Doesn’t it sound similar to malicious, malic acid? But the one has nothing to do with the other. Malic comes from the Latin word malum, which is apple. And if you believe the old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, it’s rather something good.

Photo by Gabriele Lässer

So, why are we talking about malic acid? When you look into chemical exfoliants, you must have read about glycolic acid and salicylic acid. Malic acid is a bit like the stepsister left out when people talk about glycolic acid.

Part of the AHA family

Malic acid was first discovered in apple juice in 1785, hence its name. It’s what gives some foods and drinks a tart taste. For those wine-connaisseurs who enjoy slightly acidic wines, it’s malic acid that gives it this taste.

Not only is malic acid found in fruits and vegetables, but it’s also produced naturally in the body when carbohydrates are converted into energy. So, without malic acid, getting from A to B will prove to be much more difficult.

Malic acid type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). For cosmetics, it’s sourced from fruits such as apples and pears. All members of the AHA family break down the “cement” that holds skin cells together so that the dead skin cells can be whisked away, and (ta-da!) reveals new and brighter skin.

But, as the odd-step sister description suggests, a few important points sets it apart from the other AHAs. For one, its molecule structure. It has a bigger molecular size than the better known glycolic acid.

This means it’s gentler than other AHAs as its size doesn’t let it penetrate as readily into the skin. Hence, if your skin lets you know in no unclear terms that it didn’t like other acids in the past, you may find in malic acid a gentler alternative. Of course, being gentler also means it’s less strong, less effective than other AHAs. So, it’s often combined with other AHAs and even BHAs.

The other defining feature of malic acid is that it’s a humectant. A humectant attracts moisture to and holds it in the skin.

Why use it in your skin care?

Knowing that it’s both an AHA and a humectant, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that it’s added to many hair and skin care and other beauty products such as:

  • Body lotions
  • Acne treatments
  • Anti-ageing products
  • Shampoos
  • Nail treatments


As mentioned, malic acid, like its fellow AHA, breaks down who cohesive bonds of dead skin cells and so stimulates the exfoliation of your skin. When the bonds are broken down, the dead skin cells can be washed away and your complexion is now smoother, evened out, and more radiant than before.

Improve acne

A buildup of dead skin cells can lead to clogged pores. Now combine it with the skin’s natural oil and blackheads can form. Add bacteria by wearing a mask or frequent touching and voila – breakouts.

As a chemical exfoliant, malic acid can help remove the buildup of dead cells. Moreover, when your pores are unclogged, it helps reduce the formation of acne bumps and the discolouration that’s often associated with acne

PH balancing

The third feature that sets it apart from its fellow AHAs is that malic acid has PH balancing properties instead of upsetting your skin’s acid-base balance. You want to maintain the PH balance of your skin to protect your skin barrier.

A damaged skin barrier leaves your skin vulnerable to damage from pollution, winter air, sunlight. And then it becomes more prone to dryness, irritation, and breakouts.

Malic acid can maintain a balanced PH for a longer duration of time while hydrating the skin. If you’re prone to eczema, note that it can help calm and reduce irritation.

Food sources

Since your body uses it for energy production, some people take it as a supplement for health concerns like chronic fatigue. Other people take it to enhance athletic performance. Instead of taking it as an additive or a supplement, why not add these to your diet?

  • Berries like blueberries and blackberries
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Plums
  • Pears
  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruits
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Wine
  • Alcoholic ciders

Side effects

Taking malic acid in the form of the above-mentioned fruits and vegetables is generally regarded as safe and doesn’t cause any unwanted malic acid side effects.

However, if you take it as a supplement or in a synthetic form, it may have side effects. As is with everything, it’s the dose that makes something a poison. That is, if you consume too much of anything, it’s not good for you. In the case of malic acid, these can be:

  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Allergic reactions

As with any AHA in your skin care, use it with care. Start with a patch test. If you feel your skin can take it, start slowly and in low concentration and always listen to your skin. Gradually increase the frequency to once or twice a week.

How to use

You can use malic acid as your chemical exfoliant. If you want to be extra cautious, look for products where malic acid is the only active exfoliating ingredient or acid.

You can also use a moisturiser containing malic acid combined with other anti-ageing ingredients such as vitamin E and C, or niacinamide.

How about you reap the benefits of malic acid with a DYI apple pack? Take

  • 1 tablespoon of organic, grated apple
  • 1 tablespoon of ground oats
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Mix all ingredients in a boil until smooth. Apply the pack to your face and decolletage if you so desire. Let it sit for 10 minutes then rinse off. Pat your face dry and follow up with a moisturiser. Of course, you can replace the apple with a pear.

If you liked to read how malic acid can be a gentler AHA option, I’d be delighted if you could create a link to it on your website or blog.

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