London, a licensed esthetician and content creator whose clients are mostly people with richer and deeper complexions, agrees wholeheartedly. 

“Because of how our skin tone responds to the trauma and the cells turning over quicker, it’s going to produce more melanin,” London explains. “The body thinks that it’s being attacked, so it’s like we have to help heal this area, so the melanocytes in your skin instantly go to that area. When you’re exfoliating or [having] a breakout, depending on your skin type as well as your skin tone, you can get more hyperpigmentation from just exfoliating.” 

For this reason, London says that mandelic acid is the AHA people with melanin-rich skin should reach for

“Especially when you jump right into AHAs, you might get rebound pigmentation,” says Joi Tynes, a New York-based licensed esthetician who specializes in full body waxing, facials, and intimate body care. “Some people say ‘Oh yeah, I used that but I found that my skin got way darker.’ But maybe that was just not the AHA for you. There’s so many out there, and mandelic acid, usually nine times out of ten, will definitely help get you better results without the risk of irritating the skin or sensitizing it than other AHAs.”

Dr. Hope Mitchell, an Ohio and Michigan board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist breaks down why: 

“Mandelic acid is the gentlest and largest alpha hydroxy acid molecule, derived from bitter almonds. I love that it penetrates the skin slower than other AHAs, yet still does so much on the surface of the skin—making it a great option for all skin types, including sensitive skin. It is best known for its use to treat acne but it is also used to diminish redness, improve hyperpigmentation, dullness, and texture, and promote collagen and elastin production.” 

According to Dr. Mitchell, mandelic acid’s large molecule size allows it to absorb slowly into the skin, minimizing irritation while it exfoliates. Mandelic acid is also antibacterial and can help reduce breakouts. “Mandelic acid can never go wrong,” adds Mims.

Mandelic acid’s versatility is what allows it to be included in a range of skincare products, including the Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant. “[I’ve seen mandelic acid] included in serums, cleansers, and even toning-type of solutions,” says Mims. “For example, YTTP’s Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant is a relevant way to include mandelic acid.”
Those with darker skin tones can greatly benefit from the largest and most gentle AHA, but how often should they use it?

Both London and Mims agree that acid-beginners should start slow and build the skin’s tolerance up. 

“If you’re more experienced with acids and you have resilient skin, I think that because mandelic acid is so gentle, you could use it daily,” shares London. “I personally use it daily, in the morning because I use different acids at night. But I’m also covering myself in sunscreen, not going outside without a hat on and protective sun clothing!” 

All four skin experts emphasize that SPF is absolutely necessary when incorporating mandelic acid in your skincare routine, or any acid for that matter. 

“The skin should always be protected from the sun, and it is even more important to do so especially with exfoliation or the treatment of hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Without proper protection, the skin could pigment further.” 

The only further precaution one should take when using mandelic acid is to be mindful of its extraction process. “Myself, I do have a nut allergy,” shares Tynes. “But I can actually still use mandelic acid—you have to use discretion.” Basically, check into the sourcing if you have concerns about nut allergies or sensitivities. “Usually it’s lab-made,” says Tynes, “so you don’t have to worry about that specific issue.”

For the record, the mandelic acid Youth To The People formulates with, like in the Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant, is synthetically made—read more about synthetics in skincare here.

Written by Kaitlyn McNab for Youth To The People