You probably already know about hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids—but there’s a new kid on the proverbial skincare block. Meet alpha lipoic acid, the ingredient you never knew you needed (and the good news is, it may have already snuck into some of your go-to products). Like hyaluronic acid, the skincare powerhouse occurs naturally in the human body—all the more reason it’s worth adding to your medicine cabinet. But before you dive head-first—er, face-first?—into the world of ALA, there’s a lot to know about the acid of the moment. We turned to the experts, New York City-based dermatologist Hadley King, MD, and Josie Holmes, esthetician at SKINNEY Medspa, to get all the intel on this on-the-rise ingredient. Read on to learn what alpha lipoic acid is, how it benefits your skin, and what skin types can use it (spoiler: just about everyone).
You, your skin, and alpha lipoic acid are already old pals—even if you didn’t know it. “Alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant naturally produced by the body,” explains Dr. King. “It's made inside the mitochondria of your cells, and is both water- and fat-soluble, which allows it to work in every cell or tissue in the body.” It plays a crucial role in the body, helping to regulate everything from blood sugar to body weight (so much so that taking ALA supplements has been linked to a number of health benefits, including weight loss and reducing the risk of diabetes). We also get supplemental ALA from food sources like red meat, broccoli, and spinach.
Alpha lipoic acid’s versatility—most antioxidants are only soluble in either fat or water—gives it an edge when it comes to product development too. “Because it is soluble in both fat and water, it is easy to implement into any skincare routine and is readily absorbed into the skin,” according to Holmes. ALA can be found throughout the skincare and wellness aisles, but is most commonly found in serums, moisturizers, and eye creams. “I find that the concentration levels found in serums are most effective. However, if implemented into other products the efficacy is still there,” says Holmes.
If you’re looking for anti-aging, you’ve come to the right place—however, the antioxidant’s benefits are seemingly endless. “Research has shown that alpha lipoic acid may help fight signs of skin aging,” says Dr. King. “In one study, scientists found that applying a cream containing ALA to the skin reduced fine lines, wrinkles, and skin roughness with no side effects.” Better yet, it plays well with other antioxidants, possibly even increasing their efficacy in the process. “ALA has also been found to raise the levels of other antioxidants, such as glutathione, which help protect against oxidative damage to the skin,” says Dr. King.
The ingredient may have sun-protection benefits as well, which can have both long- and short-term effects for skin. “When ALA is applied to the skin, studies have found that it incorporates itself into the skin's inner layers and offers antioxidant protection against UV rays,” says Dr. King. Still, the dermatologist adds, “More data is needed to establish efficacy.” (And no, that doesn’t mean you can skip your sunscreen!)
Holmes is an even more emphatic fan of the ingredient. “The benefits of alpha lipoic acid have been backed by science and are clinically proven,” says the esthetician. “Its antioxidant properties help stop new signs of aging from forming as it combats damage from free radicals,” says Holmes. It also helps gently exfoliate the skin and may slow the collagen breakdown process. And when it comes to antioxidant protection, it’s in a class of its own: “ALA has been shown to be 400 times more potent than vitamin C and vitamin E combined,” the esthetician adds.
Both Dr. King and Holmes agree that nearly all skin types concerned with anti-aging can use skincare products with alpha lipoic acid. “ALA is suitable for those who are looking to brighten their skin, even skin tone, improve texture, reduce signs of aging, or prevent future signs of aging,” says Holmes. (Don’t know your skin type? Check out our complete guide to finding your skin type here).
Even sensitive and acne-prone skin types can benefit from ALA, she says. “It is perfect for those who have acne-prone skin, as its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties will help to reduce symptoms.” And while those with dry skin may be wary, there’s no need. “Dry skin types can benefit from alpha lipoic acid as it regenerates healthy new cells and exfoliates dead cells,” says Holmes. “In my opinion, it is something that everyone can apply to their skin once a day, or take orally,” says Holmes.
Because alpha lipoic acid occurs naturally in our cells, the risk of side effects is low, but still a possibility. “Alpha lipoic acid is a detoxifying enzyme that increases cell turnover and exfoliation, so it may cause the skin to purge during initial use,” explains Holmes. “Purging occurs when the skin is ridding itself of excess sebum, bacteria, and dirt trapped beneath the skin that can result in breakouts.” It’s also possible that some products that contain high concentrations (five percent or more) of ALA could also cause irritation or a skin rash, she says. “With any [new] ingredient, it is important to slowly incorporate it into your skincare routine. Start by using it once or twice a week and gradually build up to daily use to help avoid side effects.”
From supplements to serums, alpha lipoic acid is one antioxidant that punches above its weight class. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an ingredient that does as much for skin with so little risk. From improving overall tone and texture to increasing cell turnover, it’s the anti-aging secret your skin has been waiting for. Holmes puts it best: “ALA benefits the overall health of our skin.” So why wait on adding it to your routine?
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