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How Polyhydroxy Acids May Help with Acne

Polyhydroxy Acids Work to Clear Acne by Exfoliating the Surface of the Skin, Increasing Antioxidants, Increasing Skin Moisture, Decreasing Hyperpigmentation, and Promoting the Penetration of Acne Medications

Last updated: May 07, 2019

Article Summary

Polyhydroxy acids, like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), are a group of acids that are used to treat a variety of skin conditions.

They may also be useful in treating acne through their ability to exfoliate the surface of the skin, increase antioxidants in the skin, increase skin moisture, and promote the penetration of acne medicines. However, we only have one study to date. It shows a 20% clearing of acne due to polyhydroxy acids. Therefore, if they can in fact help reduce acne, it is likely to a relatively minor degree, so they should be used alongside other acne medications.

Polyhydroxy acids may also help with the appearance of skin by reducing skin discoloration, and decreasing signs of aging.

Introduction to Polyhydroxy Acids

Polyhydroxy acids are a group of acids used to treat skin conditions like acne, dry skin, rosacea, warts, eczema, psoriasis, and skin aging. Polyhydroxy acids differ from alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) because they can act as antioxidants and increase skin moisture, and cause fewer side effects. 

  1. Antioxidants are substances that absorb skin-damaging oxidants. People with acne often have increased levels of oxidants that can damage the skin, so the antioxidant properties of polyhydroxy acids may help counteract their effects. 
  2. Hyaluronic acid is an important substance found in the skin that helps the skin to retain water and prevent it from drying out. Scientists consider polyhydroxy acids "next generation" AHAs because polyhydroxy acids increase the amount of hyaluronic acid in the skin, helping to keep the skin hydrated. 
  3. Polyhydroxy acids have a unique chemical structure, and this structure causes them to be absorbed by the skin more slowly. This causes them to produce less irritation than AHAs and BHAs. 

Researchers have only performed one study that investigated the effectiveness of polyhydroxy acids on acne, and this study found that these acids are somewhat effective at clearing acne. However, if the goal is complete clearance of acne, polyhydroxy acids should be used in combination with acne medications.1-3

Types of Polyhydroxy Acids

There are several types of polyhydroxy acids used to treat the skin, including glyceric acid, pantoic acid, ribonic acid, gluconic acid (galactonic acid), glucoheptonic acid, glucaric acid (saccharic acid), and glucuronic acid (galactoronic or iduronic acid). 

Types of Polyhydroxy Acids

How Polyhydroxy Acids Work to Clear Acne

Very little is known about how polyhydroxy acids may affect acne. Instead, researchers have used studies of polyhydroxy acids on other skin conditions to create a list of effects polyhydroxy acids have on the skin, and then used these characteristics to predict how they may work to clear acne. The effects polyhydroxy acids have on the skin include.

  • Exfoliate the skin: In normal skin, there is a constant state of renewal in which dead skin cells called corneocytes flake off the surface of the skin, and new skin cells take their place. If this renewal process is disturbed, which occurs in acne-prone skin, then a layer of corneocytes accumulates on the surface of the skin. This accumulation can lead to clogged pores and acne. Polyhydroxy acids work to break apart these corneocytes by breaking down skin cells called keratinocytes, which produce the "sticky" protein keratin and are more abundant in people with acne-prone skin. Keratin works like glue to stick the corneocytes together, and polyhydroxy acids can break down this keratin to help "pull" these dead skin cells apart. This helps to exfoliate the skin by removing the layer of dead skin cells, which helps to unclog pores and prevent acne. 
  • Increase antioxidants: Oxidants are toxic chemicals that can damage skin cells and cause inflammation of the skin. Antioxidants fight oxidants and can prevent the damage that they cause. Polyhydroxy acids are antioxidants, which means they reduce the number of harmful oxidants in the skin. Two main antioxidants are vitamins C and E, and polyhydroxy acids possess antioxidant properties comparable to both these vitamins. Antioxidants are an important factor in the treatment of acne because they help to protect skin cells from damage and inflammation, which can trigger acne development and make acne worse. 
  • Increase skin moisture: To remain healthy, the skin must contain a certain amount of water to avoid drying out and becoming flaky or crusty. Acne treatments often dry out the skin, but polyhydroxy acids work to replenish the moisture in the skin by increasing the amount of hyaluronic acid in the skin. Hyaluronic acid works by retaining water inside the skin, which helps keep the skin plump and prevents it from drying out. One polyhydroxy acid, called glucuronic acid, is one of the two major components of hyaluronic acid and, as such, helps to retain hyaluronic acid in the skin and keep the skin hydrated. The effect of polyhydroxy acids on the skin makes scientists consider them "next generation" alpha hydroxy acids. 
  • Reduce skin discoloration: Several factors can cause skin discoloration, including too much exposure to the sun, skin damage, or acne. These factors can cause the skin to become discolored with red/dark marks called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or just hyperpigmentation for short. Polyhydroxy acids may help to decrease hyperpigmentation because they can increase the rate of skin cell growth. As the skin produces more normal-looking cells, new cells replace old, discolored cells and help restore the skin's natural hue. 
  • Promote the penetration of acne medications: Polyhydroxy acids work by exfoliating the surface of the skin. This helps skin or acne medications like benzoyl peroxide be more effective by making it easier for those medications to penetrate deeper into the skin.

