The Confusing World of Face Acids and Rosacea


The world of skincare acids can be very confusing, especially for people suffering from rosacea or sensitive skin.

While skincare marketing fills our head with names like “hyaluronic acid”, “salicylic acid”, “glycolic” and “azelaic acid”, your skin needs may need a guide to decide where to start.

Paula's Choice 1% BHA Exfoliant - image credits:

What are face acids, really?

Acid is a word we often associate with exfoliation, chemical peels (and sometimes burns).

But when used at the right concentrations, acids are actually some of the most beneficial ingredients available in skin care.

Acids are used in skincare for a range of purposes: clearing skin, fighting acne, targeting age spots, treating scars and uneven skin tone. Nowawadays we know so many names of acids thanks to skincare advertising, that it can seem overwhelming to understand what to use. Especially if you have sensitive skin and rosacea, you must really know where to start.

The word “acid” is a very broad term in chemistry. In fact, some acids are fatty acids, hydrating ingredients that are very helpful with rosacea because they work on reconstructing the skin barrier (which is compromised in subjects with rosacea).

Other types of acids are exfoliant, and that’s where you need to be careful. Exfoliating acids have different molecules, and depending on the molecules they can be irritating, or anti-inflammatory. For instance, alpha-hydroxy-acids (abbreviated, AHA) like glycolic are very nice ingredients to soften and work on the skin surface, but rosacea sufferers must stay away from them as they are potent irritants. On the other hand, BHA‘s, also known as beta-hydroxy-acids have anti-inflammatory properties that make them soothe redness, unclog pores gently, target bumps, and work on the skin surface. An example of these rosacea-friendly acids is salicylic.


It's never the single ingredient, you need to think about the whole formulation.

Quantities are important. Depending on the percentage of acid in a product, the product can be more or less irritating.

For rosacea sufferers it’s important that the product must not contain perfume, nor alcohol.

Salicylic Acid

It’s the best acid to exfoliate if you have rosacea. It keeps pores clear, and that alone helps reducing inflammations that cause pustules. It can be contained in cleansers, moisturizers, or it can come in the form of a serum. Preferably,  it should come in the form of a lotion, instead of a liquid, because it penetrates easier.

If you suffer from rosacea, it may be best if you start off easy, with something say 1% BHA, and try to add it to your routine little by little. Some people use it once a day, others once a week. My advice is to start twice a week and then slowly build up.


Hyaluronic Acid

Funny enough, hyaluronic is called an acid (for the same principle that “acid” is a very broad term), but it’s actually neither a fatty acid, nor an exfoliant. Hyaluronic acid is actually a sugar, and it has no keratolytic action – that is, it doesn’t dissolve dead cells like AHA’s and BHA’s.

Hyaluronic acid transports water, so its mere function is to restore and maintain hydration.

Azelaic Acids

Azelaic acid has been proven to be a great treatment for fighting acne, imperfections, pustules and papules. It’s a very potent anti-inflammatory ingredient for its ability to kill bacteria.

However, one thing you must know about azelaic, is that it may take 2 to 3 months to act.  Azelaic acid can cause stinging and peeling on very sensitive skins, so that’s why you need to use it in the evening and wear sunscreen and have the right formulation that gives you the right amount of product.


Contrary to popular belief, chemical exfoliation stimulates collagene production, and replenish your skin.

Chemical exfoliation through the right acids (so for rosacea that means no AHA’s at all!) enhances cellular turnover, and for this reason it’s a great ally for people whose skin barrier is compromised, like rosacea sufferers.

If you liked this article, follow me on instagram, where I will be offering more rosacea content for the upcoming Rosacea Awareness Month 2021.



Thank you to Dr. Francesca Cambuli – Manager of Education and Applied Research  at Paula’s Choice Europe for her precious insights that have inspired this post.

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