Fashion & Beauty

Acid Trips

April 2, 2023



By Valerie Monroe

For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column. She now splits her time between Manhattan and Tokyo.

If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at

Can’t get enough Valerie Monroe? There’s more at

“ASK VAL” answers your urgent questions, Vol. 30.

Yes, you in the Clark Kent glasses working on—a spreadsheet?

Q: My research shows that salicylic acid (or sal acid) pads marketed to teens for acne relief are far less expensive than most other pads marketed as beauty treatments. Can sal acid be used as an exfoliator the same way pricier glycolic or lactic acid is?

A: Your query popped up right before I mentioned recently that I’ve been using a cleanser containing sal acid because I like the exfoliation effect. (By the way, treatment cleansers are generally a waste of money because the treatment isn’t on your skin long enough to be effective. A cleanser with sal acid is the exception.) I emailed dermatologist Heidi Waldorf—who I’m honored to report has become HNTFUYF’s resident DermDiva—for her expertise.

First, a few words about categories of exfoliating acids. The ones you’re mostly likely to encounter are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic, lactic, or malic; beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic; and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), which are gentler AHAs. Their purpose is to help sweep away dead skin cells to reveal a brighter complexion. Your skin exfoliates naturally, so acid treatments aren’t a necessary step in a skincare routine. But I’ve used them on and off for years and have been pleased with the way they seemed to nudge my complexion in the direction of . . . fresher.

As for your question about sal acid specifically, Waldorf confirms it can be used as an exfoliator—but its main benefit is its ability to loosen the sticky cells in pores because it’s attracted to oil. So it’s best for those with oily skin, or acne, or used in combination with other ingredients. Waldorf recommends Aveeno’s Clear Complexion products,which include moisturizing soy. She also likes La Roche-Posay’s Pigmentclar and Effaclar lines, which contain micro-exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid, a second-generation salicylic acid that’s gentler.

But for effects beyond exfoliation—like smoothing fine lines and evening out texture—Waldorf recommends AHAs. (For sensitive skin, PHAs can be an effective alternative.) The Neostrata brand has a full range of AHAs and PHAs. If you like sampling everything on a menu, you can find exfoliating pads that contain both AHAs and BHAs.

You know what I said a couple paragraphs ago about how the acids “seemed to” work on my skin? That made me think about cause and effect, which then led me to this (I admit, loosely related) story.

During a visit to see my mom when she was very old, I remember noticing that her skin looked uncharacteristically troubled. (“Troubled” skin; what a concept.) She had mysteriously accumulated whiteheads on her previously (by which I mean 93-year-old) unblemished cheeks. When I asked if she had changed anything about her skincare, she pulled out a frosted jar the size of a small cantaloupe she’d found under her bathroom sink. She didn’t know its provenance but loved the stuff because it relieved her dry skin. I unscrewed the Rococo-style metal lid; the smell of a thousand jasmine blossoms flew up into my face. (Fragrance can be one of the more irritating skincare ingredients.) The consistency of the cream—for the body, obviously—was like crème fraîche. I think I encouraged Mom to switch to Aquaphor and soon her troubles disappeared. Which is to say that it does matter what you slap on your face; but if I know you, you’re more likely to be resolutely applying something, hoping for a marvel, that does little or nothing for your complexion rather than something damaging. If you do decide to try acid treatment pads, be aware of the potentially irritating factors (like a retinoid) in your other skincare products.


As I’ve previously mentioned, there are a lot of things I love about Japan. That includes the toilets. You may already know something about Japanese toilets; you can buy the popular brand Toto in the US. The most luxurious models offer a sensitive seat-heating system, along with various options—direction and intensity of water-stream—for a wash and even a creative sound system to relax you if you prefer the feeling of relieving yourself while perched under a waterfall or in a meadow serenaded by birdsong. It’s hard to get back to TP after a Toto experience. As for the cleanliness aspect, I think my son put it best: “Mom, if a pigeon pooped on your head, would you be cleaner if you wiped it off with toilet paper or if you showered?” A pigeon did poop on my head once. It didn’t take me a second to make my choice.

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