Acids for Dark Skin Tones: A Dermatologist's Picks

Exfoliation? Brightening? Firming? There's an acid for that.

Hearing the words "acid" and "skincare" in the same sentence can be intimidating, especially if you're new to the world of alpha, beta, and poly-hydroxy acids—better known as AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs. And if you have melanin-rich skin like myself, I'm betting you're even more selective about the acids that you choose to use. Fact is, darker complexions are hyper-sensitive and prone to irritation, which can lead to lingering post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Yikes!

What do skincare acids do?

Don't know where to start? Here's a primer: You've got a laundry list of exfoliating ingredients like glycolic and lactic acids (both AHAs) as well as salicylic acid (BHA) to tackle texture, uneven skin tone, clogged pores, breakouts, and wrinkles. You also have hydrating heroes like hyaluronic acid, which addresses dryness and skin elasticity. And then there are PHAs—considered newer cousins to AHAs—such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acids, which gently exfoliate and boast antioxidants.

Which acids are best for dark skin?

So which are safe and effective for dark skin tones? I spoke with NYC dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon Michelle Henry to put the confusion to rest. Ahead, we've highlighted eight standout treatments and their benefits to inspire your next (acid) trip to the beauty counter.

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The Gentle Exfoliator
Good Genes Treatment
Sunday Riley
$85.00

This clarifying serum is a cult classic, boasting the lightweight and radiance-boosting properties of lactic acid. "This milk-based acid has similar properties as glycolic acid—an exfoliator and humectant—as it is gentle on the skin but will not strip it of moisture. It also improves the skin's texture," explains Dr. Henry. Other key ingredients include licorice and lemongrass to brighten dark spots , while prickly pear extract, aloe, and arnica work to soothe sensitivity and redness. 

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The Acne-Fighter
10% Azelaic Acid Booster
Paula's Choice
$36.00

Here's a dynamic ingredient duo that acne-prone skin types can get behind. This leave-on exfoliant includes azelaic acid which improves the texture of the skin and fades dark spots that have been left behind from breakouts as well as salicylic acid to unclog congested pores and prevent inflammation. "Those suffering from acne can benefit from using these ingredients since it clears blemishes from all angles," says Dr. Henry. 

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The Daily Hydrator
Darker Skin Tones Hyaluronic Serum
Dr. Barbara Sturm
$300.00

Dr. Barbara Sturm has a full line catered to the needs of melanin-rich skin. One standout serum is this hyaluronic acid number . This powerhouse ingredient is a molecule naturally found within our bodies, and its main purpose is to keep the skin moisturized. This gem of a serum is also formulated with lumicol which helps lighten hyperpigmentation. 

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The Complexion Clearing Gem
T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
Drunk Elephant
$90.00

This lightweight serum is jam-packed with glycolic acid and truly works while you sleep."This is a great acid for those with sensitive skin as it acts as an exfoliant and a humectant to attract moisture," explains Dr. Henry. Just a pump or two before bed and you'll awake to a fresh and youthful glow. 

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The Skin Polisher
Buchu Botanical Enzyme Polish
African Botanics
$85.00

It's important to stick to exfoliators that will get the job done without causing irritation, and here's a skin polisher that does just that. Powered by lactobionic acid, this ingredient is an antioxidant and provides a plethora of good deeds for the skin. It moisturizes, gently sloughs away dead cells, and reduces the appearance of dark spots and fine lines over time. 

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The Holy Grail Toner
LOTION P50 PIGM 400
Biologique Recherche
$103.00

If you can find it in your heart to get past the not so pleasant smell of this product you will experience an array of benefits. The gentle exfoliating, pH-balancing, and ultra-hydrating properties of gluconolactone and lactic acid team up in this toning lotion to smooth texture, brighten hyperpigmentation, reverse dullness, and protect against environmental stressors. 

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The Pigment Perfector
Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum
Allies of Skin
$92.00

Mandelic acid is another exfoliator highly regarded by derms for its skin rejuvenating powers."Like glycolic and lactic acid, this is used to gently exfoliate the skin. It is lightweight, low strength, and non-drying," explains Dr. Henry. Reach for this night serum to brighten a dull complexion, unclog congested pores, and rapidly dissolve dead skin cells. 

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The Body Pick-Me-Up
The Body Exfoliator
Nécessaire
$30.00

Do away with bacne and rough patches with this feel-good body exfoliator. It features skin-smoothing acids like gluconolactone, salicylic and lactic acids so you can experience the baby-soft skin you deserve.  

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