Skincare enthusiasts and beauty industry insiders have long been reaping the glow-boosting benefits of chemical exfoliants. This, along with the arrival of the long-awaited ban on microbeads, makes acids the best route to a smooth skin surface and a healthy glow. First, let’s break down the acids you need to know.
What are AHAs and BHAs?
AHAs and BHAs are types of hydroxy acids. You can find both acids in a variety of: cleansers, toners, moisturisers, scrubs, peels, and masks.
The purpose of both AHAs and BHAs is to exfoliate the skin. Depending on the concentration, a related product may remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, or it may remove the whole outermost layer.
Still, neither type of hydroxy acid is “better” than the other. Both are highly effective methods of deep exfoliation. The differences lie in their uses. Read on to learn more about these differences so you can determine whether your skin needs an AHA or BHA product.
Do they have any shared benefits?
AHAs and BHAs are both skin exfoliants.
AHAs– alpha hydroxy acids - work on the surface of the skin, gently dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells so that they can be easily removed, making way for a softer and smoother surface. They’re water-soluble, so they don’t penetrate deep below the surface of the skin, but are capable of reducing the appearance of fine lines, acne scars and dark spots. Basically, a dream for pretty much all skin types. The most famous AHA is probably glycolic acid, whilst citric, mandelic and lactic acids are other key examples.
There is only one BHA– beta hydroxy acid – more commonly known as salicylic acid. Because it is oil-soluble it can penetrate beneath the skin’s surface, cleaning out excess sebum from the pores and reducing oiliness. Basically, if you have blemish-prone skin and you aren’t already using BHA, you’d better start now.
PHAs – polyhydroxic acids – are the least well-known of the skincare acids, similar to AHAs but with larger molecules. This means that they penetrate the skin less thoroughly, and therefore are less likely to induce side effects. Suffer from super sensitive skin? PHAs may well be the answer for you. Look out for gluconolactone and lactobionic acid on your product labels.
AHAs, BHAs and PHAs can each:
Decrease inflammation, a key marker of acne, rosacea, and other skin concerns
Decrease the appearance of large pores and surface wrinkles
Even out your skin tone
Improve overall skin texture
Remove dead skin cells
Unclog pores to prevent acne
Which acid should you choose?
Although AHAs are often marketed as safe for all skin types, you’ll want to take care if you have extremely dry and sensitive skin. You may need to gradually work up to daily use to avoid irritating your skin. AHAs are primarily used for:
mild hyperpigmentation like age spots, melasma, and scars
fine lines and surface wrinkles
uneven skin tone
BHAs, on the other hand, are primarily used for acne and sun damage. These products go deep into your hair follicles to dry out excess oils and dead skin cells to unclog your pores. Because of these effects, BHAs are most suitable for combination to oily skin. Lower concentrations may be used to help calm sensitive skin. You may also have more success with BHAs if you wanted to reduce rosacea-related redness.
Pro tip: If you’re primarily looking for dry skin relief or anti-aging benefits, try an AHA. If you want to tackle acne, look to BHAs.
How to use AHAs
All AHAs yield significant exfoliation. Still, the effects and uses can slightly vary between types of acids. Your selected AHA should have a maximum concentration between 10 and 15 percent. Apply new products every other day until your skin gets used to them. This will also reduce the risk of side effects, such as irritation.
No matter which AHA you choose, the strong exfoliating effects make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Wear sunscreen every morning to prevent burns, age spots, and increased skin cancer risks.
Glycolic acid - Glycolic acid is the most common type of AHA. It’s also made from a widely available plant - sugar cane. Glycolic acid provides significant exfoliation. This makes it an all-around treatment for many skin concerns. And thanks to its antimicrobial properties, it may even help prevent acne breakouts. Glycolic acid is found in a number of peels, as well as daily skin care products.
Lactic acid - Lactic acid is another common AHA. Unlike other AHAs made from fruits, lactic acid is made from lactose in milk. It’s also known for its significant exfoliation and anti-aging effects. Like glycolic acid, lactic acid is found in a variety of products, such as face masks, exfoliants, toners and serums.
Tartaric acid - While not as widely known, tartaric is another type of AHA. It’s made from grape extracts, and may help alleviate signs of sun damage and acne.
Citric acid - As its name suggests, citric acid is made from citrus fruit extracts. Its main purpose is to neutralize the skin’s pH levels and to even out rough patches of skin. Citric acid makes a good serum or toner used before applying a moisturiser. It may even help work with sunscreen to provide maximum UV protection.
Malic acid - Malic acid is a type of AHA-BHA crossover. It’s made from apple acids. Compared to other AHAs, malic acid isn’t as effective as a solo ingredient. However, you might find it makes other acids more effective. This is why malic acid is common in combination AHA products.
Mandelic acid - Mandelic acid contains larger molecules derived from almond extracts. It can be combined with other AHAs to increase exfoliation. Used alone, the acid may improve texture and pore size.
How to use BHAs
BHAs are also designed for daily use, but you may need to apply a few times per week at first until your skin gets accustomed to them. Although BHAs don’t make your skin as sensitive to the sun compared to AHAs, you should still wear sunscreen every single day. This will help prevent further sun damage.
Salicylic acid - Salicylic acid is the most common BHA. Concentrations can range between 0.5 and 5 percent, depending on the product at hand. It’s well-known as an acne treatment, but it can also help calm down general redness and inflammation.
Citric acid - While primarily classified as an AHA, some formulations of citric acid are BHAs, too. Rather than even out your skin’s pH levels, this type of citric acid is primarily used to dry out excess sebum and clean out dead skin cells deep in your pores.
How to combine AHA and BHA products
AHAs and BHAs yield fuller skin when used together. This may be due to increased collagen production, which can make both the dermis and epidermis visibly plumper.
Still, you don’t want to layer AHAs and BHAs on top of one another. These are both exfoliators, so using both can cause dryness and irritation.
Pro tip: You can alternate products by using one type in the morning and the other during your nighttime routine. You could also use AHAs and BHAs on alternating days. This method works well if you’re using at-home chemical peels that contain AHA. Another strategy is to use these acids on certain parts of your face only. For example, you can apply an AHA to dry areas and a BHA to oily areas if you have combination skin.
The bottom line
AHAs and BHAs share similar benefits. You can obtain some level of exfoliation from each one.
However, each ingredient can be used to achieve different skin care goals. If you’re looking for an all-inclusive anti-aging treatment, then an AHA may be the best fit. A BHA may better suited if you want to calm down inflammation and get rid of acne.
**If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook.