6 Natural Alpha Hydroxy Acids for Smoother Skin

6 Natural Alpha Hydroxy Acids for Smoother Skin

“Is it supposed to tingle quite this much?” I remember asking the esthetician.

Reclining in the treatment chair for my supposedly relaxing pre-flight facial, I wasn’t feeling very relaxed.  As the ‘tingling’ sensation got even stronger, I debated about whether I should ‘tough it out’ and risk a red-face for the next few days, or ask her to take it off.  (This was back in my corporate road-warrior days when I had access to the business class lounge, and ahhh, pre-flight spa treatments!)

The peeling masque was eventually rinsed off (yes, I toughed it out – silly me – I now know that beauty shouldn’t hurt!) and my skin was only a little red – but oh, the texture!



Not a flake or bump in sight.

The not-so-relaxing facial I experienced was finished with a “chemical peel” mask of alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s).  You’ve probably heard about AHA’s before – they’re a popular ingredient in anti-aging skincare.  Why?  Because they are a chemical exfoliant – and reveal the layer of newer, smoother skin cells underneath.  Fortunately for us, there are less-painful (and completely natural!) sources of alpha hydroxy acids that we can include in our beauty routines at home.

Why do alpha hydroxy acids help you look younger?

As we age, our new skin cells take longer to reach the visible surface of our skin, and the older cells take longer to slough off.  (source)

Exfoliation is the process of removing the outer, older skin cells to reveal the new, smooth skin cells underneath.  There are two main types of exfoliation: physical and chemical.

Physical exfoliation is when we use a grainy substance to physically rub the old skin cells off.  Body scrubs made from salt, sugar or ground apricot pits are popular exfoliation ingredients.  You could also use a more gentle physical exfoilant like cornmeal, ground oatmeal or a muslin cloth.  (See my recipes for mocha body scrub, mint coconut sugar scrub,  brown sugar lip scrub and hot cloth cleanser)

Chemical exfoliation is when a fruit acid or milk acid is applied to the skin which breaks down the substance holding the dead skin cells to your skin, and allows them to be rinsed away.  Because this is an acidic substance, it can cause a tingling or burning sensation when used in high enough concentrations.  This process is often called a peel or peeling mask.

When we exfoliate the skin by either process, we reveal a layer of younger, smoother skin cells underneath.  This smoother skin texture (generally with clearer appearance, and a rosy glow) makes us look younger.  The effect is temporary, of course, because our skin is constantly producing new cells, and readying the old ones to slough off.

What are the natural sources of alpha hydroxy acids?

Fortunately for natural beauty lovers, you don’t need to buy harsh chemical products to give yourself a gentle, at-home chemical peel.  Many fresh fruits and food products contain natural acids which will gently exfoliate our skin.

I typically don’t include fresh fruits and foods in my beauty recipes, because of the storage factor: since they are fresh, they only keep a short time!

So rather than buying fruit especially for these recipes, I wait until I have some on-hand to eat, and then I make myself a little home facial at the same time.

Note: Alpha hydroxy acids will make your skin more sensitive to the sun.  Please use the natural ingredients below as a mask or treatment (I prefer to use these in the evening), and use a sunscreen before going outdoors.

Also, all timings given below are approximate.  You know your skin best.  If it starts to strongly tingle or burn, rinse it off immediately!  It’s always best to start with the shortest amount of time given, and increase gradually, when you know how your skin reacts.  I recommend leaving these masks on your skin from 10-30 minutes maximum.

6 natural sources of alpha hydroxy acids

Lemons + Grapefruit – Lemons and grapefruit are the strongest source of natural AHA’s in this list.  In fact, in several of my old recipe books, it suggests applying lemon juice to the skin to lighten discolorations (for example, as a natural melasma treatment) and uneven skin tone.  Be careful when applying lemon or grapefruit juice to your skin – and listen to what your body is telling you!  I’ve experimented with these myself, and definitely felt the tingle!  You can apply the juice directly, or after juicing a lemon or grapefruit to use in cooking, simply rub the pulpy peel on your face (avoiding the eye area!)  Citrus fruits in particular make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so please wear a sunscreen after using this treatment!