How Polyhydroxy Acid Helps Acne

Effects on the skin in general

  • Decrease signs of aging: Polyhydroxy acids work to decrease the signs of aging by: 
    • Increasing the amount of collagen in the skin: Collagen gives structure to the skin. If the amount of collagen decreases, a sunken look with wrinkles results. Polyhydroxy acids can increase the amount of collagen in the skin, therefore promoting a healthy skin appearance and decreasing the signs of aging. 
    • Increasing the production of new skin cells: The production of new skin cells helps the skin to appear thicker and plumper1,2,4-6

How Polyhydroxy Acid Decreases The Signs of Aging

Polyhydroxy Acid Treatments for Acne

Polyhydroxy acids are available in over-the-counter (OTC) products and professionally-administered chemical peels. 

Over-the-counter products

Normally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets guidelines regarding the concentrations of hydroxy acids in over-the-counter products, but there is no official FDA recommendation regarding concentrations of polyhydroxy acids in over-the-counter products. However, there are over-the-counter products that contain 15% gluconolactone, so the concentration in OTC products is at least up to 15%. This 15% concentration is higher than what the guidelines for other acids allow, so consumers should be cautious and start with lower concentrations before using products with higher concentrations. 

Professionally-administered peels

Like with the OTC products, there are no FDA guidelines regarding the concentration of polyhydroxy acids in professionally-administered peels. Generally, chemical peels contain a higher concentration than OTC products, so it is likely that a polyhydroxy acid peel will also contain concentrations of polyhydroxy acid higher than the 15% found in some OTC products. 

Polyhydroxy Acid Side Effects

Common side effects of polyhydroxy acid skin treatments include: 

  • Skin irritation
  • Burning
  • Stinging
  • Mild pain
  • Itching

Side Effects of Polyhydroxy Acid

Polyhydroxy acids, because of their chemical structure, are absorbed by the skin more slowly. Since they are absorbed slowly, they are gentler than AHAs and BHAs. This means that polyhydroxy acids cause fewer and milder side effects and can be tolerated by people who may not be able to tolerate AHAs and BHAs.3

Sun sensitivity

Polyhydroxy acids do not appear to increase sensitivity to the sun. 

Effects of Polyhydroxy Acids on the Skin and on Acne

Most research investigating the effect of polyhydroxy acids has focused on their ability to treat other conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, dry skin, rosacea, and skin aging. These studies have found that 10 - 15% gluconolactone, combined with corticosteroids, is especially effective at treating eczema and psoriasis. Additionally, polyhydroxy acids, combined with AHAs, are effective in the treatment of dry skin and rosacea. Polyhydroxy acids can also treat the signs of aging at 10 - 15% concentrations, and are as effective as AHAs, with fewer side effects. 

Australasian Journal of Dermatology

Researchers have only performed one study investigating the effectiveness of a polyhydroxy acid on acne patients. This 1992 study published in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology looked at the effectiveness of 14% gluconolactone on 150 acne patients. The researchers found that gluconolactone reduced mild-to-moderate acne by about 20% over 12 weeks. However, the researchers stated that gluconolactone should not be used as a standalone treatment, and would be most effective as an acne treatment in combination with acne medications like benzoyl peroxide.7

Polyhydroxy acids should not be used as a standalone acne treatement, and are most effective in combination with acne medications like benzoyl peroxide.

Summary

Polyhydroxy acids are a group of acids that are used to treat a variety of skin disorders and may be useful at treating acne. These acids affect the skin by exfoliating the skin, increasing antioxidants, increasing skin moisture, reducing skin discoloration, and decreasing the signs of aging. Researchers predict that some of these characteristics may make polyhydroxy acids a good treatment for acne, but research is needed to confirm this hypothesis. 

The Experts at Acne.org

Our team of medical doctors, biology & chemistry PhDs, and acne experts work hand-in-hand with Dan (Acne.org founder) to provide the most complete information on all things acne. If you find any errors in this article, kindly use this Feedback Form and let us know.

References:

  1. Yu, R. J. & Van Scott, E. J. Alpha-hydroxyacids and carboxylic acids. J Cosmet Dermatol 3, 76 - 87 (2004).
  2. Green, B. After 30 years ... the future of hydroxyacids. J Cosmet Dermatol 4, 44 - 45 (2005).
  3. Decker, A. & Graber, E. M. Over-the-counter acne treatments: A review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol 5, 32 - 40 (2012).
  4. Kessler, E., Flanagan, K., Chia, C., Rogers, C. & Glaser, D. A. Comparison of α- and β-hydroxy acid chemical peels in the treatment of mild to moderately severe facial acne vulgaris. Dermatol Surg 34, 45 - 51 (2008).
  5. Araviiskaia, E. & Dréno, B. The role of topical dermocosmetics in acne vulgaris. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 30, 926 - 935 (2016).
  6. Dréno, B. et al. Efficacy of superficial chemical peels in active acne management - What can we learn from the literature today? Evidence-based recommendations. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 25, 695 - 704 (2011).
  7. Hunt, M. J. & Barnetson, R. S. A comparative study of gluconolactone versus benzoyl peroxide in the treatment of acne. Australas J Dermatol 33, 131 - 134 (1992).

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