What Is Mandelic Acid? The Essential Skincare Alphabet

Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that is popular for treating acne and hyperpigmentation. However, you may know of many ingredients that do similar things. What makes this acid different?

Read more about alpha hydroxy acids here.

It’s also becoming more and more popular as a treatment for anti-aging topicals. So, what is mandelic acid and is it for you?

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Read Mandelic Acid vs Lactic Acid here.

What is mandelic acid?

It’s an alpha hydroxy acid that is derived from bitter almonds (1) – it’s vegan!

Having mostly been studied for use with acne-prone skin, it’s now becoming extremely popular with treating sensitive skin.

It can also improve skin texture, hyperpigmentation, and has use as an anti-aging tool but it’s also very gentle.

The reason it can be so gentle on skin, is because of its size – as a molecule it’s larger than glycolic acid (1).

As a result, it penetrates the skin at a slower rate. This makes it less irritating on the skin and one of the more ‘gentle’ and less irritating AHA’s.

Mandelic acid and hyperpigmentation

Most exfoliating acids an be used to treat hyperpigmentation and mandelic acid is no exception.

Whether it’s better than any other acid is very dependant on the user. However, it certainly isn’t worse than any other acid.

Take this 2016 study for example.

Ninety patients diagnosed with melasma were randomly assigned into 3 groups of 30 patients each (2).

Group A received glycolic acid (GA-35%) peel, Group B received salicylic/mandelic acid, and Group C received phytic combination peels.

Each group was primed with 4% hydroquinone and 0.05% tretinoin cream for 4 weeks before treatment. Chemical peeling was done after every 14 days in all groups until 12 weeks.

The study concluded that GA (35%) and SM acid peels are both equally efficacious and a safe treatment modality for melasma in Indian skin, and are more effective than phytic acid peels.

It also concluded salicylic/mandelic peels are better tolerated and more suitable for Indian skin.

Will it treat hyperpigmentation? Yes. Will it treat it better than what you’re currently using. It will most likely be the same. If your skin cannot tolerate another acid/treatment, using mandelic acid might be a good option.

Mandelic acid and retinol

The question here is whether you can use them together and it’s something that is repeatedly asked of science based beauty bloggers.

The answer to this has some controversy around it because many people say not to use them together and others disagree because there is not enough research to suggest they don’t work well.

Both sides don’t really answer the question because in all honesty, skincare as an industry is extremely under-researched.

The complexity of this answer can be solved by taking into consideration your skin’s sensitivity and not only the effectiveness of the combination.

Skincare will only work for you, if you can actually use it. If your skin is irritated by the use of retinol + any combination of acid, then it’s not going to work in the long run.

However, given that mandelic acid is one of the more gentle acids, this could be one of the better options for a mix with retinol.

To minimise risk of irritation try using them at different times of day, or even on different days!

Mandelic acid vs salicylic acid

Should you use them together?

Simply put, the reason you would be using either of these is to chemically exfoliate the skin, so by mixing them you would be trying to achieve more potent exfoliation of the skin.

Is it necessary? No

Should you do it? It’s probably best to leave mixing and matching chemicals to formulators. If you want to buy a product that has a combination of acids, go for it. However, I would recommend you don’t use it everyday.

By leaving it to the formulators, you aren’t risking irritating your skin and (I can’t stress this enough) using skincare should never lead to stinging, red and/or inflamed skin. It’s not going to help you get the skin you want.

It will however damage your skin’s barrier. Which will lead to other skin problems down the line. Yes, mandelic acid is more gentle than other acids but why would you be using a gentle acid to only add more acid to it?

Take it slow, your skin will appreciate it.

Product recommendations

Allies Of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum

  • alcohol-free
  • silicon-free
  • sulfate-free
  • paraben-free
  • EU-allergen-free
  • reef-safe

Buy here

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA (30 mL)

  • alcohol-free
  • silicon-free
  • fragrance-free
  • sulfate-free
  • paraben-free
  • oil-free
  • EU-allergen-free
  • reef-safe

Buy here

Drunk Elephant Sweet Pitti Deodorant Cream

  • silicon-free
  • sulfate-free
  • paraben-free
  • EU-allergen-free
  • reef-safe
  • fungal-acne safe

Buy here


(1) Dębowska, R. M., Kaszuba, A., Michalak, I., Dzwigałowska, A., Cieścińska, C., Jakimiuk, E., … & Kaszuba, A. (2015). Evaluation of the efficacy and tolerability of mandelic acid-containing cosmetic formulations for acne skin care. Dermatology Review/Przeglad Dermatologiczny102(3).

(2) Sarkar, R., Garg, V., Bansal, S., Sethi, S., & Gupta, C. (2016). Comparative evaluation of efficacy and tolerability of glycolic acid, salicylic mandelic acid, and phytic acid combination peels in melasma. Dermatologic Surgery42(3), 384-391.

Pictures courtesy of brands

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