Papaya – Papaya is a delicious and effective exfoliating treat for the face.  Of course you can crush papaya and apply to your face like a mask, but again I like to eat the papaya, and then rub the inner peel (with a little of the flesh attached) on my face.

Pineapple – Pineapple is another great tropical exfoliating treat.  I find the peel a bit scratchy to apply directly, so I like to crush or blend fresh pineapple and apply the juice as a mask.

Tomato – It’s not just tropical fruits that contain AHA’s, you can use the inside of tomatoes as a natural anti-aging mask.  I like to use the seed pulp in the center (so you can eat the rest of the tomato in your salad!)

Plain Yogurt – Yogurt contains lactic acid which is a natural AHA.  I like to use organic, full-fat, plain yogurt for facial treatments.  Simply apply to your skin, or mix with one of the fruits above and then apply to make a fruit smoothie anti-aging mask (and throw some in a blender to drink while you’re at it!)


About the author

Amanda Cook is an author, entrepreneur, and alchemist. She helps successful women create lives of meaning & magic by connecting with the seasons. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4, The Sunday Telegraph, Natural Health UK Magazine, and more. Learn more at AmandaCook.me.

Amanda Cook is an author, entrepreneur, and alchemist. She helps successful women create lives of meaning & magic by connecting with the seasons. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4, The Sunday Telegraph, Natural Health UK Magazine, and more. Learn more at AmandaCook.me.

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  1. Always looking for natural ways to stay “younger” looking 🙂 Do you know what might help reduce darker skin over the lip area? Thanks for the tips 🙂 Can’t wait to try!

  2. Thank you for the helpful tips, any ideas on how to make a natural moisturizer for daily use with the AHA?

  3. Hello Amanda. Rather than acting as alpha-hydroxy acids, papaya and pineapple contain natural proteases–enzymes which break down protein. Papaya contains papain, pineappple contains bromelain, and kiwi contains actinidin. These natural proteases are useful as chemical exfoliants, as they allow dead cells to be loosened more readily from the skin so that they can be gently washed away.

  4. Thank you for the great post, anyway do you use only the seed pulp of the tomato or do you use all part of the tomato? 🙂

  5. I haven’t tried any of these yet, but I’ve used an apple cider vinegar toner that produced similar results (is there anything ACV isn’t good for?). I like the idea of a pineapple facial–that’s going on my must-try list. Thanks!

  6. Excellent thoughts here! I use yogurt and cucumber but you have given some delicious options! I look forward to trying- thanks for sharing!

  7. These are great! It is easy to get confused with all of the beauty products out there, the masks, the scrubs, the peels, ect. I love the natural recommendations you put out there, I will definitely be trying these as the chemical peels have always made me a little apprehensive and I have seen so many horror stories accompanying them! Thank you for sharing!

  8. I love this! Thanks for the natural recommendations!

  9. Fun tips! I use my own product line of natural products for skin care but its always nice when we grab our essential oils or refrigerator items and eat then apply! 🙂

  10. This blog was very helpful – because I am afraid of chemical peels – my sensitive skin almost always react negatively. Thanks for the list – these item are so easy to come by – I cannot wait to try them.

    1. Hi Sharon, so glad it was helpful. You’ll still feel some tingling even with these natural options, so I’d suggest starting with the yogurt (the most gentle) and listen to your skin!

    2. Hi Sharon
      If your skin is sensitive, a blend of equal part, 1tsp., organic raw honey, and a plain probiotic yogurt, has helped my skin so much! If you have any hyper pigmentation, you can also add 1/8 tsp. of turmeric to it, as I do.
      I leave this on for about 30 mins. prior to removing with warm water and a wash cloth. If you see a yellow cast (from the turmeric), saturate a cotton round with rose water and wipe face!
      Hope this helps

    1. Hi Tracey – you’ll need to listen to your skin, but I would use these masks once a week. Or alternate them weekly with a more gentle and moisturizing honey mask.

  11. So, my question is, can you both exfoliate and peel in the same pamper session? And if so, in which order? 🙂

    1. HI Ania, I wouldn’t do both at the same time – they’re both a type of exfoliation, and I think it would be too harsh on your skin. I’d do the peel once a week (or less) and not use a scrub on those days. But as always, listen to your skin, and you’ll know what feels good for you.

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