Mandelic Acid Has Been an Absolute Miracle-Worker for My Cystic Acne

Mandelic Acid Has Been an Absolute Miracle-Worker for My Cystic Acne

Over the last few months I’ve been experiencing hormonal ups and downs and, as a result, my face has become both ultra sensitive and very, very acne prone. Like, I could literally look at my skin the wrong way and boom—inflamed bumps and blotchy, uneven texture all over my cheeks and chin. Good times, right? Things only started looking up when I added mandelic acid—specifically Sofie Pavitt’s Mandelic Clearing Serum—into my skincare routine.

Mandelic acid has been a godsend for helping to clear up my hormonal acne without irritating my skin, which is why I’ve been pretty much recommending it non-stop to anyone dealing with similar skin issues as me. And I’m not the only one loving mandelic acid. Board-certified dermatologist Heather Rogers, MD, and licensed esthetician Sofie Pavitt are both big fans of the ingredient too. Ahead, everything you need to know about mandelic acid including what it is, how it works, who it’s best for, and the top face serums and skincare products to try it in.

What is mandelic acid?

Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA, derived from bitter almonds, says Dr. Rogers. Like all AHAs, mandelic acid works by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells to reveal fresh, healthy skin. The main difference between mandelic acid and other AHAs, like glycolic acid or lactic acid, is it’s molecular structure, says Dr. Rogers. “It has a larger molecule size, which leads to slower and shallower penetration into the skin and gentler exfoliation.” This makes mandelic acid an excellent choice for individuals with sensitive skin who many not be able to tolerate stronger chemical exfoliants.

How does mandelic acid benefit skin?

Mandelic acid has a ton of benefits for skin. As I mentioned earlier, the major plus for me was clearer, brighter skin. “It has antibacterial and sebum-regulating properties that help control breakouts, like blackheads, whiteheads, and cystic acne,” says Dr. Rogers. And because of its exfoliating abilities, mandelic acid can help unclog pores and even out your skin tone and texture, says Pavitt.

My go-to mandelic acid serum

Sofie Pavitt Face Mandelic Clearing Serum

Mandelic Clearing Serum

My go-to mandelic acid serum

Sofie Pavitt Face Mandelic Clearing Serum

Credit: Sofie Pavitt Face

Mandelic acid also has melanin-regulating properties, so it’s helpful for fading and preventing hyperpigmentation, like acne marks, dark spots, and melasma, adds Dr. Rogers. Overall, mandelic acid can reveal a smoother, more uniform complexion and help clear acne, fade hyperpigmentation, and even soften fine lines when used consistently.

Which is better salicylic acid or mandelic acid?

Salicylic acid isn’t better or worse than mandelic acid—they just work differently and serve different purposes. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that penetrates more deeply into pores than mandelic acid to remove excess oil and congestion, says Pavitt. Salicylic acid remains the top choice for individuals with oily and acne-prone skin due to its exceptional ability to dissolve excess oil, says Dr. Roger, but it can be very drying when used at 1 percent or higher. So if you’re acne-prone with sensitive skin like me, mandelic acid may be the better choice for you.

People also like to compare retinol and mandelic acid, but again, neither one is better than the other, just different. Yes, retinol is one of the most effective anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients in the skincare world, but it’s notoriously harsh so if you have sensitive skin it’s often difficult to use without experiencing dryness, flaking, and/or redness.

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA

Resurfacing Compound

U Beauty Resurfacing Compound
Credit: U Beauty

Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum

Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum
Credit: Allies of Skin

Mandelic Topical Acid 12%

Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%
Credit: Naturium

Can you use mandelic acid every day?

Mandelic acid is considered safe to use every day, says Dr. Rogers. If you’re new to mandelic acid or have sensitive skin, it’s wise to start with a lower concentration and gradually increase usage as your skin builds tolerance. But in general, mandelic acid is very gentle and safe to use nightly when followed with a moisturizer. “I recommend doing exfoliating or treatments at night and then using antioxidant treatments, like a like vitamin C serum, followed by a moisturizer and sunscreen in the morning,” says Dr. Rogers.

Who should not use mandelic acid?

Since mandelic acid is well-tolerated, it can be used by most people. It’s even safe for people who are pregnant or nursing. Exceptions include people on Accutane (Pavitt says she never suggest exfoliation until a client has been off the drug for at least six months) and anyone with inflamed, irritated skin. And anyone who already has a lot of active ingredients in their routine should be cautious using mandelic acid as well, says Pavitt. If you already using a retinol, try to incorporate a mandelic acid product on off nights. Or if you’re already using acne actives, like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, in the evening try slowly introducing mandelic acid into your morning routine every second or third day.

This Face Wash with Mandelic Acid

Gentle Brightening Gel Cleanser

Hyper Skin Gentle Brightening Gel Cleanser

This Liquid Exfoliator with Mandelic Acid

Turmeric Illuminating Solution

Cocokind Turmeric Illuminating Solution

These Peel Pads with Mandelic Acid

Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

This Mandelic Acid Spot Treatment

Mandelic Acid Treatment

The INKEY List Mandelic Acid Treatment

The takeaway:

Mandelic acid is a derm-favorite ingredient with a ton of impressive skincare benefits, including:

  • Preventing and treating breakouts
  • Fading hyperpigmentation
  • Smoothing rough, uneven skin texture
  • Softening the look of fine lines

Overall, mandelic acid is well-tolerated by most skin types and can be layered with other ingredients, making it an easy ingredient to incorporate into your existing skincare routine.

Meet the experts:

Why trust Cosmopolitan?

Lauren Balsamo is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan with a decade of experience researching, writing, and editing skincare stories that range from the best sunscreens for sensitive skin to the best lasers for acne scars. She regularly works with the industry’s top dermatologists and aestheticians to assess new skincare treatments, products, ingredients, and trends.

Headshot of Lauren Balsamo

Deputy Beauty Director

Lauren Balsamo is deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan, where she writes, edits, and produces all types of beauty content—from product reviews to personal essays and trend reports. She has covered beauty for nine years at Cosmopolitan and has contributed to Women’s Health and Seventeen magazines as well. Follow her on Instagram

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