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Alternatives to Acids

For many years, acids were the profit-producing darlings of the skin care industry and skin care professionals believed they were the answer to younger-looking and acne-prone skin. But now, with new products and services developing, the days of ‘always make’em peel’ are moving into the past and professionals are coming to believe acids should not be the only tool for anti-aging, but a tool-among-many. More and more are utilizing them in specifically indicated cases only and are finding other alternatives available to them. 

Reasons for Alternatives
Acids have been very important to the success of the skin care industry, but some have reasons for avoiding their use, some completely avoid them, and others use them only-when-indicated. Following are some of the reasons alternatives are becoming popular.
Summer hiatus. A general belief in the industry is that acids should not be utilized as professional treatments in the summer months due to potential damage by the more aggressive sunrays. Alternatives are also widely considered by those professionals who live in the areas where the sun is high more months of the year. These professionals are concerned about the commitment of their clients to sunscreen during the high-sun months so shy away from acid-based treatments for some clients, seeking out other treatment measures and basing much of their practice on alternatives to acids.
Stripping the skin. Holistic aesthetic practitioners believe that using acids in certain percentages, either in professional treatments or through ongoing use in home care, can strip the skin of its healthful barrier, ultimately causing damage and aging. These professionals believe in building the hydration and health of the skin, allowing it to holistically fight off the ravages of the environment, acne, and aging, and look for alternatives to meet these goals.
No to acids on young skin. For years, aestheticians were applying glycolic to anyone that would sit in their chair. Even 30 year olds and younger with youthful skin were accepted as candidates. Now, however, experienced and ‘thinking’ aestheticians are wondering…. The skin of these clients is still turning over at a healthful rate. What are we doing to their skin when applying acids unnecessarily at an early age? What alternatives other than acids will provide their skin with the glow and health they are seeking?
Developing sensitivities. Many clients are now seeing the results of constant and aggressive glycolic use: the development of sensitive skin. This author developed skin sensitive to acids due to excessive use of glycolic in the ‘90s. High acids are no longer a choice for me in anti-aging. What a dilemma for a ‘mature person’! What can be done for me now? Should we be choosing to use fewer acids when other treatments are available and until they are a must-use?
The Inflammation Theory. Many professionals have become concerned about the irritation produced by the use of constant acids in home care and high acids used in treatments. Their theory concerns the production of free radicals by skin irritation during treatments and home care. Is the treatment causing aging instead of repairing it? Are there alternatives to acids that can deter the irritation that causes the free radicals?
The Fitzpatrick Skin Evaluation Scale. Knowledgeable skin care professionals know the Fitzpatrick and use it in their evaluation of their client’s skin. Traditionally, they use it to determine the potential tendency of their client to hyperpigment, but know now that they must also look at the client’s tendency for erythema (irritation). The higher the Fitzpatrick grade, 4, 5 and 6, the more tendency to hyperpigment. The lower Fitzpatrick grades, 1 and 2, tend to become erythemic. So, should the skin professional consider alternatives to acids for the higher and lower the Fitzpatrick grades in treating the client?

