Prior to starting my skincare journey in the fall of last year, any mention of the word “acid” dredged up images of a toxic green ooze capable of chewing through concrete, blistering flesh, and melting my favorite cartoons as they begged for mercy — thanks for the childhood trauma, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. With that context in mind, perhaps it’s not surprising that I approached the addition of acids into my routine with a degree of caution normally reserved for hostage negotiations. I didn’t want to accidentally melt my skin off. What the hell would I do with all these sunscreens if I didn’t have a face to rub them on?
I know now that acids are actually a safe and effective tool for anyone looking to improve their skin. There are two common varieties: beta hydroxy acid (BHA), often referred to as salicylic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids (AHA). While an assortment of AHAs exist, glycolic and lactic acids are the ones I’ve encountered most frequently in products. More recently, however, we are starting to see the introduction of products featuring a new type of acid: polyhydroxy acids, otherwise known as PHA. Like AHAs, PHAs work to exfoliate the dead skin cells that sit on the surface of our skin. However, PHAs — such as lactobionic acid or gluconolactone — have a larger molecule than AHAs. They don’t penetrate the layers of our skin as deeply or as quickly as a result, meaning they are less sensitizing when compared to AHAs. They share roughly the same efficacy, but products containing PHAs are less likely to cause stinging or burning. (source) For a little light reading, I highly recommend this review which explores the classifications and applications of the various hydroxy acids in detail.
For someone as nervous about using acids regularly as I was, the fairly recent arrival of PHAs in the Korean beauty scene was nothing short of a blessing. I was fortunate enough to be contacted by a relative newcomer to the ever-expanding skincare market, and sure enough they had some products featuring PHAs! I asked the generous people at Tia’m if they wouldn’t mind sending along their (somewhat unfortunately named) Aura Milk Face Peeling Line and I’ve been testing both the toner and cream for a little over a month and a half now. Time to share my thoughts!
Aura Milk Face Peeling Toner
- Perfect for daily use
- Pleasant texture and fragrance
- Convenient and clever packaging
- Relatively low percentage of PHA (2%) means consistent use over long period of time is likely required before visible results
- Sunscreen application a must!
Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Dipropylene Glycol, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, Glycerin, Lactobionic Acid, PEG-40 Stearate, 1,2-Hexanediol, Sodium Citrate, Milk Extract(100ppm), Gluconolactone, Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Salicylic acid, Ethyl Ascorbyl Ether, Bifida Ferment Filtrate, Panthenol, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Citric Acid, Disodium EDTA, Fragrance
- Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride – A mixture of fatty acids that are derived from coconut oil and glycerin, valued for its emollient and replenishing properties. Considered a mild and effective ingredient. (source)
- Lactobionic Acid – The first of the PHAs (polyhydroxy acid) present in the toner. PHAs are considered the “new generation” of exfoliatng acids. They’ve been found to be less irritating than AHAs, such as glycolic acid, and they also possess humectant, antioxidant, and moisturizing properties. (source) PHAs may also help our stratum corneum, the outer layer of our epidermis, function more effectively, strengthening our skin’s barrier. (source)
- Milk Extract – Had a difficult time finding hard evidence for this one, but milk has been rumored to have remarkable benefits for skin since time immemorial. It’s believed to have soothing and hydrating properties, and milk is a natural source of lactic acid.
