Alpha hydroxy acid

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α-, β- and γ-hydroxy acids

Alpha hydroxy acids, or α-hydroxy acids (also known as 2-hydroxy acids), are a class of chemical compounds that consist of a carboxylic acid with a hydroxyl group substituent on the adjacent (alpha) carbon. Prominent examples are glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid and citric acid.

Alpha hydroxy acids are stronger acids than the corresponding non-alpha hydroxy carboxylic acid. Their increased acidity is attributed to hydrogen bonding.[1][2]

α-Hydroxy acids have a variety of applications. They are used industrially as feed additives and as the basis for polymers.[3][4][5][6] They are also commonly used in cosmetic products to chemically exfoliate and moisturize.[7]

Industrial applications[edit]

Feed additives[edit]

2-Hydroxy-4-(methylthio)butyric acid is produced commercially as a racemic mixture to substitute for methionine in animal feed.[8]

Lactic acid- and glycolic acid-based polymers[edit]

Lactic acid and its cyclic ester (lactide) are precursors to polylactic acid (PLA).[3] PLA can be used as biodegradable medical implants, drug delivery systems, and sutures.[4]

Glycolic acid can also be used to form compact polymers, or poly(glycolic acid) (PGA). The dense nature of this polymer results in desirable physical properties, including: high crystallinity, thermal stability, and mechanical strength.[5] Although PGA is sometimes touted as a bioplastic, the monomer is not obtained from natural glycolic acid, but is synthetic. Like PLA, PGA is fully biodegradable, making it an environmentally friendlier option than regular plastic.[5]

Mandelic acid based polymers[edit]

Another alpha hydroxy acid, mandelic acid is important in health care applications. When mandelic acid is treated with sulfuric acid, the condensation product is SAMMA.[6] In laboratory testing, SAMMA was found to have anti-viral properties against strains of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the herpes simplex virus (HSV).[6]

Synthesis and reactions[edit]

α-Hydroxy acids are useful building blocks in organic synthesis. For example, they are precursors in the preparation aldehydes via oxidative bond cleavage.[9][10] Compounds of this class are used on the industrial-scale and include glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, and mandelic acid.[11][12] They are susceptible to acid-catalyzed decarbonylation to give, in addition to carbon monoxide, a ketone/aldehyde and water.[13]

Hydrolysis routes[edit]

α-Halocarboxylic acids, which are often easily obtained, hydrolyze to give 2-hydroxycarboxylic acids. Glycolic acid is produces in this manner. The reaction usually is conducted with base, followed by an acid workup. The net reaction is:


Unsaturated acids and esters also hydrate. In this way, fumarate and maleate esters give malic acid derivatives. Acrylic acid gives 3-hydroxypropionic acid.[11]

α-Hydroxy acids are prepared by adding hydrogen cyanide to a ketone or aldehyde, followed by acidic hydrolysis of the resulting cyanohydrin product.[14]


Specialized routes[edit]

α-Hydroxy acids also arise by the reaction between dilithiated carboxylic acids and oxygen after an aqueous workup:[15]

RCHLiCO2Li + O2 → RCH(O2Li)CO2Li
RCH(O2Li)CO2Li +  H+ → RCH(OH)CO2H + 2 Li+ + ...

Lastly, α-keto aldehydes can undergo the Cannizaro reaction to give α-hydroxy acids:[16]

RC(O)CHO + 2 OH → RCH(OH)CO2 + H2O


2-Hydroxy-4-(methylthio)butyric acid is an intermediate in the biosynthesis of 3-dimethylsulfoniopropionate, precursor to natural dimethyl sulfide.[17]


Alpha hydroxy acids are generally safe when used on the skin as a cosmetic agent using the recommended dosage. The most common side-effects are mild skin irritations, redness and flaking.[7] The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Cosmetic Ingredient Review expert panels both suggest that alpha hydroxy acids are safe to use as long as they are sold at low concentrations, pH levels greater than 3.5, and include thorough safety instructions.[7]

