Citric Acid: What Is It, Cosmetic Uses & Side Effects

Priya Singh
Fact-Checker: Priya Singh
This article was last updated on: October 17, 2023
Table of Contents

Navigating the world of cosmetics can often feel like stepping into a science lab, with many ingredients that sound more like a part of a chemistry experiment than a skincare product. The lists on the back of your favorite products are peppered with names that seem to jump out of high-school chemistry textbooks.

One such ingredient that you might have come across frequently is Citric Acid. Despite its somewhat intimidating name that might make you think of a science lab rather than a day at the spa, it is a common constituent in several cosmetics.

This article is designed to demystify Citric Acid. We will delve into the nitty-gritty of this compound; we will also explore why it’s a favored ingredient within the cosmetic industry, shedding light on its functions and uses!

What is Citric Acid?

Citric Acid, also known scientifically as 2-Hydroxy-1,2,3-propanetricarboxylic acid, is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) widely used in cosmetic products. It is derived from citrus fruits, hence the name, and is a naturally occurring substance that can also be produced industrially from certain types of mold.

Within a cosmetic context, Citric Acid is primarily used as a pH adjuster, buffering agent, fragrance ingredient, and chelating agent. Helping maintain a stable pH allows products to work effectively and for a more extended period. Its chelating properties help the product to bind with minerals, reducing the possibility of decomposition.

Citric Acid can be found in various cosmetic products, from face cleansers to shampoos, with concentrations usually ranging from 0.1% to 1%.

Who Can Use Citric Acid?

Citric Acid is generally suitable for all skin types, although those with more sensitive skin may want to use products containing it sparingly as it can cause slight irritation. Thanks to its origin from citrus fruits, Citric Acid is compatible with vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, making it a favored ingredient in many cruelty-free and plant-based cosmetics.

Concerning use during pregnancy or breastfeeding, there’s no concrete evidence suggesting that topical use of Citric Acid presents any risk. However, as with any skincare ingredient, it’s always a good idea for expecting or nursing mothers to consult with a healthcare provider before introducing new products into their routine.

Citric Acid’s Cosmetic Uses

Citric Acid is a crucial player in various cosmetic products. Let’s take a deeper dive into the versatile roles it can take on:

  • Buffering Agent: Citric Acid’s role as a buffering agent in cosmetic products is invaluable. It helps keep the pH level of the product consistent, which is crucial for skin health. Our skin has a naturally slightly acidic pH, which helps to keep the skin’s barrier function intact. If a cosmetic product has a pH level that’s too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic), it can disrupt this balance, leading to potential skin issues like irritation or dryness. By helping regulate the product’s pH to a level that’s more in sync with our skin’s natural pH, Citric Acid ensures that the product remains skin-friendly while retaining its effectiveness.
  • Chelating Agent: Citric Acid’s role as a chelating agent cannot be understated. In this capacity, it binds with metal ions that can sometimes be present in a product or in the water used with the product. These metal ions, if not neutralized, can speed up product deterioration, promote bacterial growth, or even cause color changes. Citric Acid, by effectively binding with these ions, neutralizes their impact, thereby enhancing the product’s overall stability and shelf life.
  • Fragrance: Beyond its functional roles, Citric Acid has an aesthetic appeal too. It’s often used for its ability to impart a fresh, citrus-like scent to products. This not only makes the product more pleasant to use but can also contribute to the overall sensory experience, making your skincare routine more enjoyable. Scents have been linked to influencing moods, and the refreshing aroma of Citric Acid could induce feelings of rejuvenation and energy.

It’s important to note that while Citric Acid offers these benefits, the overall safety and effectiveness of a product depends on various factors, including the concentration of Citric Acid and the presence of other ingredients. Individual skin sensitivities and allergies also play a role in how a product may interact with your skin. As such, always remember to assess the entire formulation of a product rather than isolating one ingredient.

Citric Acid Potential Side Effects

Each person’s skin is unique, and responses to certain cosmetic ingredients can vary. This variance can be attributed to various factors such as skin type, sensitivity, and even climate.

While Citric Acid is generally safe for use in cosmetics, it may still cause side effects in some cases. These include:

  • Skin irritation: Some people might experience skin irritation, including redness, itching, or a burning sensation. This is more common in individuals with sensitive skin or those who might have a specific intolerance to Citric Acid.
  • Photosensitivity: As an alpha hydroxy acid, Citric Acid can increase sensitivity to the sun. This can lead to faster sunburn or hyperpigmentation, especially if adequate sun protection is not used.

If you experience any of these side effects while using a product containing Citric Acid, it’s recommended to stop using the product immediately and consult with a dermatologist or a skin health professional.

It’s important to note that adverse reactions to Citric Acid are rare, and it is generally recognized as a safe and effective ingredient in cosmetic products. However, it’s always a good idea to exercise a degree of caution when introducing new products or ingredients into your skincare routine.

To ensure your skin’s safety, one best practice is to perform a patch test before fully incorporating a new product into your routine. This can help to identify any potential adverse reactions your skin might have to the product. For a detailed guide on how to do this, you can refer to our comprehensive patch-testing guide.

Comedogenic Rating

Citric Acid has a comedogenic rating of 0/5. This implies that it is non-comedogenic, meaning it’s unlikely to clog pores and contribute to breakout issues like acne.

This low rating can be attributed to its nature as an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), known for its ability to exfoliate and rejuvenate the skin rather than clog pores. Given this rating, Citric Acid is generally suitable for individuals prone to acne or breakouts. However, remember that individual skin responses can vary, and what works for one might not work for another.


When it comes to personal care products, not every ingredient is designed for immediate, tangible effects. Some play a supporting role, contributing to the overall formulation and enhancing the product’s stability, longevity, or sensory experience. Citric Acid falls into this category as a non-active ingredient with multifaceted roles, acting as a pH adjuster, chelating agent, and fragrance enhancer.

There’s much to appreciate about Citric Acid. Its versatility and safety profile make it a popular choice among cosmetic formulators. Furthermore, its ability to improve the overall stability and sensory experience of cosmetic products while posing a minimal risk of skin irritation or comedogenicity is hard to overlook.

Citric Acid is a relatively common ingredient in the cosmetic industry, featured in various products from face cleansers to shampoos. It bears similarities to other AHAs like Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid, which are also used for their skin-rejuvenating abilities and pH-balancing properties.

If you’re still feeling a bit apprehensive about this ingredient, rest assured that its general safety and effectiveness in cosmetics are well-documented. However, individual skin responses can vary. So, while Citric Acid is generally well-tolerated, it’s always wise to gradually introduce new ingredients into your skincare routine and observe your skin’s response.

Tell us how you found this article in just a couple of clicks!
Delivered right to your inbox each week. Zero spam, all goodness, opt-out at anytime.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
How did you find this article?
Tell us how you found this article in just a couple of clicks!
Get all our top headlines in beauty.
Delivered right to your inbox each week. Zero spam, all goodness, opt-out at anytime.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Send good feedback:

All feedback is anonymous and will be used to improve the quality of our articles.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Send bad feedback:

All feedback is anonymous and will be used to improve the quality of our articles.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.