- Gluconolactone – The second of the PHAs to appear in the toner, gluconolactone may help protect against UV radiation (source) in addition to the other benefits PHAs offer. It was demonstrated to have a significant effect in improving acne in this study. It may also have anti-inflammatory properties according to this study conducted on patients with atopic dermatitis. Gluconolactone is also a humectant with considerable antiaging benefits. (source)
- Lactic Acid – An AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) that was originally derived from milk, although from what I understand most sources are synthetic these days. AHAs are typically used for their anti-aging benefits. It is an effective exfoliant at concentrations between 5% to 12% so long as the formula sits at a pH between 3 and 4. At lower concentrations it helps water bind to the skin. (source)
- Glycolic Acid – Probably the most commonly used AHA molecule out there, glycolic acid is used as a water-binding ingredient and exfoliant. It’s been proven effective at combating sun damage in our skin, as well as improving overall skin texture and acne. (source, source, source) Some people find that their skin is sensitive to glycolic acid, even at lower concentrations — be sure to always patch test before adding any acid exfoliator to your routine. Sunscreen application is a MUST when using products with AHA, as they increase photosensitivity. (source)
- Salicylic Acid – Otherwise known as BHA (beta hydroxy acid), this is a potent acne-fighting ingredient that exfoliates dead skin cells. It also helps to dislodge the oil trapped in our pores, further preventing and treating acne. This is because BHA is oil soluble and able to exfoliate within the pore itself. Particularly well-suited for those with oily and acneic skin, salicylic acid may also be calming and hydrating. (source)
We begin with what quickly became a real standout product for me, the Aura Milk Face Peeling Toner. This light, refreshing toner contains 2% PHA to gently loosen and exfoliate dead skin cells. The addition of AHAs and BHA likely won’t help exfoliate at such low concentrations, but they may supply some other benefits. Aside from providing mild exfoliation, this toner is also considered a hydrating layer that helps prepare the skin to absorb the steps that follow. Although it’s not particularly clear in the photos I took, the contents of the bottle separate entirely on their own: the top third looks like milk, while the bottom two-thirds are a less opaque liquid. A few gentle shakes is more than enough to combine the ingredients.
The toner itself is a thin, milky liquid of roughly the same consistency as water, just with a touch more slip. There is a very faint “dairy” smell that I could detect, almost like sweetened milk. It’s incredibly mild, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if most people didn’t notice any sort of fragrance. Although Tia’m advises applying this toner with a cotton pad, I preferred to just use my hands. I don’t think it makes a difference for this particular toner. It’s watery enough that it usually ran through the cracks in my fingers — in other words, it’s a bit drippy — so perhaps cotton pads really are the way to go. It’s not messy or difficult to apply, however, as it sinks into the skin lightning fast. I barely had to pat it in to get it to absorb.
It comes packaged in a tall, narrow plastic bottle that holds a generous 120ml of product. It’s minimal and solid, and along the side are little notches that show how much toner you ought to be using every day. It’s a cute addition, even though I personally found I used way less toner than the amount they recommend. Then again I’m notoriously stingy!
I used this as a replacement for the Pixi Glow Tonic as I think it performs quite similarly. It’s an exfoliating toner with some humectant and emollient properties, albeit not as hydrating as toners I’ve used without acids in the ingredients. It’s hydrating enough on its own for my oily skin, but if your skin runs more dry you might need something with a little more kick. And speaking of kick — unfortunately, this toner lacks somewhat in that department. The percentage of PHA is so low in this toner that I imagine I’d have to use it consistently for a good deal longer than a month and a half before seeing any visible results. The Aura Milk Face Peeling Toner left my skin bright and refreshed, but I didn’t notice any real exfoliating benefits from its use: no lightening of pigmentation marks, no softening of wrinkles, etc.
That being said, the low concentration of acids in this toner is also a blessing. It’s gentle enough that I felt comfortable using it twice daily in my routine — and honestly, I’d use it even without the added exfoliating benefit. It’s a perfect lightweight addition to my routine as the weather turns warmer and those thicker, more syrupy toners grow less and less appealing. The fact that it absorbs so effortlessly is another stroke in the Aura Milk Face Peeling Toner‘s favor. All in all, I consider its exfoliating properties more a bonus than an actual selling point for the product. It’s actually just a fantastic toner that also happens to exfoliate, albeit it very slowly, and only with consistent usage over time. Just be sure you’re regularly applying sunscreen while using it, as PHA can increase photosensitivity!
Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream
- Perfect for daily use
- Not drying, unlike other PHA creams I’ve read about
- Relatively low percentage of PHA (3%) means consistent use over long period of time is likely required before visible results
- Sunscreen application a must!