The FDA has warned consumers that care should be taken when using alpha hydroxy acids after an industry-sponsored study found that they can increase the likelihood of sunburns.[7] This effect is reversible after stopping the use of alpha hydroxy acids. Other sources suggest that glycolic acid, in particular, may protect from sun damage.[7]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Atzori L, Brundu MA, Orru A, Biggio P (March 1999). "Glycolic acid peeling in the treatment of acne". Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. 12 (2): 119–22. doi:10.1111/j.1468-3083.1999.tb01000.x. PMID 10343939. S2CID 9721678.
  • "Alpha Hydroxy Acids for Skin Care". Cosmetic Dermatology, Supplement: 1–6. October 1994.
  • Kalla G, Garg A, Kachhawa D (2001). "Chemical peeling--glycolic acid versus trichloroacetic acid in melasma". Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology. 67 (2): 82–4. PMID 17664715.
  • Kempers S, Katz HI, Wildnauer R, Green B (June 1998). "An evaluation of the effect of an alpha hydroxy acid-blend skin cream in the cosmetic improvement of symptoms of moderate to severe xerosis, epidermolytic hyperkeratosis, and ichthyosis". Cutis. 61 (6): 347–50. PMID 9640557.


  1. ^ Dawson RM, et al. (1959). Data for Biochemical Research. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  2. ^ Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, CRC Press, 58th edition, page D147 (1977)
  3. ^ a b Casalini, Tommaso; Rossi, Filippo; Castrovinci, Andrea; Perale, Giuseppe (2019). "A Perspective on Polylactic Acid-Based Polymers Use for Nanoparticles Synthesis and Applications". Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. 7: 259. doi:10.3389/fbioe.2019.00259. ISSN 2296-4185. PMC 6797553. PMID 31681741.
  4. ^ a b Storti, G.; Lattuada, M. (2017-01-01). Perale, Giuseppe; Hilborn, Jöns (eds.). "8 - Synthesis of bioresorbable polymers for medical applications". Bioresorbable Polymers for Biomedical Applications. Woodhead Publishing: 153–179. doi:10.1016/b978-0-08-100262-9.00008-2. ISBN 978-0-08-100262-9. Retrieved 2023-04-01.
  5. ^ a b c Samantaray, Paresh Kumar; Little, Alastair; Haddleton, David M.; McNally, Tony; Tan, Bowen; Sun, Zhaoyang; Huang, Weijie; Ji, Yang; Wan, Chaoying (2020). "Poly(glycolic acid) (PGA): a versatile building block expanding high performance and sustainable bioplastic applications". Green Chemistry. 22 (13): 4055–4081. doi:10.1039/D0GC01394C. ISSN 1463-9262. S2CID 219749282.
  6. ^ a b c Herold, B. C.; Scordi-Bello, I.; Cheshenko, N.; Marcellino, D.; Dzuzelewski, M.; Francois, F.; Morin, R.; Casullo, V. Mas; Anderson, R. A.; Chany, C.; Waller, D. P.; Zaneveld, L. J. D.; Klotman, M. E. (2002-11-15). "Mandelic Acid Condensation Polymer: Novel Candidate Microbicide for Prevention of Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Herpes Simplex Virus Entry". Journal of Virology. 76 (22): 11236–11244. doi:10.1128/JVI.76.22.11236-11244.2002. ISSN 0022-538X. PMC 136750. PMID 12388683.
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  8. ^ Lemme, A.; Hoehler, D.; Brennan, JJ; Mannion, PF (2002). "Relative effectiveness of methionine hydroxy analog compared to DL-methionine in broiler chickens". Poultry Science. 81 (6): 838–845. doi:10.1093/ps/81.6.838. PMID 12079051.
  9. ^ Ôeda H (1934). "Oxidation of some α-hydroxy-acids with lead tetraacetate". Bulletin of the Chemical Society of Japan. 9 (1): 8–14. doi:10.1246/bcsj.9.8.
  10. ^ Nwaukwa S, Keehn P (1982). "Oxidative cleavage of α-diols, α-diones, α-hydroxy-ketones and α-hydroxy- and α-keto acids with calcium hypochlorite [Ca(OCl)2]". Tetrahedron Letters. 23 (31): 3135–3138. doi:10.1016/S0040-4039(00)88578-0.
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  12. ^ Ritzer E, Sundermann R (2000). "Hydroxycarboxylic Acids, Aromatic". Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. doi:10.1002/14356007.a13_519. ISBN 978-3527306732.
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  14. ^ Vollhardt KP, Schore NE (2018-01-29). Organic chemistry:structure and function (8th ed.). New York. ISBN 9781319079451. OCLC 1007924903.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  15. ^ Smith, Michael B.; March, Jerry (2007), Advanced Organic Chemistry: Reactions, Mechanisms, and Structure (6th ed.), New York: Wiley-Interscience, p. 813, ISBN 978-0-471-72091-1
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