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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 role.

It’s also a common ingredient in many hair and skin care products, including:

  • shampoos
  • body lotions
  • nail treatments
  • acne and anti-aging products

Malic acid is one of a family of fruit acids, called alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). AHAs 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 containing 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

Malic acid is also an important substance in the process your body uses to derive energy from the food you eat.

Keep reading to discover why malic acid is one ingredient you’ll want to keep an eye out for when shopping for skin care products.

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.

One 2014 review of the effects of chronic stress on skin health found that higher stress can worsen skin conditions like eczema, acne, and premature aging. While there are several ways to reduce stress, topical use of malic acid may be an effective approach to younger-looking skin.

pH balance and hydration

Malic acid is known as a humectant and may help your skin stay hydrated.

One 2020 study looked at several liquids’ ability to deliver hyaluronic acid, a natural substance in the skin that retains moisture, to the skin. A liquid made of choline and malic acid increased skin moisture and decreased water loss through the skin by improving the penetration of hyaluronic acid into the skin.

Malic acid is also often used to adjust the pH levels of cosmetics.

Anti-aging and scar lightening

AHAs promote a high skin cell turnover rate. This means your skin cells are renewed more quickly and can result in:

  • fewer fine lines and wrinkles
  • more even skin tone
  • smoother skin texture
  • fewer blemishes

AHAs, like malic acid, can diminish the appearance of wrinkles by thickening the skin and increasing production of glycosaminoglycans, which play an important role in protecting the skin from aging.

“Malic acid at higher concentrations can also penetrate into lower levels of the skin to bring about new collagen formation,” said dermatologist Dr. Annie Chiu, founder 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.

According to a 1998 study, using products with malic acid may increase collagen production and reduce signs of aging.

Acne prevention

Whether it’s in a lotion, cleanser, or light peeling agent, malic acid can help remove the buildup of dead skin cells. This is helpful for acne-prone skin.

When the skin’s pores get clogged with 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,” said 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.”

Chiu recommends sticking to low doses of malic acid found in nonprescription skin care products that are designed to fight breakouts or sagging skin. Higher doses, such as supplements, should only be taken if recommended by a healthcare professional.

Fibromyalgia is a complex disorder that causes muscle pain, sleep problems, fatigue, and mood disturbances. While we don’t yet understand the causes of fibromyalgia, some researchers have suspected low levels of malic acid, with its essential role in energy production, could contribute to the symptoms of fibromyalgia.

In a small 2018 study, 24 people with fibromyalgia took either a combination of malic acid and magnesium or a placebo over 2 weeks. No significant differences in pain or tenderness were observed between the two groups.

However, in a later trial of 18 individuals who were given higher doses of the malic acid and magnesium combination for a longer period of time, participants reported significant reductions in pain and tenderness.

More research is needed to determine whether malic acid helps relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia.

Unless a healthcare professional recommends malic acid supplements, aim to get all the malic acid your body needs from a nutritious diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Although malic acid may be less irritating on the skin than other AHAs, it should still be used with caution.

Malic acid can cause redness, itching, and swelling, and make your skin more sensitive to UVB rays. This is more likely to occur in sensitive areas around the eyes and when it’s used in high concentrations or for longer periods of time.

Be sure to patch test a product containing AHAs before applying it to a wider area of your skin.

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.

Malic acid is an AHA found in fruits, vegetables, and wine. Our bodies also produce malic acid naturally when converting carbohydrates into energy.

Many cosmetic companies use malic acid to adjust the pH levels of their products and as a mild skin exfoliant.

Including products with malic acid in your skin care routine may help with skin concerns like aging, pigmentation, acne, or dryness. Remember to patch test when trying out new products, as malic acid can irritate the skin, especially around the eyes.