- Product dries down very, very tacky
Water, Glycerin, Dipropylene Glycol, Caprylyl Methicone, Cetyl Ethylhexanoate, Arachidyl Alcohol, Lactobionic Acid, Bifida Ferment Filtrate, Panthenol, Niacinamide, Cyclopentasiloxane, Behenyl Alcohol, Gluconolactone, Squalane, Tromethamine, Sodium Cetearyl Sulfate, Milk Extract(100ppm), Moringa Oleifera Leaf Extract, Cyclohexasiloxane, Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate, Ubiquinone, PEG-240/HDI Copolymer Bis-Decyltetradeceth-20 Ether, Stearic Acid, Cetearyl Alcohol, PEG-10 Dimethicone, Hydrogenated Lecithin, C12-16 Alcohols, Palmitic Acid, Octanediol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Seed Extract, Artemisia Princeps Extract, Carbomer, Sodium Hyaluronate, Adenosine, Arachidyl Glucoside, Disodium EDTA, Fragrance
Once again we see lactobionic acid and gluconolactone, the PHAs in the formula. Obviously there are some repeat ingredients from the toner that I’ll be skipping over, but here are some more details on those I found noteworthy:
- Bifida Ferment Filtrate – I had difficulty finding journals that dealt with bifida ferment filtrate, specifically, but I was able to find information about bifida ferment lysate. Lysate is a fluid containing lysed cells — cells that have undergone a process where their membrane has been broken down. I am uncertain if “filtrate” is different from “lysate” and I suspect they are one and the same. Bifida ferment lysate is derived from Bifidobacterium, some species of which are used as a probiotic. Unfortunately there still isn’t much research available to provide evidence for its benefits for skin. One double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with sixty-six female volunteers did find that those who used a cream with the bifida lysate had a “significant decrease in skin sensitivity at the end of the treatment.” It was also found to enhance skin barrier function and improve skin dryness. A study was conducted roughly six months ago to further investigate the effects of bifidobacteria on the skin, if you’d enjoy some more light reading!
- Panthenol – A humectant which adds pleasant skin feel to a formulation, panthenol is derived from pantothenic acid, a form of vitamin B. (source)
- Niacinamide – A multi-tasking ingredient with an impressive arsenal of practical uses, niacinamide (otherwise known as Vitamin B3, niacin, or nicotininc acid) improves uneven tone, overall dullness, the appearance of pores and wrinkles, and just generally does amazing things to your face. It can even help minimize transepidermal water loss and improve acne inflammation. It’s like the wunderkind of skincare. I LOVE seeing this ingredient featured high on a list. (source, source, source)
- Squalane – Squalene is an oil derived from plants (amaranth, olives) or animals (shark liver) with highly emollient functions that is also present in our sebum. Squalane, more specifically, is the hydrogenated form of squalene. A brief diversion (and please remember that my understanding is VERY limited!): hydrogenating is a process where hydrogen is added to a heated organic compound in the presence of a catalyst, typically a metal (source). The hydrogen breaks up the existing double bonds of the compound and saturates it; at this point things get a little too “science” for me and I glaze over a bit, but ultimately this process increases the shelf life of the ingredient, among other things. (source) Squalane, like squalene, is a hydrating ingredient that also functions as an emollient. (source)
- Moringa Oleifera Leaf Extract – Known as the drumstick tree, or more simply as just moringa. One study demonstrated that an ointment prepared with moringa leaf extract promoted wound healing activity in rats, and another study indicates it may have antibacterial properties.
- Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil – Meadowfoam seed oil is mostly composed of long chain fatty acids; it’s considered very safe, and is also non-greasy and quick to absorb. It gives products a smooth or silky feel. (source)
- Tocopheryl Acetate – A form of vitamin E which has a variety of properties: it may help protect against oxidative damage from UV rays, provides antioxidant benefits to the skin, and vitamin E oil may help soften rough or dry skin. (source, source) Despite what you might have heard, there is no cosmetic benefit to applying vitamin E to scars, and in fact it may make their appearance worse. (source)
- Ubiquinone – Sometimes listed under the name coenzyme Q10, ubiquinone exists naturally within our body. It has a multitude of benefits: a potent antioxidant, it helps protect from inflammation and the effects of sun exposure, namely photoaging. (source, source) It may also help combat signs of aging at the cellular level, enhancing mitochondrial function when tested in vivo. (source)
- Stearic Acid – A fatty acid (not an exfoliating acid!) that helps maintain the integrity of our skin barrier; in particular, it helps restore and replenish our barrier after cleansing. (source) In one study, a stearic acid cream “consistently exhibit[ed] burn-healing properties with up to… 57% reductions in mean lesion scores from phenol-induced wounds”, which indicates it may have burn healing properties. (source) It also functions as an emulsifier, an emollient, and a lubricant. (source)
- Cetearyl Alcohol – The word “alcohol” might cause alarm for some of you out there, but this is a fatty alcohol composed of a combination of cetyl and stearyl alcohols. Unlike ingredients like SD alcohol or ethanol, cetearyl alcohol cannot cause any skin sensitivity. It’s an effective emollient that also improves the texture of a formula. (source, sorry this was the best one I could find!)
The Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream, like the toner, has a 3% concentration of the active ingredients in the formula. The other ingredients seem targeted towards brightening, nourishing, and protecting. These are all qualities that I look for in a good night cream, so I’m glad to see ingredients like niacinamide and squalane included to give the cream all it needs to replenish and condition the skin. It comes packaged in a 50ml jar made of a frosted plastic, with a convenient spatula included so that the cream can be scooped out hygienically.
You may have noticed that I specified earlier that the Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream is best suited for nighttime use. This has less to do with the acids involved — although if you use this product during the daytime, make sure you apply sunscreen! — and more to do with its texture. This is a thick, rich, nearly buttery cream. It is dense. There’s a heaviness to it, almost a fattiness, that I find does not agree with my skin. It also smells remarkably like baby powder, which was a little too strong and cloying for me personally. Other people I showed the cream to enjoyed the fragrance, however, so as always take my opinion with a massive grain of salt!
Remarkably this cream doesn’t leave me oily, but it does have a tendency to stubbornly sit on top of my skin and refuse to absorb, no matter how I pat or plead. It does this regardless of the amount of layers I’ve applied in my routine, and the end result is skin that is annoyingly tacky and clingy. Every time I use this cream I have to make sure my hair is firmly tied back, otherwise I spend all night peeling strands off my sticky cheeks and forehead. It’s a nuisance, not a deal breaker, but it makes the cream way too much of a hassle to use in the mornings. Thankfully it absorbs well overnight, so I don’t wake up feeling like a greaseball.
Similar to the toner, I didn’t really see any dramatic results as far as pigmentation or wrinkle softening were concerned with the Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream. It did leave my skin soft and nourished come morning, but that was about the only thing I noticed while regularly using this cream.
Would I recommend the Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream? That’s a tricky question. I can mentally justify the low amount of PHA in the toner, since it’s intended to be used twice daily; you don’t want something that strong when you’re applying it that frequently to your skin. But a cream, particularly one that seems to be formulated for nighttime use, is different. I figure you might as well go all out on a cream, a perspective which is reflected in the fact that most PHA creams I encounter from other brands are include a higher percentage: Swanicoco offers a 10% PHA cream, as an example. I guess ultimately I have more patience for a toner with a texture I enjoy than I do for a cream that I dislike using. It’s not a bad cream by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just not the right product for me personally.
If you have oily, resilient skin like I have, I think you can probably go for something with a little more zing. I just feel like my face can handle a more powerful cream with a higher concentration of active ingredients. But if your skin is sensitive or prone to dryness (or you’re just less annoyed by a tacky texture) then I can see the Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream being an appealing addition to your routine. In fact, people with skin sensitivities that still want to use actives should starting looking into using PHAs in general. Just remember that consistent usage is key!
Rumor has it that Tia’m is a sister brand to CosRx and it certainly shows in the slick packaging and polish of every product they sent me. Although the Aura Milk Face Peeling Cream wasn’t necessarily a winner for my particular skin type, I absolutely loved the Aura Milk Face Peeling Toner and fully intend to repurchase it once my bottle runs out. You can find the entire collection of Tia’m products at Rose Rose Shop, where the toner currently goes for around $24, and the cream for around $26.50.
Disclosure: These products were provided to me by Tia’m Korea to test and review, but all opinions are purely my own.