Skip to content

Mandelic Acid: Why It's A+ For Sensitive Skin, How To Use It & Best Products

Jamie Schneider
Author: Medical reviewer:
Updated on August 8, 2023
Jamie Schneider
Beauty & Health Editor
By Jamie Schneider
Beauty & Health Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Apple Bodemer, M.D.
Medical review by
Apple Bodemer, M.D.
Dr. Apple Bodemer is board certified in both Dermatology and Integrative Medicine. She is an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, and sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Integrative Dermatology.
August 8, 2023
We carefully vet all products and services featured on mindbodygreen using our commerce guidelines. Our selections are never influenced by the commissions earned from our links.

How familiar are you with your exfoliating ABCs? Some players definitely receive more fanfare than others (glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid are widely known crowd-pleasers), but we suggest another ingredient that deserves a space on your shelf, especially if you have sensitive skin: mandelic acid. 

This lesser-known acid buffs your skin smooth without ravaging your complexion raw—below, derms explain everything you need to know.  

What is mandelic acid?

Mandelic acid is a member of the alpha-hydroxy acid family, which means its main gig is to exfoliate, brighten, and stimulate cell turnover. Like several other AHAs, it's derived from plants—in mandelic's case, bitter almonds—and it hydrates the skin while sloughing off dead cells.

As board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., tells us about the acid family: "They can be simultaneously exfoliating and hydrating, making them very beneficial to many skin types." 

Some AHAs can be more intense than others—glycolic acid, for example, has the smallest molecular weight of the bunch, which means it can penetrate the skin's outer layer quite easily. Mandelic acid, on the other hand, is larger in molecular size (even larger than lactic acid!), which may make it more tolerable for easily irritated skin types.

"It's my absolute favorite AHA—way underrated in my opinion—as it is the most gentle," says board-certified dermatologist Roberta Del Campo, M.D. "Meaning, anyone can use it, but it is just as effective as other AHAs, such as lactic acid and glycolic acid."

What is mandelic acid?

Mandelic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid that’s naturally found in nature as an extract of bitter almonds. It’s an exfoliant that can slough away dead skin cells, brighten tone, even out the complexion, and smooth fine lines. It has a larger molecular weight than other AHAs, which means it doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply and therefore is more gentle. 

Mandelic acid benefits for the skin

As mentioned above, mandelic acid is an exfoliant. This means it helps:

  1. Shed dead skin cells
  2. Encourage skin cell turnover
  3. Fade dark spots & even tone
  4. Unclog pores
  5. Soften the look of fine lines
  6. Great for sensitive skin

But let's break down those benefits even further.


Helps shed dead skin

"AHAs exfoliate skin by breaking the connection between dead skin cells in the top dead skin cell layer, called the stratum corneum," says board-certified dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care.

Sloughing off dead skin cells can prevent buildup (which commonly leads to gripes like dullness and clogged pores) and provide you with a lit-from-within glow.  


Stimulates cell turnover

"Exfoliation can improve skin circulation, encourage skin turnover, and improve the absorption of certain skin care products," board-certified dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, M.D., once told mbg.

This benefit can also help soften the appearance of fine lines: One 2013 study found that chemical peels containing mandelic acid were able to help stimulate collagen production and reduce signs of aging1.


Fades dark spots

By promoting cell turnover, you can help push fresh, baby skin cells up to the surface—which can lessen the appearance of dark spots.

In fact, a skin care regimen containing mandelic acid and vitamin C was associated with a 73% improvement in the appearance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma1


Unclogs pores

"Mandelic acid has a unique affinity for oil compared to other AHAs," says Bailey. "It can penetrate deeper into oily pores and has even been shown to reduce [excess] sebum production and oily shine2."

Typically, BHAs (like salicylic acid) are beloved for their ability to break through oil and unclog pores, which makes mandelic acid an interesting player in the space, for sure.  


Soften the look of fine lines

Due to its exfoliation properties, mandelic acid can help plump the skin and smooth the appearance of fine lines. The act of exfoliation, as we’ve noted, removes the top layer of dead skin cells, revealing younger skin underneath. 