Alternative Choices

Vitamin C Series. You have a client with young skin, turning over at a nice rate and she asks you for a peel. She sees her skin as aging and ‘less than,’ though you believe it is in good condition, possibly just needing more glow or evening in tone. Do you do an acid? Turn her down? She is going to get her treatment somewhere so, instead, offer her a vitamin C Series. Though it is an ‘acid,’ it’s not the aggressive acid we are discussing with AHAs and BHAs, it is gentle and pleasant.
This treatment can also be offered to the acid junky that wants more and more. Offer her a vitamin C series. It will give her skin a glow and extend the treatment she had last.
Many companies offer mix-at-the-chair vitamin C treatments that are highly antioxidant and lightening/brightening; they are great for the skin, even for older skin that just needs more even tones. After mixing at the first treatment, the product holds its efficacy well during the series of six, and produces the results the clients want. At the end of the series, the skin has developed an even tone and a healthy glow the client will appreciate….without the un-needed side effects of the more aggressive acids.
This mix-at-the-chair treatment is performed much like an acid, with an enzyme deep cleansing first, then application of the vitamin C mixture. Many aestheticians apply a highly moisturizing mask post vitamin C to push up the hydration of the skin. It’s perfect for this client.
Dermabrasion Wand: This new implement is actually a set of several wands of increasing coarseness. The professional chooses the wand according to the condition of the skin, the skin’s Fitzpatrick, and the desired result. The skin is prepared the same as for an acid treatment, and then the implement is moved across the skin in a coverage pattern, gently exfoliating the skin. After the treatment, a mask is applied to hydrate the skin.
The dermabrasion wand exfoliates the skin with little or no irritation while stimulating the dermis to reproduce due to the removal of the stratum corneum. The surface of the skin is smoother and more even, producing more youthful and even toned skin.
Many professionals prefer the gentleness of the dermabrasion wand to microdermabrasion and acids, and, of course, the cost is much less than a microdermabrasion machine. They also like the high amount of control that they can have versus the microdermabrasion machine and acids.
Enzymes. Though many in the industry call these treatments ‘peels,’ they are not peels, they are chemical exfoliants, valuable ones that do not have the side effects of acids. They are proteins, generally derived from fruits, such as papaya (pepsin) and pineapple (bromelain) and other sources, even mushrooms. They ‘digest’ the dead cells on the surface of the skin without harming live cells. They ‘turn off’ naturally, with no danger of over exfoliation and harmful side effects. They produce a more youthful, glowing and even toned skin surface as a result of the removal of the dull, dead cells. They also open the skin to improved penetration of the ingredients of their home care products.
A client who is not a candidate for an acid can enjoy enhancement of the appearance of her skin through a series of six of these treatments, followed in each treatment by a deep hydration mask after removal. All Fitzpatrick grades can enjoy enzyme treatments with no problems, as can clients with sensitive skin and Rosacea. Teamed with dermal building peptides and intense hydration in home care, this series can produce good results for the anti-aging client. It’s also a great series for acne-prone and oily skin for removal of debris from the surface, preventing blockage and enabling penetration of products.
Herbal Masks. These resurfacers are plant and herb-based exfoliators which resurface with no down time and no irritation. The products are applied to the skin then either used as a scrub or allowed to sit on the skin for a specific time. They are non-acid resurfacers offered by several companies who do not support use of AHAs, BHAs or microdermabrasion. Certain ones are used as series, but others are used only seasonally or, at most, monthly.
LED (Light Emitting Diode). Since being introduced, this modality has enjoyed wonderful success in aesthetic skin care. LED rays are proven to safely and effectively penetrate the skin and convert light energy into cellular energy, stimulating the fibroblasts to produce collagen. It is non-wounding, with no downtime or discomfort. The blue light therapy, a wavelength of 430nm, penetrates only to the sebaceous glands, producing singlet oxygen, a deadly bacteriocide that kills the P. acnes bacteria and treats acne vulgaris, showing reductions in both comedones and inflammatory acne lesions. Remarkable results are noted for Rosacea, also.
Red and near infrared LEDs, with wavelengths of 660nm (red light) and 950nm (near infrared), use photostimulation on the fibroblasts to trigger the reproduction of collagen and elastin in the dermis, bringing rejuvenation to the skin. Light energy is converted into cell energy, utilizing the cell’s own energy to produce this rejuvenation and increased collagen deposition, the true basis for anti-aging claims. Post-treatment results show continued improvements for as long as months.
LEDs are great to use as a dual modality with other treatments, post-treatment mask and after a hydration mask.
Microdermabrasion. Of course, microdermabrasion is an alternative to acids, also. This service has the same efficacy as acids but from a physical resource, not a chemical one. It resurfaces, stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, and brings the skin to a glow, just like with the use of AHAs. But most skin professionals consider the same restrictions for microdermabrasion as for acids, such as for erythema or hyperpigmentation through evaluation of the skin’s Fitzpatrick Scale, and no treatments during the summer. For these reasons, microdermabrasion is an alternative to acids, but has more restrictions than many of the others listed. It is a great alternative for those sensitive to acids, however, keeping in mind the restrictions.

Home care Needs

These series need the same supportive home care as acids and other treatments do for attaining and maintaining results. The home care should be prescribed according to the condition of the client’s skin and her goals, and should contain hydrators and supportive treatment ingredients.
SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is a ‘must’ for skin care professionals to prescribe, especially to clients who are resurfacing in their home care or professional treatments. In 1997, the FDA published a requirement from their Cosmetic Ingredient Review board requiring recommendation of SPF when a professional is performing resurfacing treatments or prescribing home care containing exfoliators.
Acids are an important part of our industry and their use should be learned and understood, along with their indications and contraindications, to support their positive use. However, a wise professional develops a complete toolbox of treatments, including alternative products for when acids are not the best choice for their clients. Many alternatives exist and should be learned and available for our clients.

Janet McCormick, M.S., is a licensed nail technician and aesthetician, a former salon owner, seasoned instructor of nails and skin care skill, consultant and author. McCormick has achieved status as a CIDESCO diplomate and holds a master’s degree in allied health management. She has authored over 200 skill and business articles in industry trade magazines. Her newest book, Spa Manicuring for Salons and Spas, describes a new, profitable focus for the industry: skin care based manicuring. Janet may be contacted via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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