Despite its sinister sounding name, the word malic acid comes from the Latin word malum, which means apple. Malic acid was first isolated from apple juice in 1785, and it’s what gives some foods and drinks a tart taste. If you’re a fan of slightly acidic wine, malic acid probably played a huge role. It’s also a common ingredient in many hair and skin care products that include:
- body lotions
- nail treatments
- acne and anti-aging products
Malic acid is part of a family of fruit acids, called alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Alpha hydroxy acids stimulate exfoliation by interfering with how your skin cells bond. As a result, dull skin is removed to make way for newer skin. Skin care products that contain malic acid can provide benefits that include:
- skin hydration
- exfoliation, or the removal of dead skin cells
- improved skin smoothness and tone
- reduction in wrinkles
Your body also produces malic acid naturally when converting carbohydrates into energy. Movement would be very difficult without malic acid. It’ll probably be no surprise that malic acid also has other health benefits too.
Keep reading to discover why malic acid is one of the ingredients you’ll want to keep an eye out for when shopping for your skin care products.
Skin care science
Malic acid in skin care products is celebrated for its ability to brighten the skin and smooth its texture. That’s why it’s a common ingredient in anti-aging creams.
According to a brain-skin connection study, higher stress can worsen skin conditions like eczema, acne, and premature aging. And while wine can help reduce stress, external use of malic acid might be a healthier application.
Skin pH balance and hydration
Malic acid is also a humectant. It helps with moisture retention to help your skin stay hydrated.
A 2014 study about the hydration effects of aloe vera used malic acid, glucose, and a chemical compound in aloe vera (acemannan), as markers for fresh gel. Another small study also saw improvements in scales from old wounds after applying an ointment made of malic acid and petroleum jelly, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Malic acid is often used as an ingredient in cosmetics to balance pH levels. According to Bartek, a manufacturer that makes cosmetic and food grade chemicals, malic acid is more balanced than other fruit acids. It has a better buffer capacity than other AHAs like citric and lactic acid.
Having a better buffer capacity means that you can use more malic acid without upsetting your skin’s acid-base balance, or pH levels. If your skin’s pH level is unbalanced, then your skin’s protective barrier may be destabilized and more prone to dryness or acne.
Anti-aging and scar lightening
AHAs promote a high skin cell turnover rate. This means your skin cells are renewed more quickly, resulting in:
- fewer fine lines and wrinkles
- more even skin tone
- smoother skin texture
- decreased blemishes
“Malic acid at higher concentrations can also penetrate into lower levels of the skin to bring about new collagen formation,” says dermatologist Dr. Annie Chiu, director of the Derm Institute in California. Collagen is a protein that helps build and repair cells. It supports the skin and other body tissues’ strength and flexibility and prevents sagging. Collagen production slows down as you age, which is partly why skin loses its elasticity and firmness the older you get.
Using products with malic acid may increase collagen production and reduce signs of aging. Check out beauty blog ‘Hello Glow’ for three DIY (do it yourself) apple-based masks to rejuvenate your face, skin, and hair.
Whether it’s in a lotion, cleanser, or light peeling agent, malic acid can help remove a buildup of dead cells. This is great for acne-prone skin. When the skin’s pores get clogged with too many dead skin cells and the skin’s natural oil (sebum), blackheads can form. Bacterial infections can also develop and cause breakouts.
“Malic acid breaks down the ‘glue’ that holds the dead skin cells together on the outer layer of the skin,” says Dr. Chiu. When these dead skin cells are swept away, “Your skin looks less dull and when your pores are unclogged, it helps reduce the formation of acne bumps and the discoloration that’s often associated with acne.”
While it sounds like a miracle cure, Dr. Chiu recommends sticking to low doses of malic acid. Unless your doctor recommends it, nonprescription skin care products will contain all the malic acid you need to fight breakouts or sagging skin. Higher doses, such as supplements, should only be taken if recommended by your doctor.
Fibromyalgia is a complex disorder that causes pain and fatigue in the muscles. Some research suggests that people with fibromyalgia also have a hard time producing malic acid. While there is little supporting evidence, two studies evaluated whether a combination of high doses of malic acid and magnesium helped reduce muscle pain and tenderness. One study was inconclusive, but suggested that the combination may be beneficial in high doses over a long period of time.
In the other study, people who took the malic acid and magnesium reported significant improvement within 48 hours of starting treatment. This continued for the full eight weeks of the study. After eight weeks of the active treatment dosage, some of the participants were given a placebo instead. People who took the placebo reported reoccurrence of muscle pain within 48 hours.
Unless your doctor recommends malic acid supplements, you should get all the malic acid your body needs from a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Although malic acid is less irritating on the skin than other AHAs, it should still be used with caution. Malic acid can make your skin turn red, itch, or burn, especially around the eyes.
You may want to patch test a product before a complete application. To patch test, swab a small amount of product on your wrist or behind your ear. Then wait 24 hours to see how your skin reacts. If your skin begins to burn, wash off the product immediately. Seek medical attention if the irritation doesn’t go away after washing.
Also, inhaling malic acid is considered hazardous.
Malic acid is an AHA that occurs in fruits, vegetables, and wine. Our bodies also produce malic acid naturally when converting carbohydrates into energy. Many cosmetic companies use malic acid to balance the pH levels of the skin and increase moisture retention. Including malic acid in your skin care routine may help with skin concerns like aging, pigmentation, acne, or dryness. Just remember to patch test when trying out new products as malic acid can irritate the skin, especially around the eyes.
Some research also suggests that taking malic acid, with magnesium, is beneficial for people with muscle pain and fatigue. But always consult your doctor before taking supplements.