Mandelic Acid Is The One Acne-Fighting Ingredient That’s Cleared My Skin

Views: 0

After trying every topical remedy I could get my hands on, Spironolactone was the one and only thing that actually got rid of my acne. But, after four years of being on it — and having the clearest skin of my life — I had to wean myself off, since it’s not safe to take if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. And so there I was, thrust back into the murky, frustrating world of dealing with problematic skin.

I resorted to the acne-treating staples: benzoyl peroxide, retinol, and salicylic acid (though not all at the same time, because that’s a too-harsh no-no). A couple of months went by, and the pimples — the big, red, inflamed kind — continued to crop up. It wasn’t until I spoke to some experts and began using one particular ingredient that my complexion cleared up. The ingredient in question? Mandelic acid.

What Is Mandelic Acid, Exactly?

Mandelic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that’s derived from bitter almonds and works to exfoliate the skin, says Dr. Lauren Penzi, M.D., a dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology. Compared to other chemical exfoliants and AHAs, it has a larger molecule size, which works in your favor: Essentially, this means it’s more gentle and has slower, shallower penetration.

“Because of its molecule size, it’s a good option for those with sensitive skin as it doesn’t penetrate as deeply and tends to be less irritating,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist.

As an exfoliant, it offers a slew of skin-boosting benefits. First, it helps to eliminate dead skin cells, which results in an improved overall texture and tone of the skin, says Garshick. “Mandelic acid also helps to brighten the skin, reduce hyperpigmentation, improve dullness, and leaves the skin feeling smoother and looking more radiant,” she tells Bustle.

On top of all these perks, it can smooth and plump your complexion. “Mandelic acid has been shown to have collagen-boosting effects, improving fine lines and skin suppleness,” says Dr. Teresa Song, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.

Why It’s An Acne-Fighting MVP

Despite having an impressive roster of skin-improving benefits, it’s the acne-quashing effects of mandelic acid that really make it a star, IMO. As celebrity facialist Sofie Pavitt explains, three main factors lead to a breakout: one is that your skin sheds dead skin cells more quickly than usual (aka retention hyperkeratosis); two is an increased oil production; and three is the presence of acne-causing bacteria.

Using the right exfoliant can help. “If you want to maintain and calm your acne, you want to get exfoliation in control so you can help your skin shed those dead skin cells,” says Pavitt. “That way, the oil has somewhere to go because the pore is open, and then the bacteria doesn’t have a food source since the dead skin cells are gone.”

Enter: mandelic acid. “Because it’s an AHA with a large molecule size, it doesn’t penetrate the skin super quickly, so it sits on the surface of the skin, gently dissolving buildup,” says Pavitt. “It’s also antibacterial, so it helps to eliminate and prevent the bad bacteria from popping up.” Jackpot.

How To Use It

You can apply a mandelic acid-based serum once or twice a day, depending on your preference. Just don’t layer it with other exfoliating agents such as retinoids, says Song, as it can lead to irritation.

To further target breakouts, Pavitt recommends using a mandelic serum in the a.m. and then using a benzoyl peroxide-based formula as a mask in the evening. “Spot treat areas where you’re breaking out [with the BP product], leave it on for half an hour, then wash it off and moisturize,” she says.

Products With Mandelic Acid We Love

The Cult-Favorite Serum

This has become my holy grail product. I’ve been using it for over two months now, usually twice a day, and my chin breakouts have largely vanished. It’s a super lightweight formula that also contains hyaluronic acid and panthenol, so your skin’s getting hydration, too.

The No-Frills Buy

Garshick is also a fan of this option from The Ordinary, which costs about as much as an oat milk latte. It pairs exfoliating mandelic acid with the gentle, hydrating duo of hyaluronic acid and glycerin, making it a nice go-to that’s easy to incorporate into your skin care routine.

The Sensitive Skin Option

Naturium’s serum contains 12% mandelic acid for the breakout-quashing job, and leaves your complexion nourished thanks to fruit extracts and niacinamide — all while being fragrance-free, so it’s an ideal choice for sensitive skin types.

The Liquid Exfoliant

Paula’s Choice, the beauty brand beloved by skin care aficionados for its science-backed formulas, just launched a liquid exfoliant that combines mandelic with lactic acid for a one-two skin-clearing punch.

Studies referenced:

Dayal, S. (2020). Comparative study of efficacy and safety of 45% mandelic acid versus 30% salicylic acid peels in mild-to-moderate acne vulgaris. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2020 Feb;19(2):393-399. doi: 10.1111/jocd.13168. Epub 2019 Sep 25. PMID: 31553119.

Jacobs, SW. (2018). Effects of Topical Mandelic Acid Treatment on Facial Skin Viscoelasticity. Facial Plast Surg. 2018 Dec;34(6):651-656. doi: 10.1055/s-0038-1676048. Epub 2018 Dec 4. PMID: 30513536.

McLaughlin, J. (2019). Propionibacterium acnes and Acne Vulgaris: New Insights from the Integration of Population Genetic, Multi-Omic, Biochemical and Host-Microbe Studies. Microorganisms, 7(5).

Sarkar, R. (2019). Comparative Study of 35% Glycolic Acid, 20% Salicylic–10% Mandelic Acid, and Phytic Acid Combination Peels in the Treatment of Active Acne and Postacne Pigmentation. Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, 12(3), 158-163.

Wójcik, A. (2013). Influence of azelaic and mandelic acid peels on sebum secretion in ageing women. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology/Postȩpy Dermatologii I Alergologii, 30(3), 140-145.

Yosipovitch, G. (2007). Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Derm Venereol. 2007;87(2):135-9. doi: 10.2340/00015555-0231. PMID: 17340019.


Dr. Lauren Penzi, M.D., dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology

Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., New York City-based dermatologist

Dr. Teresa Song, M.D., board-certified dermatologist

Sofie Pavitt, celebrity facialist and founder of Sofie Pavitt Face


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here