In addition, one study found that masks formulated with mandelic acid (alongside azelaic acid) even encouraged collagen production3. If you don’t know, collagen is a structural protein that’s found in the skin (and elsewhere in the body) that helps keep skin firm and lifted. 


Great for sensitive skin

As we noted earlier, mandelic acid has a larger molecular size than other acids. While this may sound like it’d make the acid stronger, it’s actually the opposite. Due to its size, it’s not able to penetrate as deep into the epidermis.

This means it sits at the surface, where it’s less likely to trigger irritation. It's ideal for those with sensitive skin.

How to use mandelic acid

How you'll use mandelic acid depends on your product of choice, but here are some general guidelines.

  • Use at night: You'll generally want to use mandelic acid during your nighttime routine since many acids can increase photosensitivity (and on that note, always make sure you're applying sunscreen during the day.)
  • As a cleanser: If you have a mandelic-infused cleanser, you'll want to follow with soothing ingredients post-wash; avoid any AHAs, BHAs, or retinoids for the rest of the night. And if you have a potent serum, apply it after cleansing and pre-moisturizer as your treatment step. You can use mandelic acid cleansers daily.
  • As a serum: Serums should be applied to freshly cleaned skin—so just after your wash (and toner, if you do that step). Following the serum you can apply your hydrators. Depending on your skin type, you may be able to use an exfoliating serum daily. But for most folks, use this every other night or every third night.
  • For masks and peels: These are typically tossed into a routine whenever you want an extra shot of benefits: Apply the formula on clean skin right after your wash, let it sit for a few minutes according to the packaging's instructions, then wash off and continue your skin care routine as normal. Do these 2-3 times a week.

For more insights on the best way to layer a skin care routine, check out our guide to layering skin care products.

How long does it take to work?

Of course, it depends on your individual skin type and the products you're using—hyperpigmentation, for example, is notoriously difficult to get rid of, as it can take months to completely clear.

If your main goal is to simply resurface the skin and promote cell turnover, you may see quicker results.

In terms of mandelic acid's oil-balancing properties, one study showed that it may begin working in as little as one week, with visible changes by eight weeks2.

Side effects

"Minor redness or dryness may occur, but the beauty of this ingredient is it tends to be very gentle," says Del Campo. Even though the acid does have a larger molecular weight, it still has the potential to trigger flares, especially if you've exfoliated your skin too much

Bailey agrees: "Side effects with mandelic acid are similar to other AHAs, in that the acidic pH can irritate sensitive skin," she says. That said, just make sure to notice when your skin has had enough: Typically, the signs manifest as irritation, redness, inflammation, and sometimes even breakouts. 

Mandelic acid vs. glycolic acid

Both mandelic acid and glycolic acid are popular exfoliators used in products. So you might be asking, which one is best for you? 

Well, they’re both alpha hydroxy acids, but mandelic acid is much larger than glycolic acid. (In fact, glycolic acid is about half the size4 of mandelic.) This means glycolic acid is able to penetrate much deeper into the epidermis, making it much stronger—but more irritating. 

Glycolic acid is ideal for those with oil- or acne-prone skin, deeper fine lines, and acne scars. Mandelic acid is better suited for those with dry skin, sensitive skin, and those who aren’t looking for something as potent (it’s a great beginner acid). 

Mandelic acidGlycolic acid
Acid typeAHAAHA
Molecular sizeVery largeHalf that of mandelic
Skin typeSensitive + dry + averageAverage + oily + acne-prone
EfficacyMore gentleStronger
Promotes collagen production TRUETRUE


You can find mandelic acid in a smattering of exfoliating cleansers, serums, creams, and masks—these are our favorites on the market. 

The takeaway. 

If you're looking for a gentler acid fit for sensitive skin, may we suggest this underrated option? Mandelic acid has a larger molecular weight, which makes it penetrate slower and cause less irritation—yet it has some unique benefits including. improving cell turnover, fading dark spots and unclogging pores.

Want to turn your passion for wellbeing into a fulfilling career? Become a Certified Health Coach! Learn more here.
Jamie Schneider author page.
Jamie Schneider
Beauty & Health Editor

Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.